Spotlight On: Meshell Ndegeocello
Singer Meshell Ndegeocello has been making music most of her life but came onto the scene in 1993 with her debut album Plantation Lullabies. Since that time she has managed to amass an impressive catalog of music that spans the genres of rock, funk, jazz, R&B, and even hip hop.
Ndegeocello, whose real name is Michelle Lynn Johnson, was born August 1968 in Berlin, Germany. Her father was in the U.S. Army but also an accomplished musician who played the saxophone, her mom was a healthcare worker. Raised in Washington D.C., she credits her love of music to her father for his skill in playing and love for jazz. Also inspired by the music collection of her brother, she picked up the bass around the age of 16 and began writing songs and music. During her teen years she began to play regularly in clubs around DC but eventually made her way to New York City after studying music at Howard University. It was there that she began going by the name Me'shell Ndegeocello, the last name which is adapted from a Swahili word which means "free like a bird". (Biography in Context)
After auditioning for several bands, including Living Colour, Ndegeocello decided to go it alone. An accomplished musician at this point, she would often perform solo playing the bass, keyboard and drum machine. Eventually a recording of her music made its way to music execs in Los Angeles. A special showcase was arranged and she was ultimately offered a deal from Maverick Records, the record label founded by Madonna. Her debut album Plantation Lullabies was released in 1993 and was well received. It spawned the hit song "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)." The following year saw her hit the mainstream on a duet with John Mellencamp which was a remake of the song "Wild Night" by Van Morrison. (Project Muse)
Despite not seeing the level of success of her first album and the duet, Ndegeocello has still managed to produce an eclectic mix of music. Her second album, Peace Beyond Passion, had a more spiritual feel and dealt with heavy themes most specifically critiquing homophobia in the black Christian church. 1999's Bitter was still soulful and featured a more jazzy side of her music as it charted the dissolution of a relationship. While the album received praise from critics it didn't do well commercially. This prompted criticism from the Maverick label of her music not being "black enough." (Oxford Music Online) In response Ndegeocello put out the album Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape in 2002. "No one got that it was a joke. It’s a parody of what they think black music is. They just wanted hot beats, so I did all that, though I still tried to make it an interesting record," she said in a 2014 interview with Fact Magazine.
Comfort Woman was the final album Ndegeocello made for Maverick. The following years saw her continue with her eclectic style moving between the jazz fusion of The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel to issues of identity both personally and musically on The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (2007) and Devil’s Halo (2009). With 2011's Weather, she returned to the sparse jazzy style of her earlier album Bitter. In 2012 she made a tribute album to one of her idols, Nina Simone entitled Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to Nina Simone. (Oxford Music Online) Her most recent work, Comet Come to Me manages to combine rock, jazz and R&B with some reggae as well. A melange of styles that suits the singer who has described music as "layers of patterns on top of patterns". (NPR)
Ndegeocello has long been an intriguing figure in the music industry. She has always been bold and unapologetic about both her androgynous look and sexuality (she is openly bisexual). She admitted in the past to developing a drug habit during the recording of her first album, one she eventually quit to complete it and never looked back. During her early years in New York she bore a son whose father she has chosen not to name. (Biography in Context) Over the years she has always maintained both privacy and an openness about who she is. Discussing her thoughts on identity in her Fact Magazine interview, she said "...I’ve had a lot of experiences, and the gender thing is very difficult sometimes—not because I experience bigotry towards my gender per se, but more trying to uphold ideas of what people think my gender should look like or be like or do. When I play music, it’s the only time I can let go of those things—the feeling of making music together as just humans. Which isn’t something I feel too often out in the world."
Inspired by the music of artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, Ndegeocello has become a musical inspiration in her own right. Always one to break the mold she challenges mainstream concepts of what it is to be female and black in the music industry today. Despite not receiving the accolades of some of her peers, she continues to produce soul stirring music that will definitely be appreciated for generations to come.
- Biography in Context
- Oxford Music Online
- FACT Magazine
- "Diggin’ You Like Those Ol’ Soul Records: Meshell Ndegeocello and the Expanding Definition of Funk in Postsoul America" in American Studies (Project Muse)
- NPR Music
Works featuring Meshell Ndegeocello
- Plantation Lullabies (1993)
- Peace Beyond Passion (1996)
- Bitter (1999)
- Cookie:The Anthropological Mixtape (2002)
- Comfort Woman (2003)
- The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel (2005)
- The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (2007)
- Devil's Halo (2009)
- Weather (2011)
- Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone (2012)
- Comet, Come to Me (2014)
Want to know more about Meshell Ndegeocello? Other Resources
- Official Website
- NPR Interviews and First Listens
- Bold Soul: Me'shell Ndegeocello Rocks On
- Me'shell Ndegeocello Talks Process, Prince and Premieres
- Official YouTube Channel
- Believer Magazine Interview
Spotlight On is a special blog series I am doing featuring African American artistry (in music, art and writing). Next up: painter Ernie Barnes.