A Sovereign Soul

D.C. native Meshell Ndegeocello takes on the music of Nina Simone

October 10, 2012

You probably know her name, if not quite how to pronounce it. You know her look, the close-cropped hair or shaved head, the bare arms that look like arms should look after slinging a bass for close to 30 years. You remember her high-profile collaborations — the warm, funky style she brought to songs by Madonna and the Rolling Stones, the No. 3 Billboard hit she snagged in 1994 with John Mellencamp covering Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.”

Meshell Ndegeocello, 44, has scored 10 Grammy nominations and cut 10 solo records that reveal her as a gifted poet and songwriter and a natural singer, rapper and innovator. Some credit her with sparking the neo-soul movement of the 1990s, which can be heard two decades later in a new generation of musicians. She spent the first half of her 20-year career recording on Madonna’s Maverick label. Yet she continues to fly under the radar.

Part of that is because she’s no longer writing to meet label expectations for a hit (she’s now on Naive, a French indie jazz label). What she’s still writing, nearly 20 years after her debut disc “Plantation Lullabies,” is her life.

Her songs are about passion and sexuality: She’s bisexual, and she raised a son in a long-term relationship with feminist writer Rebecca Walker, daughter of “The Color Purple” author Alice Walker. They are about class and race: “You see brown folks are the keepers of the earth / Unifiers of the soul and mind / Not these wannabe gaudy pimps and thugs / Wearing diamond watches from African slave mines,” she sang on “Dead Nigga Blvd., Pt. 1,” off 2002’s “Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape.” She doesn’t hedge or apologize for where her songs come from or why they are necessary.

Neither did jazz singer and civil rights legend Nina Simone, whose songs and adaptations Ndegeocello covers on her latest disc, the just-released “Pour une Âme Souveraine” (“For a Sovereign Soul”). Fittingly for Ndegeocello, it has its share of collaborations, featuring guest appearances by Sinead O’Connor, Cody Chesnutt and Toshi Reagon, daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of D.C.’s long-running, all-female African-American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Simone — a classically trained pianist who enjoyed a successful early career in the ’50s on the jazz circuit and with major record labels — was famous for taking old standards and making them her own. During the civil rights era, Simone’s work became more outspoken and strident. Radio stations — even black-owned ones — refused to air songs such as 1966’s “Four Women” and 1970’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” sometimes burning her records or returning them to her broken, Ndegeocello says. Simone ultimately left the U.S. in 1970 to avoid arrest for nonpayment of taxes (her protest against the Vietnam War) and finally settled in France before her death in 2003.

“I can relate so many things in the world to her,” Ndegeocello says. “She brings up issues of race, the business of music, politics — she’s someone to be reckoned with.”

Ndegeocello had read several books about Simone — including Simone’s 1991 autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You” — and had her songs on regular rotation before dreaming up this project. But it wasn’t until she played a Simone song at a recent Women in Jazz series in Harlem that she considered cutting a record of covers.

“It all happened so fast after that,” Ndegeocello says. “I could hear the recording in my mind. I wanted to bring attention to her incredible musicality and how she could take something and make it her own.” Ndegeocello recorded the album over one week. Just as Simone inhabited the songs she made famous (including “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” written for her in 1964 before the Animals made it a chart-topper in 1965), Ndegeocello renders the tracks in an array of styles — jazz, R&B, spacey dub.

And while she sees why people draw parallels between herself and Simone, Ndegeocello makes it clear that the two musicians are from different worlds and came up in times that offered very different options.

“Of course I relate to her. But I was born after civil rights — there’s no way I could ever comprehend what it was like to live in a time where you couldn’t vote, you weren’t considered a person under Jim Crow, where they killed people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I take myself out of any comparison because I am humble enough to know I could never understand.”

Ndegeocello says the collection is an homage, not politicking.

“I don’t think we’re ever again going to experience a time of the Woody Guthries, the Nina Simones, the Bob Dylans, the Pete Seegers — where a musician has so much credibility they can affect change.”

Playing “The Pocket”
In funk and go-go, there’s a place known as “the pocket.” It’s the point in a song when the rhythm section holds down a groove for long enough that it becomes self-propelling. Meshell Ndegeocello learned to play the pocket here, forming her signature style in the go-go clubs of Washington, D.C.

Ndegeocello grew up in the Eastover area of Southeast and later moved just over the line to Oxon Hill, Md., where her parents still live. (“I hail from a suburb outside Southeast /No, I ain’t the type, I don’t like to run in the streets,” she sang on 2002’s “Priorities 1-6.”) She attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts, riding the bus through the city every day up to Northwest.

“There’s all these little pockets, but it’s hard to get them to meld together,” she recalls. D.C.’s ’80s music scene was itself pretty segregated, but the diversity of genres and venues she could hit on a given night almost made up for it.

“That’s the part I thrived in,” she says. “I went to a lot of Fugazi shows, I loved the 9:30 Club. I could go to Blues Alley, I could go to go-gos” — some at the old Howard Theatre, where she’ll play Sunday.

She picked up the bass in junior high, mostly because it was lying around the house and she could jam with her brother, a guitarist, and her dad, a tenor sax player stationed at Fort Myer who played in the U.S. Army Band and in a jazz band.

But it was Funky Ned, aka Michael Neal, bassist for local go-go legends Rare Essence, who changed her life, she says. Ndegeocello played with the band, filling in for Neal for a stint in the late ’80s.

Neal taught Ndegeocello to record and engineer her music herself. “If anybody’s responsible for me being a good musician, it’s him,” she says. “He took the time to show me things that other people wouldn’t.”

Inside Tracks
‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’
Ndegeocello deliberately chose a man for the lead vocal for her take on this 1969 song about talent, hope and potential. “It was when Trayvon Martin was going on, and I knew I wanted a man to sing” to make a connection between the two. “I sang it first, and it was too heavy, too dark,” she says. Her publicist suggested R&B and soul singer Cody Chesnutt. “I called him and we talked over a few days to see if we both heard the same thing. It’s my favorite track on the whole recording. I’m very grateful to him for that.”

‘Four Women’
This spaced-out version of perhaps Simone’s most well-known and confrontational song gets lyrically reworked by Ndegeocello. The 1966 original famously ends in a chilling crescendo: “I’m awfully bitter these days /Because my parents were slaves / What do they call me? / My name is Peaches.” Ndegeocello switches the middle line to “to my sadness I’m enslaved,” and leaves off the last line entirely. “I’m not old enough to have had parents who were slaves,” she says. “So, that particular lyric didn’t work. Also, you can get enslaved by depression, by your wants and desires.” The crowd often fills the last line in themselves. “I leave it off so that there’s a place to tell your story as a woman in society,” she says.

The Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW; Sun., 8 p.m., $30-$35; 202-803-2899. (Shaw)
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Shauna Miller | October 10, 2012