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Meshell Ndegeocello Breaks Step With Pop

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

NEW YORK She's known for that voice, husky and mellifluous, murmuring and waxing philosophic both onstage and on wax. The thing is, Meshell Ndegeocello doesn't like to talk (so she says). "What's there to say?" But she likes -- needs -- to walk. Such as now, in the middle of an interview at a Brooklyn cafe.

"I'd like to walk," she announces softly, grabbing her cigarettes, sliding out her seat and onto her feet, bounding out the door and into the street. Moving. Her walkinglust satisfied, she'll return, picking up where she left off. Sometimes she walks when things are not to her liking. Sometimes she walks 12 miles a day, sneaker to pavement, soothing her soul.

The nine-time Grammy nominee, who grew up in Washington, is frequently credited with paving the way for a tidal wave of neo-soulsters -- Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Maxwell, D'Angelo, Alicia Keys. Like Prince, whose Paisley Park record label once wooed her, she's an entity unto herself, equally at home with a pen as she is with any number of instruments. Pinning her to a musical genre is like chaining gravity.

She says she's a "simple" person, and yet, she traffics in complexity, both in her music and in her philosophical outlook. Each album is a segue into a new direction: Funk-rock with a spiritual bent, then acoustic folk, then politically conscious hip-hop, then moody dub and electronica, and now, with "Dance of the Infidel," her latest CD, she experiments with largely instrumental jazz that takes its cues from Miles back in the "Bitches Brew" days. (Ndegeocello will showcase her new sound Tuesday at the 9:30 club.)

Indeed, Ndegeocello, nee Michelle Johnson, 36, is a musical maelstrom, a fleet-fingered virtuoso who's performed with the likes of Prince, the Rolling Stones, John Mellencamp, Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Lenny Kravitz and the Black Rock Coalition. As a producer, she's worked with artists ranging from jazz saxophonist Ron Blake to D.C.'s alt hip-hop artist Citizen Cope, and scored the soundtracks for "Disappearing Acts," "A Time for Dancing" and "Lackawanna Blues." The Berlin-born singer-poet-bassist-keyboardist has flirted with pop life, with radio airplay and MTV appearances.

But she's had more critical appeal than commercial success, perhaps in part because she always veered in the other direction, more often than not thumbing her nose at the musical powers that be, as she did in her 2002 satirical video "Pocketbook (Rockwilder Remix)." In a mocking sendup of "In Da Club" rap images, a bevy of video honeys dance around her, sporting skivvies that read "Buy My Record."

She used to have a Range Rover and a house in California, but she gave that all up. She'd rather move around, city to city, from project to project (but she currently lives in Berkeley, where her son attends school).

She's trying to remain true to the Swahili meaning of her adopted name, Ndegeocello: free like a bird.

"It's about being able to grow, be different," she says softly. "Change."

Her latest change comes with a new project (on a new label for her, Shanachie) in which she puts aside the wring-out-the-sweat funkfests for which she is known, pounding on the bass with her trademark ferocity. Gone, too, are the throaty confessionals of longing and loss, of bargaining and betrayals. Instead, the musical auteur is taking a step away from the spotlight, silencing that voice, the better to shine a klieg light on her new musical collective, the Spirit Music Jamia.

Jamia, she explains, means a gathering, a meeting. "Dance of the Infidel" features a lengthy cast of jazz all-stars: Cassandra Wilson, Miles Davis alum Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Garrett, singer Lalah Hathaway, Oliver Lake, Don Byron, Sabina and Ron Blake. In it, she serves as a Quincy Jones figure, playing bass with the band but composing and nurturing talent, too.

"I'm like the shaman," she says. "I just make it nice. I make a nice environment for people to express themselves. That's it."

She plays at being the androgyne, makeup-free, skullcap pulled low over shaved head, baggy Doors T-shirt (she is a big fan) obscuring breasts, even baggier shorts threatening to slide past invisible hips. Tattoos give mute testimony to the trajectory of her life. Elaborate Chinese characters scroll up her right arm, spelling out "fire over lake," a reference to revolution, she says, while a tiny green star serves as a punctuation mark underneath her right eye. On the left side of her neck, curvy cursive spells out "Rebecca," an apparent reference to Rebecca Walker, the writer and activist (and daughter of Alice) who was until recently her long-term love.

When she walks, she bops.

Her public persona is that of the brash butch -- she's openly bisexual -- but, says jazz saxophonist Ron Blake, "she's nothing like that. That's the wild thing. But that's what folks use to sell records."

She is, surprisingly, shy. When asked a question, she dimples up, ducks her head into her shoulder, evoking images of a young child hiding behind her mother's skirts. She speaks ever so softly, dodging eye contact. Until, that is, she warms up, and then she holds forth on everything, the world according to Meshell.

She admires Alice Coltrane, widow to John and a serious musician in her own right. Coltrane now runs an ashram in Southern California, recording Sanskrit tunes and avoiding interviews. Ndegeocello would like very much to have it like that. Right now, she says, she's got to do the media thing.

"I just see it for what it is. We're all streetwalkers trying to get you to buy our goods. It's no deeper than that. . . .

"You make a choice to make music or be an actor," she says, "and people automatically think they can have access to your life."

When she's hanging out with her band, an all-male contingent ranging from barely twenty-something to over 60, her life is wide open. With them, at a rehearsal studio in her old Prospect Heights neighborhood, she's all hugs and how're-your-babies, leaning in close, cracking jokes. Her son, Solomon, a spectacled 16-year-old still growing into himself, hangs with them. He's with her wherever she goes. Asked if theirs is a close relationship she answers: "Cherish the hope. Cherish the hope."

I hail from a suburb

Outside Southeast

-- "Priorities 1-6"

"She lives in music," Blake says, adding that sometimes the vagaries of day-to-day details can be a "challenge" for Ndegeocello. But, he says, "put an instrument in her hand, give her a tape recorder. As long as there's some food and water, she's cool. She's a very peaceful person."

Her dad, Jacques Johnson, was an Army man who played the saxophone. The family moved to the Washington area when she was a little girl, and Ndegeocello attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Oxon Hill High School.

She says she started music late, at 14 or so. (Well, okay, she did play the clarinet in elementary school.) Her big brother played the guitar. She figured she'd play the bass. She picked it up, started noodling with it. It felt good. In high school, she joined up with a go-go band called Prophecy, and started gigging with them after the bass player didn't show up one day. She loved it, adored go-go, the rollicking beat of D.C.'s "indigenous music," the primal drum feel of it all. She also played with Little Bennie and the Masters and Rare Essence. There she was, pounding on her bass, a rare female presence in testosterone-soaked go-go, jamming at clubs, some of which have come and gone: Black Hole. Breeze's Metro Club. Cherry's Skating in Southeast.

She went to Howard University, mostly because her brother went there and, at 17, she wasn't ready to leave home. But Howard wasn't a good fit. She says she couldn't navigate the social terrain, couldn't make her way around the profs in the music department. She lasted less than a year.

Paint her academic defection against the backdrop of a lonely girl trying to come to terms with being bisexual. As she said in a 2000 concert at the 9:30 club, back then she was "giving it to every Tom, Dick, Harry, Jane and Sue, so . . . I could feel like I was really here." Hers is music as memoir, boasting about stepping out with other women's men and crowing about it, as she did in her first single, "If That Was Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night"), and then cataloguing the hurt of young love, crushing on girls who didn't return the favor.

She had the kind of kisses

That make you sad

She liked to flirt with me

Then act like she didn't know me

When her friends came around

But I didn't mind

-- "Berryfarms"

By 20 she was pregnant, a "life-altering" experience," she says. Her parents supported her. She gave birth to Solomon, and, itching for new experiences, grabbed her baby and headed to New York.

After she played a few showcases around Manhattan, the record companies came a-courtin'. She opted for Madonna's label, Maverick, becoming the first female artist it signed.

"God looks out for fools and babies," she says with a laugh.

Mention God and blessings pepper her speech. She grew up Baptist, with a lot of "fire-and-brimstone ideas going through the house." But all religions intrigued her, including Hinduism. As always, her personal explorations are played out in her music. She denounces religious hypocrisy in "The Way" and ponders what it would be like to "jump the broom"with Jesus's right-hand woman in "Mary Magdalene."

Today she's a practicing Muslim, praying five times a day. She carries ebony zirkr , or prayer beads from Senegal, draping them around her neck one moment, the next moment taking them off and wrapping them around her hands.

"It gives you a moment to stop," she says of her spiritual practice, "to think outside yourself, not wallow in your own dismay."

She turns to her manager, Dexter Story.

"Remember when we were having a bad day?" she asks, referring to a tiff from their past.

Story nods in assent.

You told me to stop the machine, he says.

"Stop the machine," she repeats. "Stop the machine. It stops you from lashing out."

She can tell you the exact point in her career when she finally realized that she might be, oh, good at what she does. May. As in this year, in concert, Paris.

That night, she explains, was like an out-of-body experience. "I had wings," she says, her arms swooping up to approximate an angel's wingspan.

"A torch came out and then I was like, I'm good. I can play the bass. I was just playing and looking at my hands, doing things that I didn't know I could do," she continues. "It was like an out-of-body experience. That was the first day I was like, oh, okay, I'm okay ."

But enough with the talking. It's time for rehearsal, and followed by her manager, publicist and a reporter, she's leading the charge through the subway.

Say, you headin' my way

Two lonely hearts on the subway

Singin' the blues on the subway train

-- "Two Lonely Hearts

(On the Subway)"

Ndegeocello clambers up and down steep subway stairs, nimbly navigating her terrain, zipping into the L train and then the Q up to Union Station and then the 2 back down to Brooklyn's Prospect Park. She slows down a bit, passing a subterranean violinist riffing on Vivaldi. Her hands waft and wave in the air, acknowledging the music.

But she doesn't stop.

She's walking. And right now, everything's cool.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company