Meshell Ndegeocello carries her “dog-eared” copy of “The Fire Next Time” “everywhere I go,” she says. James Baldwin’s collection of essays was published in 1963, five years before the avant-funk singer-bassist was born, but the book was her guide for dealing with the challenges of being a gay African American teenager in the 1980s. In 2016, she celebrated that manifesto with a stage musical, “Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin” at the Harlem Stage in New York.
On Sunday, she is bringing a revised edition of that show, now called “No More Water | The Fire Next Time,” to the Kennedy Center, in her hometown. This version will be a concert, forgoing the costumes, blocking and sets of the original production but including the spoken narration drawn from Baldwin’s book and the songs written by Ndegeocello, Toshi Reagon, Justin Hicks and Staceyann Chin.
“When I was younger,” Ndegeocello says by phone from her current home in Brooklyn, “I couldn’t understand why people looked down on my mother just because she didn’t have much education, why my father was so bitter about not advancing in the military the way his white colleagues did, why I loved the music in church but disliked the fire-and-brimstone sermons. When I read ‘The Fire Next Time,’ it all started to make sense. Baldwin was a game changer in creating a language for the marginalized.”
Like Ndegeocello, Baldwin’s feelings about the black church were not just mixed but also strong. So it made sense for Ndegeocello to structure her original stage show as a church service. In the videos from the first staging, you can see the performers (dressed as if they were in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” she points out), rising to excitedly respond to the preachers and lining up for processionals up and down the aisles. In the midst of it all is Ndegeocello, a short woman with short hair in a sci-fi choir robe, joining in the vocals and holding all the frenetic activity in orbit with the gravity of her bass lines.
A church service was a good setup: “There’s a sermon and music, and I fit my ideas into that framework. We read his text as if it were his gospel, full of proverbs,” she said. The first show was soon after the election — “of ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ ” — and became cathartic.
“That’s the kind of feeling you get in church, and it’s a feeling that’s missing from a lot of art,” she says.
Baldwin isn’t the only major artist whom Ndegeocello discovered in the 1980s: She also fell in love with Prince, George Clinton and Sade. In 2016, as she worked on the musical, she regularly returned to Washington to look after her father, who was in the last stages of leukemia, and her mother, showing the first signs of dementia. Running errands in her mom’s car, the daughter started listening to WKYS (“Kiss” FM), which spins some songs of that era. Those were the songs she recorded when her label pressed her for a new album.
“They’re just good songs,” she insists. “They still stand up. The songs you hear as a teenager affect your mind in a certain way; they affect you differently because you’re so open. When I was younger, I didn’t listen to the lyrics. I just listened to the colors.”
She chose 11 songs from between 1982 and 1995, and that curation became her latest album, this year’s “Ventriloquism.” The covers are from giants of the period as well as such half-
forgotten acts as the System (“Don’t Disturb This Groove”), Al B. Sure! (“Nite and Day”) and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (“I Wonder If I Take You Home”). Three were written by the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, members of the Time, the Minneapolis R&B band first assembled by Prince. Jam and Lewis later left to write hits for Janet Jackson, Ralph Tresvant and the Force MDs.
“Jimmy and Terry wrote songs so good that you could take off the vocals and the top line,” Ndegeocello says, “and they’d still be killing. They had a different kind of male energy than Prince. They were great at group-oriented collective thought, while Prince was great at individualism. I carried over that collective spirit to recording the album with my band.” She says she and her collaborators were in the studio with “the time to work things out, which is very different than me sitting alone at home, trying to piece together arrangements on a computer. This is the sound of my band as it’s developed over the years.”
Ndegeocello and her musicians radically altered most of the songs. Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” becomes a slow-motion dreamscape, lit up by a blues-rock solo. The Force MDs’ “Tender Love” takes on the harmonica-and-acoustic-guitar character of one of Ndegeocello’s favorite albums, Neil Young’s “Harvest.” Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” turns ineffably sad as Ndegeocello whispers the unlikely wishes of a sex worker over an acoustic piano. Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” becomes a snappy swing number.
In 2012, Ndegeocello released an album dedicated to Nina Simone, called “Pour une Âme Souveraine.” “Ventriloquism” often seems to take cues from Simone, who was as outspoken as Baldwin and category-defying as Prince. Baldwin and Simone became friends when they both chose self-exile in France at the end of their lives.
“These two brilliant people were living in a time of great struggle and upheaval,” Ndegeocello says, “and they put their careers on the line to address the injustices in America. I wish I had their strength, but I’m not sure I do. I definitely have the spirit of a lamb, not the lion. Let me give you a moment of comfort or solace.”
“No More Water | The Fire Next Time: The Gospel According to James Baldwin”
Sunday, Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $49-$89.