Soul Woman

Me'Shell Ndegeocello fights the powers that be.

At a time when most music-industry powers view artistic ambition with suspicion, Me'Shell Ndegeocello is among the most mistrusted performers in show business. Her new album, Peace Beyond Passion, is a musically persuasive, lyrically devastating look at love, religion and prejudice that's guaranteed to offend as many people as it delights. That's not a formula for commercial success these days, as Ndegeocello knows all too well. But there's nothing she can do about it. "I'm seen as an artist who's just going to do what I do," she says. "What else can you say? I guess I could go out and make a record that wasn't really true to myself, but I don't think anyone would be happy with that. I know I wouldn't be."

Thus, Ndegeocello is left to fight a battalion of preconceptions armed with nothing more than her creative abilities and a dedication to telling the truth as she knows it. These are formidable weapons, fortunately, but she continues to feel outmanned and outgunned. And well she might: In a world where white male heterosexuals travel the road of least resistance, she's an African-American lesbian--and, as such, she's fated to come into contact on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis with people who have something against her. Although Ndegeocello expects such responses, she doesn't deny that they have an impact on her. "There's some good parts about life and there are some parts about life that you may not like," she remarks, her voice dour. "I know you have to accept that. But you can make efforts to change the ones that you can. And I am."

Ndegeocello was born an outsider: The former Michelle Johnson took her first breath in Berlin, where her father, a saxophonist for an Army band, was stationed. He was transferred to Washington, D.C., when Me'Shell was three, but the apparent stability of the years that followed was illusory; she's described her father as a philanderer whose activities caused her great shame. Coming to terms with her sexual orientation resulted in further distress--while she's currently in a committed, long-term relationship with a woman, choreographer Winifred Harris, her seven-year-old son, Askia, is living proof that she has been involved with men in the past. But her loyalty to music has been unwavering. She took up the bass while in high school, and by the late Eighties, she was a figure of some renown on the go-go music scene then shaking the nation's capital. She built on this reputation after moving to New York City a few years later. As an active participant in the Black Rock Coalition, she rubbed shoulders with Living Colour's Vernon Reid and collaborated with artists such as Steve Coleman and Caron Wheeler.

In 1993 a tape of Ndegeocello's songs began making the A&R rounds, and a showcase she performed in Los Angeles convinced Maverick Records, the Warner Bros. subsidiary overseen by Madonna, to offer her a contract. The pressure she felt while making Plantation Lullabies, her first record for the company, soon became overwhelming; in a foolhardy attempt to deal with the anxiety, she turned to crack cocaine and wound up hooked. But she shook off this addiction in time to see Lullabies become one of the critical hits of 1994. The disc was certainly an audacious one, balancing saucy come-ons like the decidedly hetero "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" with vivid, accusatory ditties such as "Shoot'n Up and Gett'n High" and "Soul on Ice." The melodies and arrangements were a bit sketchy in places, but despite these occasional limitations, the disc served notice that there was an intriguing new figure on the pop-music landscape.

Still, Ndegeocello reached fewer folks with Lullabies than she did with "Wild Night," an old Van Morrison song on which she dueted with John Mellencamp. The "Wild Night" video, in particular, fixed the singer in the minds of many consumers as a rocker--and while Ndegeocello maintains a friendly relationship with Mellencamp, whom she joined on stage during a recent gig at the Fox Theatre staged in conjunction with the Gavin A3 Summit, she admits to being aggravated by the image this collaboration earned for her.

"All of a sudden I became alternative," she laments. "Which is a big joke. The music I make is clearly based on rhythm and blues and rock and roll based on the blues. But just because I'm not 'oooh, baby, baby enough,' or because I have a rock guitar in a song, that makes me alternative. That's frightening."

It's also hugely inaccurate, as Peace Beyond Passion demonstrates. The album, produced by David Gamson, represents an enormous advance over Lullabies; in fact, the density and sweep of its sound call to mind the splendid, almost orchestral R&B perfected by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye during the early Seventies. Woven into these delectable soundscapes, however, are words that are challenging, potent and often obstreperous. "The Way," for instance, takes the Christian church to task not only for its frequently bigoted view of homosexuals, but for the manner in which the institution reaches out to African-Americans. Ndegeocello puts her complaints harshly: "Maybe Judas was the better man/And Mary made a virgin just to save face/I too am so ashamed on bended knees/Prayin' to my pretty white Jesus."

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