Soul Woman

Me'Shell Ndegeocello fights the powers that be.

"It's not even a question of racism with that last line," Ndegeocello elaborates. "It's something geological. If you study the place where the prophet Jesus is from, it's quite clear that he would be a person of color. But much too often, people of color attend churches where you have these amazing paintings of Jesus as a blond-haired, blue-eyed individual. And it's been like that for years. Even the slaves were persuaded to pray to this Jesus for salvation.

"I guess now in my life, I'm finding that I want to empower myself and see religion from my perspective--to focus on what it means to me. I'm trying to cultivate my connection with God without affiliating myself with any religious groups, which are the basis of so many problems. I'm still trying to figure things out, basically."

These explorations ripple through Passion. She titles one romantically contradictory number "Mary Magdalene" and sings "You are my mind of the mind/My eye of eye/Life of my life" in a cut called "God Shiva." More controversially, she fuses the names of Bible chapters with extremely raw nomenclature in "Deuteronomy: Niggerman" and "Leviticus: Faggot." The latter served as the recording's first single, and if melody alone dictated popularity, it would have become a smash. Predictably, the timidity of radio programmers ensured that it died a quick death. But Ndegeocello voices no regrets over the monikers she affixed to the tracks.

"What those songs are addressing is intrinsically connected to those terms," she says. "Those terms can strip away your identity so that you become only that. They're about how people generalize. So my reason for using them was to communicate that idea."

In "Leviticus: Faggot," Ndegeocello tells the tale of a gay man whose esteem is utterly destroyed by the hatred dished out by his own parents. "Deuteronomy: Niggerman," on the other hand, juxtaposes Ndegeocello's view of the ideal "black man" with media-propagated cliches. At one point, she sings: "All I ever wanted was a nigger who would be true, be good to me/While doin' the evil that niggers do/My view of self was that of a divine ho/Like the ones portrayed on the white man colonized minded rap shows."

"I was specifically thinking about Yo! MTV Raps when I wrote that," Ndegeocello reveals. "I just think that whole thing is funny. They're supposed to be so connected to the street, but basically it's just the white establishment putting on a show that they assume black youth would want to see. As a result, there's some kid in Boise, Idaho, whose only interaction with black people is what he sees on TV. And I think that perpetuates a very closed-minded, generalized caricature of a person." She offers a mirthless chuckle as she notes, "You can't sum up blackness in one TV show."

By the same token, Ndegeocello doesn't believe that hip-hoppers are completely guiltless when it comes to the reinforcement of these stereotypes. "I think so many people have been brainwashed," she says. "The biggest detriment to the black community a lot of times is the black community itself. I think we've just embraced some of these things out of ignorance. So until a different way of looking at ourselves is brought up, or until it's seen to be all right to be more abstract in your thinking, there's always the danger of falling into old, bad habits.

"I don't have a problem with that particular type of music or subject matter. I don't mind if that's what someone has to say--that's really cool, and it ain't none of my business. But my problem is with record companies and radio programmers who don't give other voices the same distinction and airplay. If you're only going to give that one viewpoint, what do you expect? So I say, let people express themselves and be a little more open to the many facets of rap music and rhythm and blues and what we call alternative. But they're not--and that's where we kind of screw ourselves."

That's certainly true in Ndegeocello's case. Less than two months after its release, Passion is already in danger of falling off the pop-music radar screen--and radio is the culprit. Urban stations aren't playing the record because it's seen as too alternative, while alternative outlets are steering clear of it because it seems too urban.

"I know it's a little hard for people to play my record," Ndegeocello allows, "because it doesn't fit into their little ideas. Radio is now based on everything sounding like some other tune that fits into their format, which to me is such a crock of shit. I guess it makes a lot of money for radio stations--but my dream is to get radio back to a place where you can hear many musics. So that the cat who's listening to gangsta rap can also hear some Zeppelin or maybe some Fishbone. To broaden his perspective of music."

In an effort to play by her own set of rules, Ndegeocello has lately been focusing more of her energy on touring. She appeared at several dates of this summer's H.O.R.D.E. festival, where she was well-received by jam fanatics who had seldom been exposed to her brand of music, and she recently embarked on a lengthy headlining expedition. "That's been the only redeeming thing lately for me--when there's been a good audience that's receptive to the live show," she says. "That's where music really comes alive. So I'll just try to keep a positive outlook that people are wanting to hear that and see that, and maybe eventually it will reflect on their record-buying. That's all I can hope for, really."

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