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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."
"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."
"Besides," she adds, "I would much rather go and play for people than make records. I would love to just play rather than slaving for a year on an album so people can rip it up, critique it and tell me it can't get played on the radio. I'm just trying to communicate a lot of my questions and feelings through music. And I don't want to stop."
Me'Shell Ndegeocello, with Doyle Bramhall II. 9 p.m. Friday, September 27, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $13.25, 447-0095.