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For years, Me'Shell NdegéOcello (her surname means "free as a bird" in Swahili) has consistently produced a prodigious amount of seductive, sensual and, at times, subversive soul music that has never translated into multi-platinum record sales. And despite several Grammy nominations and a plethora of critical accolades, the closest she's come to widespread mainstream recognition was when she paired up with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," for Mellencamp's 1994 release Dance Naked. Other so-called "neo-soul" artists -- a term NdegéOcello loathes for a movement she's often credited with pioneering -- should be paying tribute to her influence instead of declining invitations to appear on her records, which, according to an interview she did with Vibe, happened when she got ready to record her 2002 masterpiece, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape.
A safe assumption would be that the accomplished singer/bass player/composer is bitter. Not exactly -- but she's learned to make concessions. "It used to confuse me that you have to compromise with the system in order to get your music played," she says from her Bay Area home. She especially felt the heat when preparing for Cookie.
"I was feeling that immense pressure about the idea of what's commercial," she remembers, referring to the inner conflict she felt in trying to balance her artistic vision with the desire to deliver a commercially successful record. Ultimately, she trusted her ideas and rendered a record that is as sexual and socio-political as anything ever released by Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield.
"I really wanted to show that it doesn't really matter. I could make all this black music and have all these beats, and I'm still going to say what I'm going to say -- and no matter what, it will never get played on the radio," she says defiantly. Then again, she doesn't exactly endear herself to program directors with lines like "If Jesus were alive, he would probably be incarcerated with the rest of the brothers," from "God.Fear.Money." Far from hook-laden, simplistic pop, her music requires critical-thinking skills.
Not to mention the record's trenchant indictment of the music industry, which probably doesn't help with the media conglomerates that control the airwaves -- especially since some of NdegéOcello's targets include those radio and video programmers who sling booty-shaking, materialistic, thug-lite music like it's the new crack. Perpetuating stereotypes doesn't matter to these industry bigwigs as long as the music sells.
"You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass," she says, citing a line that appears at the beginning of "Dead Nigga Blvd. (pt. 1)," which opens Cookie. Too bad kids watching BET or MTV probably won't get to hear these lyrical gems: "You see brown folks are keepers of the earth, unifiers of the soul and mind/Not these wannabe Gotti pimps and thugs wearing diamond watches from African slave mines." Instead, programmers are content providing viewers with an endless rotation of flesh-peddling hits, perfectly tailored for adolescent male fantasies. "People will do all kinds of things to make sure they make money," NdegéOcello laments.
Not one to point fingers without involving herself in the things she critiques, NdegéOcello met her record company halfway in its desire to have her collaborate with commercially successful producers and MCs. While it might be a stretch to call her a sellout for working with Redman and Tweet on the Missy Elliot/Rockwilder remix of "Pocketbook," it was a bit of a departure from her usual oeuvre.
"I'm critiquing myself, too; a lot of people didn't get that," she says of her decision to work with more bankable urban-music stars in order to get her slyly titled remix of "Pocketbook" on the radio. But rather than make the whole album a Santana-type affair in which her bass playing supported an all-star cast of characters, NdegéOcello had other ideas: If she was going to use other artists, she was going to do it on her terms. And instead of enlisting the more well-known MCs to lace the tracks, NdegéOcello opted to sample esteemed poets and activists such as Gil Scott-Heron and Angela Davis.
"They were always like, 'Get special guests.' That was the thing, and I tried to get some, but it didn't work," she says. "I was like, my whole concept is, if I wanted all the fly MCs, it would be Gil Scott, it would be Countee Cullen. I listen to poetry records a lot; I'm a huge fan of June Jordan, and I'm just totally influenced by that. I was like, these are the fly lyricists to me."
NdegéOcello is quick to point out that artists like poet Etheridge Knight and poet/musician Scott-Heron helped pave the way for hip-hop.
"As Ecclesiastes says, 'There is nothing new under the sun,'" she declares. "If you think Tupac is so hard, look at Etheridge Knight. There is nothing new; there are the haves and have-nots, the disenfranchised. I'm like, 'Listen to these voices.'"
For an artist who has often been derisively tagged as "that bald, black dyke" and has had to deal with people telling her that her music "isn't black enough" or is "too black," this record was a coming-out of sorts. It allowed NdegéOcello to resurrect those voices that have helped give her a sense of her own cultural identity. "I really wanted people to hear what is black to me," she says.
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