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.
Unfortunately, it seems that once again, outside of the Grammy Awards committee and her usual strong fan base, few people have gotten the chance to hear the new record. Fraught with complications from the start, Cookie was originally slated for release on that dark day of infamy, September 11, 2001. That, along with the record company's objection to the original proposed artwork for the disc's cover, pushed the release date back to June 2002.
"On the cover, I was in a hijab [veil]. I was covered like a Muslim, and they changed the cover," she remembers. "At that time, everyone wanted to be pro-American, and Muslim is just not that popular right now."
The revised cover depicted a monkey wearing a set of headphones, which, for NdegéOcello, represented the monkey-see, monkey-do attitude of the music industry. All of the headaches surrounding Cookie notwithstanding, the album was an artistic milestone and afforded her an opportunity to vent her frustration at an industry that has never truly embraced her for who she is.
"That was like a purging record," she says. "I was like, 'When am I going to let it all go?' And that's why I lay my burden down and I'm just going to appreciate my gifts."
Looking back, NdegéOcello feels that she had to go through the Cookie experience in order to get where she is now: a peaceful place that has been a long time coming. It's been an incredible journey. NdegéOcello grew up playing go-go music in Washington, D.C., and went on to become the first artist signed to Madonna's Maverick recording label, releasing four progressively distinct solo albums: Plantation Lullabies (1993), Peace Beyond Passion (1996), Bitter (1999) and last year's Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. Yet it wasn't until now, on the eve of the release of her fifth album, Comfort Woman, that she has finally felt at ease with her career. In part, that's because she no longer feels compelled to live up to the hyperbole that has befallen her since the release of her first record. At this point, she feels relieved to have discarded all the extraneous baggage that comes with being a recording artist so that she can concentrate on what matters most: the music.
"I'm feeling at ease, because I've realized that's not why I make music. And for once, I'm like, 'I'm not going to wait for people. I make music because I love music, and I'm so blessed to have this opportunity," she explains. "So let me put that energy into it and make a really a good offering, and let me be thankful to the creator for these gifts that I have."
As the title implies, the new record is a soothing affair that goes down as smoothly as a chilled mocha. "It's a record about love and feeling comfort in love," NdegéOcello says. "I wanted to offer a good vibration."
Echoing the vibe of Bob Marley's "Is this Love," the record starts off with "Love Song #1," a down-tempo dub song whose lyrics alternately balance and intertwine the sacred and the sensual. Instead of questioning whether love exists, the singer states over and over that "this is love" as she offers praises to both the creator and her lover.
In a similar vein, on "Andromeda & the Milky Way," written by longtime collaborator/guitarist Allen Cato, NdegéOcello refers to the river, à la Al Green, as a metaphoric place where love and spirituality meet. The song's enticing beats and atmospheric soundscapes provide a celestial backdrop for NdegéOcello's mantra-like lines: "Take me down to your river/I wanna get free with you/Take me down, take me down/I wanna get free with you."
Elsewhere on Comfort, NdegéOcello explores her own religious beliefs. "I get to express a lot of things about my faith," she says. For example, "'Love Song #3' and 'Good Intentions' are based on Surahs in the Qu'ran." In these songs and others, NdegéOcello expertly weaves the personal and the spiritual without ever sounding preachy.
Will it translate into SoundScan sales and radio airplay? Probably not, but NdegéOcello seems unfazed.
"I'm a complicated person," she says. "I'm not some easily marginalized generalization. I no longer look to that criteria as what is success for me. I am successful; I feel great. I'm quite happy, and I'm just appreciative of the opportunity to make music."
It's not always about getting what you want; it's about being happy with what you've got. In Me'Shell NdegéOcello's case, the woman is comfortable.
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