Born Michelle Johnson, August 29, 1968, in Berlin, Germany; daughter of a musician and a health-care worker. Education: Received music degree from Howard University. Children: Askia, born c. 1989. Addresses: Home--Los Angeles, CA. Publicist--Mitch Schneider Organization, 14724 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 410, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.
and multi-instrumentalist Me'Shell Ndegeocello wrote, "I love music," in a brief essay distributed by her publicist in 1996. "It's like a lover that I can't commit to, but I seem to always find myself in bed with. With music, I free myself from myself." Yet freedom has not always been easy to come by for the acclaimed performer. Despite having released two critically acclaimed albums and scoring some hit songs, Ndegeocello has exhibited such restlessness that it appeared she might leave her "lover" music in the lurch. Yet whatever her ultimate choice, her intimate, dense fusion of funk, soul, jazz and rock and consistently bold lyrical stance had already made her, according to Rolling Stone, "one of the few artists who really matter" in the R&B world.
She was born Michelle Johnson in Berlin, Germany, and grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father was in the U.S. Army, and played tenor saxophone; she has recalled in interviews that he played at several presidential inaugurations. His musical aptitude and appreciation for jazz played a huge role in her development. Yet he and her mother, a health care worker, had a troubled relationship, the musician later reflected. "It was horrible watching the way my father treated my mother and not feeling I could help her," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I've seen my father cheat on my mother several times in front of my face, and I wasn't strong enough to tell my mother that. Even though I knew she knew, I felt like I betrayed her by not telling her."
Her sense of isolation was compounded during her adolescence by sexual feelings she recognized as outside the mainstream. Though she has mostly addressed male lovers in her songs, Ndegeocello identifies herself as a bisexual. This and a sense of musical mission helped form her unique creative identity. At 12, she related in Rolling Stone, she had "a dream where I was running from the devil. I kept on reciting the Lord's Prayer in my brain, begging myself to wake up. It seemed like the dream lasted days; finally I woke up, covered in sweat. I didn't sleep again for four days." Like pioneering blues artist Robert Johnson, who was alleged to have signed a pact with the devil, Ndegeocello has made her flight from various demons the focal point of her work.
Inspired by funk, soul and rock records in her brother's collection, she picked up the bass and began writing songs at age 16. Performing in local bands, she focused more intensively on music, and went on to study for a music history degree at Howard University. She then moved to New York, honing her chops in various bands; she also had a son, Askia, by a father whom she has elected not to name in interviews.
Choosing the name Ndegeocello, which she identified as the Swahili phrase for "free like a bird"--though some observers have claimed that only part of the word is actually Swahili--she began crafting her own approach. Working in the melodic, groove-oriented idiom of such soul music luminaries as Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, she avoided the "retro" tag by adding elements of pop and jazz and exploring painful and often controversial subject matter in her lyrics.
In 1993, a tape of her material found its way to some music industry figures in Los Angeles, who arranged for her to perform a special "showcase" gig there. One of those in the audience was Freddy DeMann, co-head of Maverick Records, the label founded by pop megastar Madonna. "She was incredible, mesmerizing," DeMann recalled in the Los Angeles Times of Ndegeocello's performance. She chose Maverick over other labels because it offered her creative freedom.
Ndegeocello entered the recording studio and began work on her record, but the pressures of her career began to weigh heavily. "Everything happened so fast," she averred in the Los Angeles Times. "I was playing a club and within a week or two weeks, I was signed. Then I was in a studio, working 18 hours a day. I thought I could handle it, but I couldn't." She vanished briefly from her own project, taking refuge in crack cocaine. She quit shortly thereafter, however, and completed the album. "Actually, I think I was having a spiritual death," she later told Entertainment Weekly. "I had thought that making a record would solve my problems--lift my self-esteem, make people from my past love me the way I wanted to be loved. But instead I felt as if every bit of joy I had was dying." She added that she understood the 1994 suicide of rock star Kurt Cobain and felt kindred self-destructive tendencies.
Released in 1993, Plantation Lullabies demonstrated her range and ambition. One of its songs, the playful "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," became a hit; other tracks covered more serious territory. Essence described her as "sonically and spiritually the daughter of [Sixties jazz-folk singer] Nina Simone and [political rapper and Public Enemy leader] Chuck D." With her shaved head and deep, sultry vocals Ndegeocello presented a striking departure from the manicured sirens of the R&B world, and her open bisexuality challenged virtually everyone. "People see me as a heretic," she ventured in the Los Angeles Times. "Homophobia is rampant in the black community, so I am a traitor to my race, and gay people don't like me because I'm not gay enough."
Ndegeocello impressed audiences with her live performances, which showed her stretching into jazzy improvisation. Playing bass and vocalizing in a husky style influenced by both rap and classic soul, she demonstrated a range reminiscent of such genre-busting pop innovators as Prince. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn saw in one performance "a sense of freedom and sweep in her music that was nothing short of intoxicating in its best moments," and felt that despite the artist's occasional lapses, her show "rests on a foundation of potential greatness." A Rolling Stone Critics Poll named her "Brightest Hope for 1994."
Yet it was in a duet with a white rock star on a cover tune that Ndegeocello reached her biggest audience. In 1994 she joined pop hitmaker John Mellencamp for a version of the Van Morrison song "Wild Night," lending both her smoky voice and fancy fretwork to the track; it became a hit and helped both their careers substantially. But Ndegeocello didn't restrict herself to such high-profile enterprises. She collaborated with writer-choreographer David Rousseve on a theatrical production titled Whispers of Angels, and worked with her life partner, choreographer Winifred Harris, on the production What's Behind Door 1, for Harris's Between Lines dance company.
Ndegeocello's searching--which included obsessive reading of the Bible and perusal of the Koran, Islam's holy book--led to her introspective second album, 1996's Peace Beyond Passion. The sophomore set combines her relentless, atmospheric grooves with lengthy meditations on religion, freedom, and sensuality. "This album is all my questions and all my fears," she asserted in Rolling Stone. "And sometimes I find peace." The record ignited some controversy with its lead single, "Leviticus: Faggot." A pro-tolerance song detailing the persecution and eventual death of a gay man, the track's repeated use of such a homophobic term ruffled some feathers. Yet the record company worked carefully with gay leaders and radio personnel, conveying its belief in the song's positive message. These efforts paid off, and helped earn the single and the album some glowing reviews. "Some records just leave you speechless--filled with emotion and perspective but grappling for coherent words of expression," wrote Billboard columnist Larry Flick. He dubbed the single "an intense, brutally honest cut that has us driven to distraction and reaching for words that are worthy of the song's potentially revolutionary impact."
Peace Beyond Passion, though not universally admired, attracted some raves itself. "With intimacy and purposefulness," declared Ernest Hardy of Rolling Stone, "Ndegeocello fulfills the promise of her first album and puts the pop, hip-hop and R&B worlds on notice: She's one of the few artists who really matter." Scott Frampton of College Music Journal (CMJ) observed that "her bass is still the prominent force in her music, but more as an anchor for a more soulful sound that reaches back, successfully," to her R&B influences. Details, however, offered a slightly dissenting opinion in its assertion that "occasionally the religious concept-album trappings get too heavy for the music to carry the load."
Ndegeocello was invited by Pete Townshend of English rock legends The Who to open three dates of their Quadrophenia tour, after which she joined the high-profile H.O.R.D.E. festival. Yet despite such honors, she expressed continued doubts about her career, declaring that Peace would be her last solo album and that she might either leave her pop career behind or join a band. "I want some sort of collective experience," she claimed in the Los Angeles Times, adding, "I've seen what can happen to you if you think you are invincible in this business" and concluded, "I know one thing: I'm not willing to let it destroy me." Yet in her 1996 essay accompanying the release of Peace Beyond Passion, she declared "I no longer spend my days in worry of tomorrow; instead I keep the thought of God ever present, in hope that my days are filled with love for myself and others."
by Simon Glickman
Me'Shell Ndegeocello's Career
Musician and singer-songwriter, c. 1980s--. Signed with Maverick Records and released album Plantation Lullabies, 1993; appeared on recordings by Madonna, John Mellencamp, Marcus Miller, and others, 1994-95; contributed music to theatrical productions What's Behind Door 1, 1994, and Whispers of Angels, 1995; opened for The Who, 1996; joined H.O.R.D.E. music festival, 1996.
Me'Shell Ndegeocello's Awards
Plantation Lullabies was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1994; also received Grammy nomination for duet with John Mellencamp; named "Brightest Hope for 1994" by a Rolling Stone Critics Poll; best bass player award, Gibson Guitar Awards, 1996.
- Selective Works
- Plantation Lullabies (includes "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)"), Maverick, 1993.
- (Contributor) Madonna, Bedtime Stories, Maverick, 1994.
- (Contributor) John Mellencamp, Dance Naked (appears on "Wild Night"), Mercury, 1994.
- (Contributor) Marcus Miller, Tales, PRA, 1995.
- (Contributor) Boney James, Seduction, Warner Bros., 1995.
- Peace Beyond Passion (includes "Leviticus: Faggot"), Maverick, 1996.
- Amsterdam News (New York), November 25, 1995.
- Billboard, May 18, 1996, p. 26.
- College Music Journal (CMJ), July 1996, p. 13.
- Details, July 1996.
- Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 1996, p. 63.
- Essence, January 1994, p. 36.
- Gannett News Service, March 25, 1994 Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1994; November 6, 1994; May 18, 1996; August 25, 1996, p. 8.
- Musician, August 1996, p. 86.
- Rolling Stone, July 11, 1996, p. 86; September 5, 1996, p. 33.
- Additional information was provided by publicity materials from The Mitch Schneider Organization, 1996.