It’s not uncommon for singer, songwriter and musician Meshell Ndegeocello to explore and conquer fertile musical territories. From the time she exploded onto the music scene with her 1993 breakthrough LP, Plantation Lullabies, all the way up to her 11th studio effort, 2014’s Comet, Come to Me, the exceptional bassist has made a name for herself by delving head first into jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop, blues, reggae, folk, pop, go-go, country and spoken word slam poetry.
The petite, androgynous performer born Michelle Lynn Johnson typically incorporates themes revolving around race, politics, sexuality and relationship dynamics into her robust body of work. Delivering her subject matter with an unprecedented inquisitive-yet-sensual voice, Ndegeocello doesn’t necessarily like to think of herself as a fearless artist. “I try not to think that way,” says Ndegeocello via phone in a similar tone. “Sometimes I’m naïve to the fact that other people have preconceived notions or ideas about how music should be. I ignore those things. I try to find an honest self in my music and in my life. That’s all I really can do.”
Throughout the course of her two-plus decade recording career, Ndegeocello, who is credited for pioneering the “neo-soul” subgenre, has released a slew of critically acclaimed, full-length masterpieces. Lately, Ndegeocello has revisited the work of author James Baldwin. The voracious reader has completely immersed herself into his seminal work, The Fire Next Time, as part of an original work she’s composing inspired by the book. A self-proclaimed student of music, Ndegeocello has curated an incredible playlist featuring classical music, Australian rock band Tame Impala, David Bowie’s final LP, Blackstar, Chance the Rapper, trumpeter Keyon Harrold and musician U.S. Girls.
Speaking passionately about Bowie’s influence, Ndegeocello is deeply moved by the late art rocker’s Ziggy Stardust alter ego, remembering how the character was the beginning of her realizing that she too could become an imaginative performer. “He was making art until the very end of his life,” recalls Ndegeocello. “You could tell he listened to all kinds of music. That’s why he’s been so influential to me. He’s allowed me to have a different narrative for myself. I’m glad he had time on this planet.”
An uncompromising artist in her own right, Ndegeocello then segues into her deep admiration for both Grace Jones and Erykah Badu, referring to them as “articulate, brilliant and iconic women with incredible style.” “Beyond the music, they created styles, essences that are uniquely them that transforms,” she says after gasping for air. “That’s really hard to do. Those artists I respect and enjoy their transformation so much.”
The entire 23-minute conversation allows a gracious Ndegeocello to reiterate how appreciative she is to have such a strong following with both fans and other musicians. She thinks of her music as a basis for creating dialogue. “I don’t think I try to make statements; I just try to give you what I’m feeling at the time,” urges Ndegeocello. “It’s just sharing. I try to do my best to express what I’m feeling and hope that another person can relate to it in some way.”
Born in Germany but coming-of-age in Washington, D.C., Ndegeocello, whose stage surname is Swahili for “free like a bird,” gravitated towards the bass guitar in her early-to-mid teens. She honed her chops through her studies at the famed Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The multi-talented performer played in several local go-go bands and even landed an audition with Grammy-winning rock band Living Colour. Still, nothing got Ndegeocello’s creative juices flowing like doing her own thing as a solo act.
The multi-instrumentalist signed a deal with Madonna’s imprint, Maverick Records. Other than being present for initial negotiations, Ndegeocello remembers the megastar not being around beyond that. The Grammy-nominated musician behind brow-raising songs like “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” “Leviticus: Faggot” and “Fool of Me” managed to still absorb hard lessons in confidence and staying true to her vision from the mother of reinvention, another artist Ndegeocello considers an icon. “I learned to be headstrong, clear and not doubt myself and my ideas,” asserts Ndegeocello.
“She has an incredible work ethic, so I learned to continue to challenge myself and my creativity as much as I can.” This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ndegeocello’s sophomore effort, Peace Beyond Passion. The album expanded Ndegeocello’s quest for blurring musical genres, this time incorporating more biblical references in lyrical content and collaborating with musicians like Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman from Prince’s band, The Revolution. Peace Beyond Passion encouraged the warm performer with incredible interpersonal savvy to take a deeper glance into her surroundings. “It was about the world and what I was going through at the time,” says Ndegeocello, “questioning my faith, where it had taken me and what it does to people.”
Ndegeocello never minces words anytime she addresses love through song. The contralto singer shares how her understanding of love has been informed through music. “Love is not something you can discuss,” utters Ndegeocello. “It’s something you have to live. The actions speak louder than the words.” Yet another fascination Ndegeocello has is with cosmic life. “I find solace in trying to understand the cosmos, stars and the universe,” continues Ndegeocello. “I’m constantly wondering how humans exist and our purpose.”
Also a highly sought-after session player, Ndegeocello has shared stages and studio time with Chaka Khan, Queen Pen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Madeline Peyroux, Zap Mama, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Miller, The Funk Brothers, Santana, The Rolling Stones, The Indigo Girls, Guru, Missy Elliott, Redman, Herbie Hancock and Basement Jaxx among others.
Her 1994 duet with John Mellencamp, a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” introduced her to recording her bass parts live. Working with Grammy-winning keyboardist Robert Glasper, referring to him as “a dreamy person,” inspired her to be up on her instruments. Ndegeocello is especially proud of working alongside singer Lalah Hathaway on a number of occasions. “She makes me never wanna sing,” jokes Ndegeocello. “As well as she does, you might as well not try. She’s the one. I’m really happy people are really starting to see her brilliance.”
Ndegeocello has her own custom axe, the Fellowship bass, released through Reverend Guitars. The all-black instrument, with its satin finish and simple body, is something Ndegeocello recommends for young musicians. “I wanted to make a bass that people could afford,” insists Ndegeocello, “that travels well, and has one knob. It’s for people who just wanna play the bass. It looks good with everything. I hope young people will check it out.”
Depending on the session, Ndegeocello herself fluctuates between various bass guitars. “I want to give the person what they want when I play the bass,” she says. “I don’t have a favorite. I just try and play them all well anytime they’re needed.” She often tinkers with a variety of musical instruments, playing more keyboards and sitting behind the recording console. Part of the reason Ndegeocello experiments with various instruments has to do with her age. “I’m almost 50 years old, so playing the bass is kinda heavy on my body,” says Ndegeocello. “I guess I’m trying to be a better listener. I wanna produce other people, so that’s why I’m constantly listening to all styles of music, hoping that I could help other people bring their ideas into fruition.”
Currently touring, Ndegeocello takes assembling the right repertoire seriously. Honesty is an essential ingredient in her music but getting better at her craft gives her the most joy. “It’s my nature,” she says. “It’s just who I am as a person. I’m always seeking out new things and ways to express myself. Music is fantasy, so all I’m looking forward to is playing and trying to be a better musician.”
Christopher A. Daniel is an award-winning journalist and culture critic currently residing in Atlanta, GA. In addition to being a regular soulhead.com contributor, he is the music & pop cultural editor for The Burton Wire, which covers news around the African Diaspora. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.