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Go Her Own Way

Me'Shell Ndegeocello can't find a niche -- not that she really wants one

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 CD, 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, 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. Those are formidable, fortunately, but she continues to feel outgunned. And well she might: in a world where white male heterosexuals often 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 basis with people who have something against 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 [parts] that you can. And I am."

Ndegeocello was born an outsider: she 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 shame. Coming to terms with her sexual orientation resulted in further distress. While she's currently in a committed relationship with a woman, her seven-year-old son is proof that she's 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 '80s, 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. 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 rounds, and a showcase she performed in Los Angeles convinced Maverick Records to offer her a contract. The pressure she felt while making Plantation Lullabies, her first Maverick CD, soon became overwhelming; in a foolhardy attempt to deal with the anxiety, she turned to crack and wound up hooked. But she shook off her addiction in time to see Lullabies become a critical hit. The disc was certainly audacious, balancing saucy come-ons such as the decidedly hetero "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" with vivid ditties such as "Shoot'n Up and Gett'n High" and "Soul on Ice." The melodies and arrangements were a bit sketchy, but despite the occasional limitations, the disc served notice that there was an intriguing new figure on the pop 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, 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 inaccurate, as Peace Beyond Passion demonstrates. The CD represents an enormous advance over Lullabies; in fact, the density and sweep of its sound call to mind the almost orchestral R&B perfected by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye during the early '70s. 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 negative view of homosexuals, but for the manner in which the institution has reached 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.

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