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.
"I guess now in my life, I'm finding that I want to empower myself and see religion from my perspective -- to focus on what it means to me. I'm trying to cultivate my connection with God without affiliating myself with any religious groups. I'm still trying to figure things out, basically."
These explorations ripple through Passion. Most controversially, she fuses the names of biblical books with raw nomenclature in "Deuteronomy: Niggerman" and "Leviticus: Faggot." The latter served as the recording's first single, and if melody alone dictated popularity, it would have become a smash. Predictably, the timidity of radio programmers ensured that it died a quick death. But Ndegeocello voices no regrets over the monikers she affixed to the tracks.
"What those songs are addressing is intrinsically connected to those terms," she says. "Those terms can strip away your identity so that you become only that. They're about how people generalize. So my reason for using them was to communicate that idea."
In "Leviticus: Faggot," Ndegeocello tells the tale of a gay man whose esteem is destroyed by the hatred of his own parents. "Deuteronomy: Niggerman," on the other hand, juxtaposes Ndegeocello's view of the ideal "black man" with media-propagated cliches. At one point, she sings, "All I ever wanted was a nigger who would be true, be good to me / While doin' the evil that niggers do / My view of self was that of a divine ho / Like the ones portrayed on the white man colonized minded rap shows."
"I was specifically thinking about Yo! MTV Raps when I wrote that," Ndegeocello says. "I just think that whole thing is funny. They're supposed to be so connected to the street, but basically it's just the white establishment putting on a show that they assume black youth would want to see. As a result, there's some kid in Boise, Idaho, whose only interaction with black people is what he sees on TV. And I think that perpetuates a very close-minded, generalized caricature of a person."
By the same token, Ndegeocello doesn't believe that hip-hoppers are guiltless when it comes to the reinforcement of these stereotypes. "The biggest detriment to the black community a lot of times is the black community itself," she say. "I think we've just embraced some of these things out of ignorance. So until a different way of looking at ourselves is brought up, or until it's seen to be all right to be more abstract in your thinking, there's always the danger of falling into old, bad habits.
"I don't have a problem with that particular type of music or subject matter. I don't mind if that's what someone has to say. But my problem is with record companies and radio programmers who don't give other voices the same distinction and airplay. If you're only going to give that one viewpoint, what do you expect? So I say let people express themselves and be a little more open to the many facets of rap music and rhythm and blues and what we call alternative. But they're not -- and that's where we kind of screw ourselves."
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That's certainly true in Ndegeocello's case. Less than two months after its release, Passion is already in danger of falling off the pop-music radar screen. Urban stations aren't playing the record because it's seen as too alternative, while alternative outlets are steering clear of it because it seems too urban.
In an effort to play by her own set of rules, Ndegeocello has been focusing more of her energy on touring. She appeared at several dates of this summer's H.O.R.D.E. festival, where she was well-received by jam fanatics who had seldom been exposed to her brand of music. "That's been the only redeeming thing lately for me -- when there's been a good audience that's receptive to the live show," she says. "That's where music really comes alive. So I'll just try to keep a positive outlook that people are wanting to hear that and see that, and maybe eventually it will reflect on their record-buying. That's all I can hope for, really."
"Besides," she adds, "I would much rather go and play for people than make records. I would love to just play rather than slaving for a year on an album so people can rip it up, critique it and tell me it can't get played on the radio. I'm just trying to communicate a lot of my questions and feelings through music. And I don't want to stop."
Me'Shell Ndegeocello opens for the Dave Matthews Band at 7 p.m. Saturday, October 25, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Tickets $20 and $27.50. For info, call 629-3700.