"Women are probably closest to God," says Me'Shell Ndegéocello, 27-year-old mother, rock & roll activist and funk philosopher. She raises an arched eyebrow and gives a confident shrug. "We make life." She's in New York, in her favorite Harlem breakfast spot, discussing Peace Beyond Passion, her new album. In the plainest of T-shirts and jeans, she leans her diminutive earth-brown frame forward in her straight-backed chair and pours sugar on her grits, Southern style. "What I think is lost in so many religions — and I was just reading this in the Koran — is that the greatest thing the Creator ever did was create," she says. "We talk about all the laws, we get lost, we forget that he created! And women constantly have that ability to create, even if you don't have children. You always know."
With her feline eyes, puggish nose and motor-mouth, Ndegéocello comes on like some supernatural imp, part baby and part crone, eager to turn you on to the secrets of her universe. "This whole world," she says, a little wonder gathering in her voice, "the good, the bad, but still — he created it." We're in the M&G Restaurant, on 125th Street, and although the food's still fine and the folks inside welcome her, Ndegéocello is saddened by the sight of the traumatized neighborhood. It's one of those moments that make a person realize that the gifts of this world always come with a complement of grief. Harlem, and specifically the M&G, are high up on Ndegéocello's list of everyday treasures: She's got a loft space in Los Angeles now, but she used to live right around the corner during her days as a working member of the African-American musicians' group the Black Rock Coalition. That was before her first record, 1993's Plantation Lullabies, made her the kind of rising star who gets asked to do a Gap ad. When she misses her old life in New York, what she longs for is this neighborhood, her Black Rock Coalition compatriots and the grits.
But nothing stays the same in a world of endless genesis — it hasn't for Ndegéocello, and it hasn't for Harlem. Once we land at the M&G, Ndegéocello runs around like a school kid, hugging the staff, recommending everything on the menu, sitting down for less than a minute before jumping out of her seat with a quick "I just gotta go, there's this barbershop right up the street." Ndegéocello's girlfriend, Winifred Harris, whose statuesque bearing and long dreadlocks complement Ndegéocello's ball-of-fire vibe, smiles in a way that says she's been left in this lurch before. "You can't keep her still," Harris says. A few minutes later, Ndegéocello is back, carrying some newly purchased incense and a disappointed look. "The shop's not there anymore," she says, eyes downcast. Decay has overtaken her old block since she left her struggling days behind. "You forget how people live," she mutters.
It's not in Ndegéocello's nature to forget. Instead she shapes her experiences of love and outrage into groovewise meditations. The songs on Plantation Lullabies railed against racial oppression and radiated black pride; the album's hot-tempered flow dipped into hip-hop and '70s soul, jazz and funk. Plantation Lullabies won Ndegéocello three Grammy nominations. Rolling Stone declared her rock's Brightest Hope for 1994, and she earned another Grammy nod for her 1994 duet with John Mellencamp on the Van Morrison chestnut "Wild Night." Ndegéocello was seen as a musician who might go anywhere.
Alone with her thoughts, though, Ndegéocello felt like a spirit torn. Her mission as a political artist was to expose painful truths, and yet she keenly felt the need to heal. She decided to follow both impulses at once. "This album is all my questions and all my fears," she says of her new release. "And sometimes I find peace." Her pride remains, as does her anger at oppressive institutions — especially religion, which has been as comforting and damaging to Ndegéocello as it has been to the African-American community as a whole. But she's more willing to pause now, to take in all the ambiguities. On Peace Beyond Passion, answers aren't the point: What's most important is the pilgrimage, and she's still deep in the middle of it.
Me'shell Ndegéocello was 12 when she had the dream that kicked her ass and sent her forth into the world. It was a bluesman's dream, a prophet's revelation — so classic that when she describes it, you can't believe she's not making it up on the spot. "I still remember it as if it were yesterday," she says. "It was 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."
Maybe this vision was the start of all the running Ndegéocello's done in her life. Born in Berlin to an Army dad and a religious mom, in early adulthood she fled her home in Washington, D.C., for the rock & roll ferment of New York and then Los Angeles. She changed her last name from Johnson to a Swahili phrase that means "free like a bird" and gathered enough experience with female and male lovers to make her songs of longing and treachery ring true. She ran into a drug habit and then away from it; she kept running from her past and toward her future. Along the way she had a son, found a soul mate and learned how to make her wanderlust into music.
The devils chasing Ndegéocello now are born of those religions that claim to offer spiritual succor in today's world but so often lay down judgment instead. She gives them voice and fights them mightily on Peace Beyond Passion, in songs that quote from the Old Testament as well as from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet and the Koran. With this release, Ndegéocello joins the chorus of contemporary women — Tori Amos, Joan Osborne, Polly Jean Harvey, Jewel — re-imagining the mystical through the vehicle of pop, using music's power to challenge conceptions and build some myths of their own.
"How would you categorize Me'Shell's music?" asks the saxophonist Joshua Redman, who has played on both her albums. "You can't. We're aware of different genres and respectful of tradition, but neither of us takes kindly to being restricted." Redman says his dream is to be recognized for his music alone, outside of any category. "That's something you can say unequivocally about Me'Shell," he says.
Ndegéocello might argue with such compliments. "Isaac Hayes once said, 'I'm a pioneer,'" she says, "and I'm not. Yeah, I have a different voice, but I'm just another writer coming up. I'm just following in the footsteps of you, Isaac Hayes."
In fact, it's Ndegéocello's talent for marrying old to new that makes her such an appealing artist. She accomplishes this by blending familiar funk and soul grooves with hip-hop rhythms, and in her style of talk-singing, which is unduplicated yet recalls all kinds of sources: Sly Stone, Slick Rick, religious canticles, hip-hop poets.
On Peace Beyond Passion, paradoxical Old Testament verses fit Ndegéocello's writing like missing pieces in a puzzle. In "Deuteronomy: Niggerman," she relates the words of Moses dispersing the tribes of Israel to slavery's diaspora. "That song is about a woman whose only image of herself is what she sees on TV," she says. "The lack of things she has to identify with. I was envious of cultures that have a unifying factor. Being black is not one." Other verses she quotes uplift the race; the point, says Ndegéocello, is to remind people of a time when Africans knew their own divinity. "Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart" reaches for that moment with its mellifluous groove and words of yearning and peace. "That song is a mixture of me and King Solomon," explains Ndegéocello (Ecclesiastes largely consists of Solomon's wisdom). "His words were what I was feeling."
Most daring is "Leviticus: Faggot," whose title echoes a line from that book of laws often invoked by homophobic fundamentalists. Ndegéocello's song tells of a pious mother and cruel father who force their gay son out on the streets, where he is killed by bashers. The death of a teenage friend inspired the song, but its sentiments run even closer to home. Although she will not discuss her family or the other song that bemoans the failure of such parents, "Makes Me Wanna Holler," Ndegéocello allows this much: "My mother was religious, but she always used it in a derogatory way — punishing me." The anger in "Leviticus: Faggot" is desperately heartfelt, its empathy painfully intense.
Ndegéocello knew she'd get heat for the song and especially for her use of the f word, which raised eyebrows in the gay community, too. "My use of the word is relevant," she says. "It's to show this person was called that, and his identity was stripped away. That's all he became. And he paid for it with his life." She sighs. "I guess audiences don't listen to words anymore." She doesn't expect as much trouble from the n word in "Deuteronomy"; that epithet occurs commonly enough in hip-hop songs, and though she admits she uses it flippantly, Ndegéocello sees a deeper reason for its acceptance. "It's all right for black people to Uncle Tom themselves by calling each other nigger. We're used to defacing ourselves in that way."
Although she says her ultimate fantasy would be to have coffee in Morocco with Kahlil Gibran, Ndegéocello is clearly more attached to another popular genius, one who, like her, has spent much of his career pushing against acceptable notions of race and gender. "The first time I met Prince, I said, 'Can I hug you?'" she recalls. "And he let me. I'm totally intrigued by him." Her methods resemble the Violet One's: She holes up in the studio and plays most of the instruments herself, although unlike His Squiggliness, she collaborates with a producer, David Gamson. Then there's her show, which features a Revolution-style panoply of musicians playing unpredictable jams. And the two artists share the religious impulse, although it seems more like El Glyph thinks he is God rather than a seeker of the deity. Finally, there's the matter of androgyny.
Wendy Melvoin, who performed in the Revolution in its purple glory days and arranged and played most of the guitars on Peace Beyond Passion, sees Ndegéocello's identity as more integrated than Prince's. "He fights his femininity and he fights his masculinity," Melvoin says. "Me'Shell doesn't pay too much attention to being male or female. She's not self-conscious about it, and that's in her music. Sometimes she's a boy, and sometimes she's a girl."
Ndegéocello's bisexuality became a matter of controversy with Plantation Lullabies. Although publicly involved with Harris (Ndegéocello's "not into the marriage thing," but the women wear matching rings and tattoos), Ndegéocello celebrated sex with black men on several of that album's most popular cuts, including the singles "Dred Loc" and "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)." "I couldn't care less," says Ndegéocello of the backlash she got from the lesbian community for "selling out" to straight America.
It's Ndegéocello's matter-of-fact attitude that makes her "alternative" lifestyle seem truly radical. The fluid sexuality of which Melvoin speaks means Ndegéocello can be an urban mother in a same-sex union and still come off as down-home as sugared grits. Her love songs address the male and the female in everyone, eradicating boundaries in a wash of sensual desire. Peace Beyond Passion's second single, a cover of Bill Withers' "Who Is He and What Is He to You," exemplifies this polymorphous energy — Ndegéocello's rendition addresses a woman lover who has turned to a man, but its sexy menace conveys the hold that jealousy can take on anyone.
Ndegéocello laughs ruefully when she admits the darkness in some of her songs comes from experience. Yet in Harris, a soft-spoken, solid-rock woman who directs her own dance troupe, Ndegéocello has found a partner who understands her artistically and personally. "She's uplifted my confidence in ways I can't explain," says Ndegéocello. "This is who I'll rock with on my porch when I'm old. Even if we fall out of love, we'll be hanging out."
As for Ndegéocello's son, Askia, now 6, part of Peace Beyond Passion's point is to examine parental legacies and express the hope that love can overcome judgment. "The only thing I want him to have is confidence," she says. "And I want us to have a trusting relationship so he can tell me what he's feeling. I would hate to have a kid who crashed a car and couldn't tell me."
Ndegéocello's art is both subversive and healing because her search is ultimately for a good world, where the spirit is honored and the flesh is gracefully enjoyed. For now she can create that world only within her music and find it inside her own heart. In Los Angeles she's found some friends who practice Islam ("Not like Mr. Farrakhan does — make that clear," she insists), and she reads one page of the Koran a day. "In the book, the prophet Mohammed says that all people, as long as they are caring and practice charity and good deeds, there's a place for them," she says. That's the vision Me'Shell Ndegéocello keeps running toward.