Meshell Ndegecello. All photos by Satya/David Fenton. Courtesy of Maverick Records, Warner Bros. Records.
I might as well tell you straight up: I’m in love with Meshell Ndegeocello. I also should admit that I kind of slept on her exploits until I got to know her a little bit. Now I can’t imagine not knowing her or her music.
This is the part of the setup where I should probably wax poetic about how effortlessly that music winks at the elders while steadfastly carving out its own singular path. Or how in Alexandria, Virginia, I saw her onstage three hours after a show, still working out something that she wanted to change inside of a single bar of music.
Yeah. She’s about the fierce pursuit of a passionate life filled with tender whispers and large statements. She’s aggressively poetic about sharing her truths, and her playing is the perfect combination of roots and air.
But it wasn’t love at first sight.
Many summers ago at a stinky club on Canal Street, I was onstage when I saw a demon reaching for my right cuff link. In response, I threw a microphone stand that nearly hit her companion in the forehead. It hurt me to find out through a mutual friend that after that she vowed never to listen to my records again.
In a blatant attempt to stabilize my fan base, I showed up at one of her sound checks with flowers. She hugged me and we shared a forced little laugh as I mumbled something about the wrath of grapes and Abe Jr.
She said I should come to the show and offered me a table at the front of the house. It wasn’t until she walked away that I realized the table would place my head about four inches from the base of her microphone stand.
Regrettably, I missed that show.
A few trivial parallels for your amusement:
We both have received mail in Oakland, CA, and Brooklyn, NY.
I recorded my last two records for a company owned by the billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. Mr. Branson has spent millions of dollars flying hot-air balloons around the globe and has also driven a tank down Broadway to launch a new cola.
Meshell’s last two records were released by a company owned by Madonna.
I don’t know. I thought it was funny.
Marc Anthony Thompson Hello?
Meshell Ndegeocello Hey.
MAT Hey. Aren’t we breaking some time barriers? Are you awake?
MN I’m trying to be.
MAT Are you in Los Angeles?
MN I’m in Oakland now, I’m back home.
MAT How are you doing? Last time we talked, you said everything was good and you were feeling blessed and special.
MAT How do you maintain that on a daily basis, in the face of all this adversity?
MN I just make very careful choices in what to believe in as real.
MAT What do you believe is real?
MN I try to trust in the kindness of other human beings—that’s real. And there’s no hierarchy in suffering. Everyone’s suffering. That’s real. I try to make my life the way I need it to be and not complain about what other people are saying to me. Or what they don’t get. I just think my own little world in my head. That’s my survival mechanism.
MAT I saw Iris a couple of days ago, the movie made from the book Elegy for Iris, about Iris Murdoch. Incredible movie. There was a line in there about how difficult it can get for people who live in their mind.
MN Oh, yeah, yeah.
MAT And it started scaring me, because I have a whole world up in there too, but I thought everyone did. I didn’t realize that the world might be split into people who live outwardly and people who live in the mind. I take it for granted that everyone has a constant alter-life going on in their head. I guess it’s just a question of how much you want to admit to it or how many characters you allow to be in there.
MN We’re all having this intense existential experience. We’re all trying to deal with death, you know, the possibility that you could be gone tomorrow, and what have you accumulated with this? I don’t want to collect good deeds. I just want to say I lived every day, took it for what it was, good or bad, and just kept it moving.
MAT There’s a turning point in your life when you do realize that you are mortal and that this is a brief journey. So what led you to think that there was something else out there?
MN Oh, I had this tape, this guy named Richard Feynman giving lectures on physics. I had always thought that time is a construct, but when I took myself out of that idea of time, I began to think of it as a cycle: the sun is up right now, and the moon will come back. And when it does I’m going to try to retire, eat some food, hang out, listen to some music and wait for the sun to come back. That’s basically what keeps everything going for me. It’s that simple. I’m just happy I got up, because some people don’t. I wake up every day and I get a chance to fail or succeed again, and that’s just very humbling. Being considered a failure in the music business by my record company was a wake-up call. Those guys just don’t have that much power over me. I had to take everything out of that arena and live for myself. That may sound arrogant or hippie-dippy, but it works.
MAT It’s hard, though—for me that can sound a little bit like a “me-ism.” And it’s contradictory when you bring children into it and start thinking about what the future is. How can you Be Here Now and at the same time be aware that what you do is going to impact things much later too?
MN Right now, I believe my son can only be happy if I’m happy. Kids watch you and how you respond to life, to joy and adversity.
MAT Whenever I read the biographies of people who I think are great, people who’ve impacted my life—like Elia Kazan—I find the same quote: “I wish I had spent more time with my children.” That always resonated to me in trying to be a better adult, father, whatever. You get these people up in their seventies who have done their life’s work and there’s always that one regret. The only person I ever heard of who said, “Fuck it, I did what I did, and my kid’s gotta understand,” was Gordon Parks. It kind of opened me up, because sometimes I feel like it’s so hard to live in your mind, so hard to be an artist, that you have to be ruthless about needing solitude. You have to be ruthless about things that other people don’t understand. Yet at the same time you have this obligation to be present on a lot of different levels.
MN I just try to make the child feel safe. But you can’t live for your kids either, and your kids can’t live for you. That’s a lesson we are all really seeing right now in the world. George Bush Jr. is a prime example. You can’t live for your parents.
MAT I think he’s doing a pretty good job of living for his parents. (laughter)
MN “Daddy lost, lemme go make it better!”
MN I want my child to feel like life is worth living. Make the best of it. It’s not a me-ism. When I get old I want to be like, Whew, that was incredible! I had a really good time, a really good time.
MAT I wasn’t even going to talk about it, but you brought up George Bush, and to me, George Bush is trying really hard for none of us to get old. In the face of that, it’s daunting out there. I can’t even believe where things are headed and how quickly we got here. Probably if I had my head out of the ground more, I could have seen all of it coming!
MN It seems so fast though.
MAT As an artist, do you feel you have some added responsibility to jump up and tell people that these things are crazy? Or do you feel like it’s beyond that point now, and you have to make your own peace?
MN Make peace, because this dude is different. He moves on a different frequency. If he is going to jeopardize us all in such a way… I was touring in Europe, and I saw how people are really seeing us. It’s sort of sad sometimes.
MAT It’s eye-opening, isn’t it, when you get over there.
MN I wanted to shut my eyes in embarrassment. What the government is doing is so far beyond our understanding. I’m one of those people of color, one of those urban children, and I don’t know how the government works—and in the past, it was of no interest to me. You know, “I gotta go lobby, I gotta go join a party and pick a side”—it wasn’t for me. Now I see, and I’m sorry. But what good is it? It’s this perpetual cycle of I’m bigger than you and I’m better than you, and I should have everything. But why be in the world if that’s what the world is about? And how do you get to become president without any psychological testing? (laughter)
MAT To me the apathy out there is understandable at this point. People just don’t want to change things. You can gather a hundred thousand people at the Washington Monument, but unless there is a more organized or even violent form of resistance—
MN I felt this should have started back in the last election when the people were having problems going to vote. They should have stood up and said, “Hey, we all need to go to Florida, there’s obviously a problem, this is wrong.” And now you have this. Now people are waking up. Now you’ve got a man giving you a tax break for Hummers and SUVs. Meanwhile, violence is a sickness. Violence is when you lose all hope. No matter which side uses it.
MN When you go to war, you murder other people. When you murder other people, theirpeople have a need to retaliate. They will come back and murder you. That’s what I want my sign to say. We have Homeland Security and all these mothafuckas believe that shit.
MAT One of the most eye-opening things for me touring this summer in Europe was how absolutely slanted our media is. Until you see CNN abroad or you see coverage of our troops from another perspective, you can see why people believe what they believe—at least people who don’t have the time or inclination to think for themselves. I read some statistic the other day that said eight out of ten people believe that Saddam Hussein bombed the World Trade Center. That was one of the slickest PR pushes ever, how we got this thing from Osama bin Laden to Iraq. It’s incredible, but that is the machine that is moving now, the machine that is going after oil, waging this war on terror that we just went through—
MN When you say that, I become violently ill. That’s why I live in my own fucking world.
MAT But I want to take it even further, and this is what I wrestle with daily. I totally understand James Baldwin leaving the US for Paris. I can be that Negro. At the same time, there’s a part of me that feels like I can’t give up the struggle, even though I don’t know how I fit into the struggle yet. I’m about an inch away from giving up on America. What stops you from just packing up? You could be sitting on a camel in North Africa right now, banging beats.
MN I just don’t have the money. (laughter)
MAT If you did, would you?
MN If I had the money, I’d probably try to not live here. If I could make music somewhere else, I probably would expatriate.
MAT Mmmm. It’s really just a money thing?
MN It’s really just a money thing.
MAT You know, we could find those funds.
MN I don’t know if I’d go to Africa though. Look at the structure there, the resources. I mean, there’s oil there as well, am I correct? (laughter) I’d like to go somewhere where they have coconuts.
MAT Yeah, to Jamaica.
MN You know, I get to commune musically with other people, I get to be around beautiful people, I have beautiful children, and I’m trying to key into that part of my mind.
MAT Yeah, communing musically. I have to tell you, I love Cookie. We toured together before that record was released, so I got inside a lot of those songs before I ever heard the record. It’s always hard when you hear things live and then the record comes out. But Cookie really blew my mind. And Bitter still lives in my house on the turntable. It’s very hard for me sometimes to let my records go. I get attached to songs even though when I’m in the studio I’m making something that I want to live exactly in that second, and the only thing that I can control, if I can control anything at all, is that process. You put your children out there, and you have certain unavoidable feelings about how they are received. I try to rid myself of expectations. How do you deal with that? Cookie has been nominated for a Grammy, and I know that you don’t do things to win awards. But at the same time, do you feel like you need those things to further your message? How do you relate to success in the commercial arena?
MN I used to be a little naive making music: it’s my gift, and I just wanted to express myself and make music. And the wake-up call is when it doesn’t sell a lot. Your record company is looking for this right combination to make everything work out, but I didn’t pay attention, I just wanted to keep making music. If they could just pay my rent, pay for my son’s school, I’d be all right. I just really enjoy embarking on making an album, making this complete idea come to life. That’s what I love about the experience of getting people together and playing. I never really enjoyed what happens afterward. So I wouldn’t know. I’m shut off to other people’s comments.
MAT You don’t read reviews?
MAT Oh, I think they’re funny. That’s my secret new favorite thing about releasing a record. It just cracks me up! Because the review is not about your record, it’s really about the reviewer.
MN Well, for me, it’s more about me. You know, I get so tired of the “black, bald, gay,” whatever, bass player.
MAT Oh, I see.
MN Let’s talk about the music!
MAT You made a beautiful record. I feel like each artist has a particular song, and they write it for their entire life, whether the tempos change, or the musicians around them change.
MN Why don’t you love me? That’s my song.
MAT That’s not your song!
MN That’s my song.
MAT No, your song is, Come on and go deeper with me. That’s your song. Come on and go deeper with me. It’s really wonderful down here, you just have to trust yourself and let go. And I see you sing that song night after night, and you’re inspiring to me.
MN I feel pathetic. I’m up there saying, Love me.
MAT No, I don’t hear that at all. I hear ache in your voice for people being frozen still. I see you wanting to get lifted. I must admit, since that last tour, the touring and promotional aspect of releasing a record is probably my least favorite part. So I’m always trying to throw some sort of monkey in the works. You saw me, the first time we almost met. I was having a violent chemical reaction to my record company. We were going to have a record-release party, and when I brought in my guest list they said, “Well, you can’t have this many people. We have to make sure the press get in.” And I was like, Wait a minute—
MN It’s my record coming out! (laughter)
MAT Isn’t this a party? And they were like, Oh yeah, and you should probably play these songs. I was like, We just recorded those, let’s let those rest, we want to play all this new stuff…. Anyway, when you first saw me I was trying to enjoy myself, like, four bottles of wine later. But you and I, our relationships with an audience—and I don’t mean a live audience, I mean people who are coming down to buy our stuff—it’s a strange thing. I have love for people who want to pick up our product, but then if they come up to you a little later and want to know who you’re sleeping with or what kind of instrument you’re playing…
MN Yeah, I hate that line.
MAT I have a hard time relating to those people! It’s like, I want you to be where I am, but I don’t necessarily want you to touch me!
MN Right, I don’t want you even to be talking to me.
MAT How do you feel about your audience? How do you feel about the rigors of having to promote records?
MN I wish I could sum up that experience in one sentence. Well, Cookie was supposed to come out two weeks after September 11, but they delayed it, and they changed my cover. And I couldn’t have the single I wanted, “Hot Night,” because in the song I say we suffered a world trade paradise. After all that, I realized that they’re trying to make me into a generalization, to fit me into a demographic, an easily digestible thing that everyone can hook onto. But when I get up onstage, I can play whatever I want. That’s the only freedom I have, up on that stage. So, to be honest, I’m not thinking of any of those people, because I get to get up every night and play with people I really dig and try to transmit myself into a different space. I’m up there for me.
MAT To me that’s one of the most arresting things about watching you. I got to see you guys night after night.
MN We would play the same way if there were two people in the audience. I have to be a teacher sometimes and say, “You’re not going to get MTV, and there’s not going to be dancers—we just play music.” If you want to have an aural experience, come check it out. And if you don’t like it, that’s cool, but at least open yourself up, for one hour of your life, to have an experience. That’s what I’m up there trying to do. As far as making records, I’m never going to be able to please everybody: my audience, the reviewer and the record company. I just let that idea go. I get a good review every now and then, I’m told. I get a Grammy nomination.
MAT Congratulations on your latest, by the way.
MN I don’t want to be like the Funk Brothers, you know. I want to at least have some Social Security. But that may not even come with the way things are going. That’s what I’m saying: all this is bullshit. At the end of the day, our soul completes a journey and I just want to be all right at the end of that journey.
MAT In the back of my mind I’m always thinking that the best artistic statement I can make is always going to be the most commercial, because people are always going to respond to what’s real. When your heart is really speaking it’s a beautiful thing.
MN The most artistic statement you can make is to stay alive. (laughter)
MAT I saw this brother on the street yesterday and he asked me for a quarter and I said, “How you doing?” And he said, “Hey man, every day that I can get up I got a shot.” And I was like, brother, I’m quoting you to my grave on that one.
MN You’d make more money if you were dead, Marc. (laughter) You would sell a lot more records.
MAT Believe me, I have thought of every scam in the world. I saw this Dick Van Dyke movie once where he was an artist in Paris and he staged his death and kept making paintings. But while we’re talking about the record industry—it’s kind of redeeming because the record industry has spent a large part of my adult life telling me that I can’t have a career, and now it’s our chance to tell the record companies. (laughter)
MN Just get people to come to the shows. That’s the only way, because it’s going to go back to the chitlin minstrel circuit, and you know—have guitar, will travel. Because that’s the only way. It’s time to get out of that paradigm. To me the real task is at hand. Am I going to continue to make music without any record-company support? That’s where I am now. How can I pack up my band and my music and travel, just see the world, continue to be an eye for the world, to report what I see?
MAT You’re at a beautiful point: let’s say you sell about 40,000 records on your own, without a record company, you’d make ten times the money you would make selling two or three times that amount with a label. You got your word out, you got your name out there, you got your Grammy nominations, you’re in a good spot. I don’t know if I’m organized enough for the do-it-yourself path.
MN Me neither! (laughter)
MAT You and I could both be moguls right now if we had some organizational skills.
MN But I think that we are powerful in our inability to do that. Who do we know out of all of our friends who are very well off who are like, Hey, I’ll pay for the bus! (laughter)
MAT We need to go back to the days of the patron.
MN “Get a Whitney for the bus.” (laughter) And then just go out and play music.
MAT It’s perfect you’d say that too, because I have this utopian idea for a modern kind of Wattstax where we share a band and just tear shit up for nothing but the joy.
MN When we played at Frank’s Place, and you handed me the cash after that, that was the most fulfilling experience I’ve had in the ten years I’ve been doing this.
MAT Oh, cool.
MN I’m not joking. I played with Marc Ribot, and you, and we improvised, and we were, you know, playing our wave, and falling and tripping and dirtying our faces, yet we played really well and had a good time and afterward, you were like, Here, thank you. And I was like, Wow, thank you, I would have done that for free.
MAT That was a great night.
MN I started thinking of all the places I’m going to go asking, Hey man, can we just play?
MAT You know, I found this place right around the corner with a fireplace that seats two hundred people, it’s chill chill chill. It’s wooden. You gotta see it. It’s three blocks from my house, on Myrtle Avenue. We can get in there. I’m trying to hook it up so that we can do something regular.
MN Hopefully the next time you interview me for BOMB I’ll just be out playing in front of the fireplace. (laughter)
MAT Yeah, absolutely.
MN I’d have more time too. When I come to New York I’ve got to go to all of the museums. You can’t afford not to. You have to have a good experience before they really start to separate those who have and those who don’t—those who are worthy and those who are not. And that’s all I’m trying to do. I’m trying to really have a good experience while I’m here.
MAT Well, I think you’re giving a lot of other people very good experiences.
MN All we got, Marc, is our music, some fine-ass women, some good wine and, you know, a nice pair of shoes every now and then.
MAT Hey, you just outlined my weekend!
MN That is it. And if I win a Grammy, that’s what I’ll say. It’s all good.
MAT So, I know you love playing, and you say that you’re not into control, and I’ve watched you with the band. And I think people love to follow someone with a strong vision. You’ve been a side person and you’ve been out front, and you know what it’s like when there is one clear vision and it’s working—it feels really good. And I just was so impressed with how you lead the band so subtly, almost as if you could just flicker your eyebrow and everyone’s aware of what’s going on. I was lucky enough to see Bob Marley play; he was trying to transcend every time he got up there. And I saw Patti Smith once in rehearsal, and she turned around and played Carnegie Hall the next night, and the rehearsal had been just as intense as the Carnegie Hall show. When they started playing the songs, it didn’t matter where they were. And I know you have that same thing going, and it’s pretty unique these days.
MN This ain’t no joke to me. This ain’t no game. Yeah, I’m trying to transcend.