Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past couple of years, I’ve written quite a bit about the critically applauded, JOVM mainstay Meshell Ndegeocello— and as you may recall, the singer/songwriter, rapper and bassist was born Michelle Lynn Johnson in Berlin, Germany and was raised in Washington, DC. When she turned 17, she adopted the name Meshell Ndegeocello, with the surname, as she has explained meaning “free like a bird in Swahili.”
In the late 80s, Ndedgeocello gigged around DC’s go-go circuit, playing with a number of local acts including Prophecy, Little Bennie and the Masters, and Rare Essence before unsuccessfully trying out for Living Colour’s bassist spot, after Muzz Skillings left the band. Deciding to go solo, Ndegeocello eventually caught the attention of Madonna, who signed the singer/songwriter, rapper and bassist to her Maverick Records. Most readers will remember her commercially successful collaborative coverof Van Morrison‘s “Wild Night,” with John Mellencamp, a single that peaked at #3 on the BillboardCharts in 1994 and “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” peaked at #73 later that year. Adding to a rapidly rising profile, she collaborated with the legendary Herbie Hancock on a track for Red Hot Organization’s AIDS awareness, tribute compilation Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, which was named Time Magazine‘s “Album of the Year.” Her coverof Bill Withers‘ “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)” was a #1 Dance Hit in 1996 and was briefly featured in the major motion picture Jerry Maguire, and she landed Dance Top 20 hits with “Earth,” “Leviticus: Faggot,” and “Stay.” Along with that she collaborated with Madonna, playing bass on “I’d Rather Be Your Lover,” and contributing a verse at the last minute, after Tupac Shakur had criminal charges filed against him. Ndegeocello has also collaborated with Chaka Khan, rapping on “Never Miss the Water,” a single that landed #1 on Billboard‘s Dance Club Charts and peaked at #36 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart. Additionally, Ndegeocello has collaborated with the likes of Basement Jaxx,Indigo Girls, Scritti Politti,The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Rolling Stones, Alanis Morrissetteand Zap Mama.
Throughout her lengthy career, Ndegeocello has managed the rare feet of achieving commercial success while arguably being one of the most uncompromising and iconoclastic artists of the past 25 years — all while being credited as being at the forefront of the neo-soul sound, thanks in part to a genre defying and difficult to pigeonhole sound that draws from hip-hop, classic soul, jazz, rock, reggae and singer/songwriter pop. Over the past few years, Ndegeocello has been rather busy — she wrote and composed a musical influenced by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, titled Can I Get a Witness?: The Gospel of James Baldwin and released a gorgeous tribute album to the legendary Nina Simone, which featured collaborations with fellow JOVM mainstay Cody ChesnuTT and others.
Ventriloquism, Ndegeocello’s later album was released earlier this year, and the album finds the renowned singer/songwriter and bassist covering songs by TLC, Janet Jackson, Tina Tuner, Prince and others, who have been influential to her and her work — but with her unique take. As the renowned singer/songwriter and bassist explains in press notes, “Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support. There isn’t much diversity within genres, which are ghettoizing themselves, and I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.” Ventriloquism‘s first single was a coverof Force MD‘s smash hit “Tender Love,” that found Ndegeocello turning the slow-burning, 80s piano ballad into a folksy, Harvest-era Neil Young/Fleetwood Mac track, complete with shuffling drumming, twinkling Fender Rhodes and harmonica. Though she eschews some of the song’s cheesiness, which makes it endearing in its own right, Ndegeocello’s cover retains the song’s earnestness — pointing out that a well-written pop song can reach for something downright timeless.
The album’s latest single is a cover of Ralph Tresvant‘s “Sensitivity,” that briefly nods at Sting‘s “Englishman in New York,” as it’s centered around loose, bluesy guitar chords, shuffling drumming and a New Orleans brass band-like bridge — and while retaining the song’s sultry nature, Ndegeocello manages to pull out and further emphasize the song’s tenderness. Much like its predecessor, the new single continues Ndegeocello’s commentary on society’s narrow expectations on what music created by and performed by black artists should sound like and be like.
Directed by the Cass Bird, the recently released video for “Sensitivity ” was specifically released in conjunction with the end of Pride Month — and in our dark and uncertain age, the video is a much-needed burst of joy and humanity, as the video was specifically cast to focus on faces, body types and identities that are less conventional, less celebrated and often misunderstood, capturing these people at their most vital, most joyful and most human — whether dancing, tenderly embracing, kissing and loving. Certainly, the world would be a much better place if there was more love and more gentle and human moments.