Canonized, marginalized, or just scrutinized, Meshell Ndegeocello has given up trying to explain herself. After 20 years in an industry that has called her everything from avant-garde to a dying breed, what unquestionably remains is a fearsome bassist, a prolific songwriter, and the creativity and curiosity of an authentic musical force. With these elements alone, she has earned critical acclaim (including 10 Grammy nominations), the unfailing respect of fellow players, songwriters, and composers, and the dedication of her diverse, unclassifiable fans.
Ndegeocello was born Michelle Johnson in Berlin, Germany, and was raised in Washington, DC. By the early '90s, she had landed in New York armed with a demo recorded in her bedroom, joined the Black Rock Coalition, and was soon signed to Madonna's label, Maverick Records. Her albums, nine to date, have offered lyrical ruminations on race, love, sex, betrayal, God, and power, and she has simultaneously embraced and challenged listeners with her refusal to be pigeon-holed musically or personally. A vast array of influences have informed all of her releases, and there are traces of her native go-go, hip hop, rock, R&B, new wave, and punk in each.
Weather (2011), Ndegeocello's latest album of original material, finds her changed, and her music too. Her sound is freer and more peaceful, with folk sensibilities and pregnant acoustic melodies cloaked in the colors of autumn, full of in-between shades and hues. Her usually deep vocals slip into a register more like a whisper, sharing secrets about subjects that are straightforward, almost light-hearted. She has pared down her style to something like pop. Although she had quite a bit of success in her early electric days with a mixture of hip-hop, funk, and rock, she doesn't miss that initial buzz. It wasn't something she was looking for. "Music is my only guide. I don't care if people pigeonhole me. Miles Davis is my hero. He covered Cindy Lauper and Michael Jackson, and he didn't give a hoot about what the purists said." With Weather, she takes a bold next step down her uncertain, risky, decidedly uncharted but wildly fulfilling, path.
After a career of more than 20 years, Meshell Ndegeocello and her musicians Chris Bruce (guitar), Jebin Bruni (keys), and Deantoni Parks (drums) recorded a tribute to Nina Simone. These sorted covers culminated in Meshell's 10th album entitled, Pour une ame souveraine (For a sovereign soul), a recording for which Meshell invited a few guests, including Sinéad O'Connor, Lizz Wright, Valerie June, Toshi Reagon and Cody ChesnuTT.