Three decades on from her US Top 3 moment and weathering the loss of her parents, the singer explains how she has carved out a space for herself to be whatever she wants
Meshell Ndegeocello may have helped to kickstart the neo-soul movement in the 1990s, which introduced the world to D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, but to call her a soul singer would undermine her tastes, which are as wide as her discography is long. Speaking to me via a video call from her Brooklyn studio, where she dons all-black clothing against a backdrop of synthesisers and electronic rigs, Ndegeocello namechecks a cavalcade of faves: Broadway musicals, the classic sci-fi film Soylent Green, cult rapper Pink Siifu and young singer-songwriter Kara Jackson. The 54-year-old approaches magnetic new artists the same way that she did when she was a teenager gigging around her native Washington, DC – by learning the bass guitar parts to each of their songs. “If she needs a bass player, she should call me,” Ndegeocello quips about Jackson, “’Cause I already know it.”
After hitting the US Top 3 with a John Mellencamp duet in 1994, Ndegeocello has maintained a quieter but consistently surprising presence in music, transcending the slow-burning soul of her debut LP Plantation Lullabies and its brilliant 1996 follow-up Peace Beyond Passion to try a slew of styles – among them rap, jazz, psychedelia and heart-on-sleeve rock. (The latter for 1999 masterpiece Bitter.) From the get-go she was outspoken about her queerness, unlike many musicians of her generation. Her 2018 album Ventriloquism, a covers collection shaded by the death of her parents, featured an inverted pink triangle on its sleeve: the symbol the Nazis forced gay men to wear. Ndegeocello turned this terrible emblem into a sign of solidarity tinged with Trump-era fear, though in her case sexuality means something more interior than political.
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