b. Michelle Lynn Johnson (a.k.a. Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur), 29th August 1968, Berlin, West Germany.
Meshell Ndegeocello is an unusual performer, with her musical style unconfined by any particular genre.
Her music comprises of many influences, which incorporate funk, soul, hip hop, reggae, R&B, rock, and jazz.
Born in Germany, Michelle’s father was in the military, whilst her mother worked in health care.
Her father, Jacques Johnson, was not only a Sergeant Major, but also an accomplished saxophonist.
As a youngster, MeShell was raised in Washington, D.C.
She attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and, also the Oxon Hill High School.
Although christened Michelle Lynn Johnson at birth, she adopted her surname ‘Ndegeocello’ when she was 17.
‘Ndegeocello’ translates to ‘free like a bird’ in Swahili.
As her musical career developed Meshell played the bass guitar with several D.C. based Go-Go groups.
These included Prophecy, Little Bennie and the Masters, and Rare Essence.
Pursuing a solo career, Meshell was was one of the first artists to sign with Madonna’s Maverick Records.
plantation lullabies - 1993 / peace beyond passion - 1996 / bitter - 1999 / cookie: the anthropological mixtape - 2002
Her debut set, ‘Plantation Lullabies’ was released in 1993.
Those on the Soul scene took to the album immediately.
Tracks such as ‘If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)’, were hugely popular (reaching number 73 on the charts in 1994).
That year, Meshell contributed to the ‘Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool’ project, weighing in with the track ‘Nocturnal Sunshine’.
This album was aproject which raised awareness (and funds) in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African American community.
In 1996, Meshell released ‘Peace Beyond Passion’, which featured her take on the Bill Withers evergreen, ‘Who Is He (and What Is He To You?)’.
Meshell has consistently released albums since 1996’s ‘Peace Beyond Passion’.
comfort woman - 2003 / the spirit music jamia - 2005 / the world has made me the man of my dreams - 2007 / devil's halo - 2009
These included ‘Bitter’ (in 1999), ‘Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape’ (in 2002), ‘Comfort Woman’ (in 2003), ‘The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance Of The Infidel’ (in 2005), ‘The World Has Made Me The Man Of My Dreams’ (in 2007), ‘Devil’s Halo’ (in 2009), ‘Weather’ (in 2011), ‘Pour Une Âme Souveraine A Dedication To Nina Simone’ (in 2012) and ‘Comet Come To Me’ (in 2014).
Meshell’s music has been utilised by many movie makers, showcased by the inclusion of various songs on the films How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Lost & Delirious, Batman & Robin, Love Jones, Love & Basketball, Talk To Me, Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls,The Best Man, Higher Learning, Down in the Delta, The Hurricane, Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom, and Soul Men.
As a bass player, she has collaborated with several artists, including Basement Jaxx, Indigo Girls, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Rolling Stones’, Alanis Morissette and Zap Mama.
She made an appearance in the Motown movie, featuring the Funk Brothers, entitled ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’.
Meshell performed ‘You've Really Got a Hold on Me’ and ‘Cloud Nine as paart of the film.
weather - 2011 / pour une ame souveraine - 2012
Meshell suffers from photosensitive epilepsy and is susceptible to seizures induced by flash photography when she is performing live.
She sometimes goes by the name Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur which she utilises as a writing credit on some of her work.
comet, come to me - 2014
Her bass playing is hugely in demand, and she is a highly respected musician.
Plantation Lullabies (Maverick/Reprise Records 1993)
Peace Beyond Passion (Maverick Records 1996)
Bitter (Maverick Records 1999)
Cookie (The Anthropological Mixtape) (Maverick Records 2002)
Comfort Woman (Maverick Records 2003)
Spirit Music Of Jamia Dance Of The Infedel (Maverick Records 2005)
The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (Emarcy / Umgd Records 2007)
Devil's Halo (Downtown Records 2009)
Weather (Naive Records 2011)
Pour Une Ame Souveraine (Naive Records 2012)
Comet Come To Me (Naive Records 2014)
Ventriloquism (Naive Records 2018)
Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note Records 2023)
Charles Waring from Blues and Soul magazine, interviewing Meshell Nedegeocello during 2002:
1. What does the title of your new album refer to?
well, cookie has many meanings, the simplest being a reference to the
cookie-cutter music industry in america. very little attention is given to
art; it is more about reproducing the last hit record, so artists tend to
sound and look alike. so much of this record is a dialogue about my place
within this business climate. where do i fit into that? do i want to fit
into that? hopefully these are questions that every artist explores and
every person explores when it comes to living out pre-fabricated
experiences. the anthropological mixtape subtitle is about holding up my own
musical heritage to this current cookie-cutter, radio-format and video
driven industry that i find myself in. see below for more on the mixtape
2. How would you describe the album and what did you set out to achieve with
this record is about digging up our past in order to understand where we are
going; it is about me evaluating my musical journey from d.c. and go-go to
being a jazz musician to a funk and soul singer to a hip hop lover; it is
about critiquing the music industry, programmed radio and my own
participation in that industry. i don't believe in pointing fingers in one
direction, so the album is definitely as much of a self-critique as a
critique. beyond these themes, i just tried to be funky and collaborate with
amazing vocalists, musicians and icons to create an intergenerational
dialogue on identity and transformation. much of this dialogue is about the
process of transforming oneself, of healing, of growing, of freeing one's
mind and then being brave enough to encourage that growth in the society
around you. and there was a time when artists were engaged in that process,
when their art was part of spreading that word, was part of creating a forum
for discussions... emerson's market place of ideas to a beat or on a canvas
or on a stage. now art is marginalized... literally, limited to profit
margins. to survive financially, so the economic order says now, an artist
must build commercial value into his or her expression. much of my record is
a critique of this idea, and by critique, i mean i participate in the very
thing i critique. i don't believe anyone can claim innocence in this shared
humanity. i try to record the spirit of the times as i see it, be a voice
that opens dialogue, that reflects my listening more than my own opinions. i
just try to express myself and be funky, and if folks are feeling that,
they'll come out to the show or pick up the record and have an experience.
3. Thematically, the album - as all your albums have done - focuses on
political, economic, racial and sexual issues. Is there any topic that you
consider taboo and wouldn't refer to in your songs?
my records are basically different chapters in my memoir, so i write about
what i experience. i don't really imagine making a part of my own experience
off limits to myself. i explore, work out and learn from my journey
partially through my music, so i imagine i will always write about
everything i'm dealing with. its just part of my process.
4. Do you see yourself as a modern day griot?
well, i tend to tell my personal history more than say the history of an
entire people, but certainly the modern songwriter can be likened to griots.
i like to call myself an anthropologist of sorts, like i said above, an
artist that is just trying to record the spirit of the times.
5. How important is it for an artist to be honest in regard to the music
for me, sincerity is what its all about, even more so than technical
proficiency or an amazing natural ability. i'm not the greatest bassist in
the world, but i think people feel my unique voice on that instrument; i
don't have a great voice, but i sing what i feel. there is nobody molding my
art into a "hit," there is no thought on my part about changing my
expression in order to make it more palatable or salable. the one time i did
that, it was for this remix on the album, but that itself was a very
conscious art piece to me that was a comment on my experience in the formula
driven US record industry. i find sincerity a far more useful paradigm than
say "commercial" vs "conscious" music or "popular culture" vs "high art"...
these seem too hierarchical to me. i think listeners can hear when an artist
has sat down with the intention of sincerely exploring a topic or feeling
and when and artist has sat down with the intention of making some money or
gaining attention. art to me is about creating your own experience.
6. You have Black Star's Talib Kweli contributing to the album. What was he
like to work with?
love talib; he's one of the most brilliant lyricists of our generation. we
just hung out for a day in san francisco, talked about art and family and
then he just ripped his verse. hip hop records are really interesting
creations, a bit different than composing a song. i really enjoyed the
collaborative nature of it.
7. Talib Kweli himself is a severe critic of the "bling bling" mentality of
many rappers - what's your view on hip-hop's preoccupation with materialism,
violence and misogyny?
that is just the dominant cultural focus and part of the drive towards
global consumerism; it isn't just hip hop. i don't believe that music and
culture happen in a vacuum-- they are the product of larger social forces,
from the economy to education to historical influences to the four or five
companies that own all the major media outlets in the world. hip hop artists
are such a small cog in this wheel, its hard for me to focus there or look
to addressing the root causes by talking to the cats at Cash Money Records.
women have been objectified and violently attacked in films, music and other
media long before hip hop was a blip on the cultural map; yougotta check out
this film "bowling for Columbine" by michael moore because its a great
exploration of the violence in american culture. and when you mcdonaldize
the world and export american cultural products around the world, that great
american violent tradition comes with it.
8. What feeds your creativity?
just everyday living; there is so much to learn, so much to experience, so
much to process especially when we stop anesthetizing ourselves with all the
distractions we're addicted to or social patterns or drugs or whatever.
trying to have my own experience, be present in it and then share it is
pretty much what my art is about.
9. From listening to your lyrics, an overriding sense of your deep interest
in politics and current events communicates itself. What causes are you most
i just want folks to escape fear and to be able to exist in the love
frequency. i try to do my part to create that kind of world, because if we
get there, i think we will have folks living healthier, emotionally and
spiritually fulfilling lives. what is war or isms or greed when everybody is
in that zone?
10. Are you actively involved in politics?
just music. i play the bass, write some tunes and cook... what good would i
do amongst a bunch of lawyers who serve the interests of corporations?
11. What's your view on the Iraq situation?
sending 18 and 19 year olds to kill more iraqi civilians in the name of oil
ain't cool. sure sadam hussein is a nutcase, but the u.s. government armed
him, gave him all the weapons of mass destruction everybody is complaining
about; and by the way, why should we trust the u.s. with its weapons of mass
destruction, or anybody for that matter? are we to believe that the
countries represented in the u.s. security council have a monopoly on
rationality? more like a monopoly on economic power and a desire to keep it
that way. what's my view? end all sanctions, drop the debt in the developing
world, build a palestinian state and share jerusalem with the neighboring
israeli state, and pour the billions of dollars that would otherwise go to
war into refining wind, solar and electric power so as to eliminate
dependency on dirty, limited fossil fuels. do all that, and there is no need
to deal with sadam; his own people will.
12. If you met George W. Bush, what would you say to him???
enjoy it now cuz it aint gonna happen again.
13. You have two guest singers on the album: Caron Wheeler and Lalah
Hathaway. What's your estimation of both these artists?
caron has one of the most amazing instruments around-- a beautiful, soulful
vocalist. i just worked with her at a benefit we did for aids at carnegie
hall and she rocked the house. lalah has such a rich, warm voice-- she
straight up sounds like the earth and her musical knowledge is phenomenal.
she's a real professional with a wonderful heart.
14. I wonder if you could tell me about some of the album's songs:
a) What is Dead Nigga Blvd about?
beyond what i wrote in the liner notes, its about defining freedom for
oneself, its about being unafraid to confront hard truths, its about
figuring out whether we are just here to make money and buy things or if
there is another way to define our existence.
b) How about God.Love.Money?
the title is GOD.FEAR.MONEY... well, beyond what i wrote in the liner notes,
the song talks about the way modernity breeds fear in folks, and the
relationship between this fear and our spiritual and economic choices.
c) What does Barry Farms refer to?
barry farms are a housing project in washington d.c.; it was just the
backdrop of the story that drives the tune.
15. You produced the album with your guitarist Allen Cato - what qualities
does Allan have as a producer and musician that you are deeply appreciative
cato listens. he facilitates ideas the way a great producer should;
sometimes it felt like he was in my head so i call him my cosmic wonder
twins. but really it comes from having a common musical palette that we work
from, common references and a lot of experience playing different genres of
music. and its amazing to also know that your producer is a brilliant
musician who can contribute ideas, melodies, arrangements and
instrumentation that is at the highest level. basically, he's a genius. oh,
and it's allen. :-)
16. Some soul music commentators have perceived you as the stylistic forbear
of artists like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Do you think you laid the
groundwork for so-called "neo-soul"?
that's not for me to say; sure i hear and see things i did years ago popping
up elsewhere, but we all influence each other and all have been influenced
by those before us. my problem with terms like neo-soul is that it is yet
another box; i'm on a whole new sound now, or like when i did "bitter" and i
was told black artists aren't supposed to do acoustic records. so if folks
want to talk about neo soul that's cool; just don't try to lock me or anyone
else into that category to the degree that you won't hear anything else. any
true artist is going to want to search and explore; unfortunately the
industry isn't too forgiving of change. its built on reliable returns--
their attitude is if it made money the first time, keep doing it til it
doesn't make anymore money. what kind of way is that to make art?
17. Which of the newer R&B artists are you particularly impressed by?
i really like tweet; enjoyed her last album tremendously. also you gotta
check out donnie and this other cat dwele from detroit.
18. The music business is still male-dominated - how much harder is it for a
female artist to succeed in comparison with a male artist?
depends on your goals. if you want to be an object that is molded and shaped
by some a&r execs; its probably a level playing field. if you want to make
some art, express yourself, have ideas, uphold some artistic integrity, well
that ends to be reserved for white men in the business, with only a few
exceptions. barriers are real; i'm just of the mind that they exist to
overcome them and that women can achieve whatever they desire by either
taking or making opportunities.
19. Some people see you as outspoken and controversial - do you perceive
yourself as a rebel?
my responsibility is simply to be myself, to express myself as sincerely as
possible and to be funky. that's it. it so happens that being myself, and
expressing my individuality also encompasses being committed to building
more just and more compassionate communities. i'm most interested in folks
working on their micro-history, sorting through themselves and then choosing
to be present in their lives, choosing not to have their experiences
dictated to them by marketers and politicians-- that seems more tangible to
me than big ideologies and notions of community that deny individuality.
20. You've been with Maverick for 4 albums, which is almost an unprecedented
length of time these days - what's the key to your enduring relationship
with the company?
that would be exploitative, long term recording contracts. my label isn't
interested in supporting my art; its interested in maximizing profits while
keeping up the facade of being an artist-friendly, cutting-edge company.
just because madonna is a part-owner of the company, that does not mean her
values or artistic sensibilities play into the day to day decision-making
there. to the contrary, i imagine if madonna knew some of the things that
have been said to me and done on my projects, she'd be appalled. i have no
beef with madonna; its the stewards of her company that have proven time and
again to have little love for good music and an over-emphasis on making
"hits." i don't have to sell a million records to be happy or to make them a
little money, but they are part of the hollywood blockbuster school of
thought that dominates the american record industry and is reinforced by
rigid radio formatting. with that mentality, you spend a bunch of money on a
remix (not even the artist you signed), see if radio and television will
play the song, and if they do, cool, you won, if you don't, you pull the
plug immediately so you don't lose too much. that approach won't work for
me. as is, i'm pretty much an indentured servant, only difference being my
label wouldn't pay for my passage across the ocean.
21. What attracted you to the bass guitar?
the feeling it gives you in your midsection. and for real, i just woke up
one day and could play. my brother had a bass, he played guitar and i just
started playing one day. the gift just jumped into my hands.
22. Which musician(s) has had the most profound influence on you?
oh i have innumerable influences. lyrically, from Joni Mitchell to Jimi
Hendrix to Sting. On bass, Jaco Pastorius, Larry Graham, Mark King, James
Jamerson and Willie Weeks. and just pure inspiration from Stevie Wonder, the
Beatles, Prince and Miles Davis to Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Nina
Simone. my little i-pod is filled with about 1500 songs and i'm always
listening. right now i'm digging System of a Down, Cold Play, Oumou Sangara
and Tweet and i'm sort of always in dialogue with Bob Marley, Donny
Hathaway, Weather Report and Joni Mitchell.
23.What has been the most exciting musical collaboration of your career?
it was really fun jamming in the studio with prince.
24. What future plans have you?
i'm just going to try to be a good person, raise my son, be in love, make
beats, be funky and travel as much as possible. there is so much to learn,
so much beyond our daily, mundane existence. i'll be scoring some films,
working on a jazz project and cooking. hopefully i'll right some good songs,
do some good deeds and make a good death.
25. Any unfulfilled ambitions?
no, i'm happy with my life and my choices; of course there are many more
things i want to do, but hopefully that will come.