It’s Tribute Week here at Old School Friday! And here is mine:
It was a hot summer day, Washington D.C., at some outdoor urban fair celebrating some thing or another and featuring overpriced bottled water and free concerts. It was a homecoming of sorts for Meshelle Ndegeocello, a relatively new artist on the scene. Though she was an Army brat born in Germany—she had spent some childhood and college years not far from where she was now jamming on stage. I was impressed with how tight her band was, how they changed chords at her merest nod of instruction and took it to the bridge one more time with the merest thump-signal of her bass. Somewhere in this enjoyment of the concert, the woman standing next to me said “Sweet Jesus, it’s like I wandered into a meeting of the dyke mafia.”
I experienced a moment of confusion. Perhaps she had assumed I was Family and was sharing a wry in-joke observation with me. In which case I would be flattered. But perhaps she had assumed I was a fellow homophobe and was sharing a hateful condemnation with me. In which case I would be outraged.
Probably for the sake of this blog post all these years later I should make up a story of a witty response on my part and a funny resolution. But as happens in most such ambiguous encounters, I said nothing. The moment hung there and then dissipated, leaving the sounds of Meshell and her kick-ass band going through another number for the crowd.
But I do recall then noticing for the first time that the audience was filled with almost all women. Some seamed just to be jamming and enjoying the music. Many, though, seemed to be silently dissecting Meshell and her lyrics: Here she is talking about “if that’s your boyfriend he wasn’t last night…wassup with that? Is that Black woman up front her partner? How well does she know Madonna? I thought her stuff would sound more like John Mellencamp. How the hell do you pronounce her name, anyway? So, is she a rapper or what?
OK. So I know I was probably imagining what these women were thinking. And I understand that most people—regardless of mafia membership—probably had to work a little at fitting Meshell into a neat box. She was funk and hip hop and spoken word and R&B and jazz and rock. She was an openly bisexual woman singing songs about loving men and loving women. She played an instrument that was a tall as she was. What the hell was she?
A maverick, that’s what.
How fitting, then, that she was recording on Madonna’s then-new label, Maverick Records.
Since that first album, she has continued to evolve. Themes of the the often-time painful exploration of spirituality and sexual and racial identity have taken more space on her albums. Themes of sexual and romantic longing infuse her lyrics in ways that are honest and blunt and familiar to anyone who has ever loved and not-gotten or loved and lost. She has explored jazz instrumentals that—in an ideal world—would have critics talking of her ushering in a “neo-fusion” movement as they have talked of her jump starting “neo-soul.” She has collaborated with some of the most talented artists in the music world.
She is a staple on tribute albums and movie soundtracks, with her ability to so expertly study and reinterpret the music of her predecessors and to so beautifully paint music-mood pictures.
Despite being—still—highly unpackageable in a heavily packaged musical world, she has managed to produce a steady output of music that is greedily gobbled up by a strong, if somewhat small, fan base.
I hope that this means she will also be embarking on a tour—a major one that will pass through my small corner of the universe. The Meshell Ndegeocello experience is not complete without seeing her in concert. I saw her one more time after the free D.C. concert—this time indoors, in Montreux, Switzerland at the famous jazz festival. Again, she was absolutely amazing. Again, her band was tight. Again, she took us through all sorts of genres and moods and grooves. She, obviously, takes performing seriously, as she had been no less professional and serious about her performance at her early free D.C. concert than on this international stage.
I can only hope—and wait. And in the meantime offer up this Old School Friday Tribute to a True Musical Maverick, Meshell Ndegeocello. As always, have a great OSF and a wonderful weekend. Enjoy!
Please check out the rules for joining and list of other OSF participants here.