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Although Meshell Ndegeocello scored a few hits early in her career, the bassist, singer, and songwriter later opted to concentrate on more challenging material by exploring the politics of race and sex, among other topics. From her 1993 Maverick label debut through her releases of the 2010s for Naïve, she built a discography of recordings that defied classification through progressive mixtures of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and rock. Initially held in regard primarily for her bass playing and bold lyrics, her songwriting, which often examined dark interpersonal issues, was just as exceptional.
Michelle Lynn Johnson, born on August 29, 1968, spent the first few years of her life in Germany. Her father was both a military man and a jazz saxophonist. She relocated with her family to Virginia in the early '70s. As a youngster, Johnson developed an interest in music; during her teenage years, she began to play regularly in the clubs of Washington, D.C., but eventually settled down in New York City after a stint of studying music at Howard University. By this point, she was going by Me'Shell NdegéOcello -- her adopted last name Swahili for "free like a bird." After auditioning for several bands, including Living Colour, NdegéOcello struck out on her own and often performed solo with just a bass, drum machine, and keyboard. In the early '90s, she was one of the first artists signed to Madonna's Warner-affiliated Maverick label.
NdegéOcello's debut album, 1993's Plantation Lullabies, was produced with David Gamson, as well as with André Betts and Bob Power, and involved input from a wide range of musicians, including DJ Premier, Joshua Redman, Bill Summers, Wah-Wah Watson, and David Fiuczynski. An impressive first album, it spawned the hit "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" and received three Grammy nominations. A duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," released a year later, brought her more mainstream attention; it peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Almost three years passed between the release of NdegéOcello's first and second albums, but during the wait, she collaborated with Chaka Khan on the track "Never Miss the Water," and she appeared on movie soundtracks (White Man's Burden, Money Talks) and on such multi-artist releases as Ain't Nuthin' But a She Thing and Lilith Fair, Vol. 3. Peace Beyond Passion finally saw release in 1996, peaked higher on the Billboard 200 (at number 63), and was also nominated for a Best R&B Album Grammy. Its cover of Bill Withers' "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)" topped Billboard's club chart. Produced by Gamson, it featured a longer list of noted associates, including several heard on the debut, as well as Billy Preston, Bennie Maupin, David Torn, Wendy Melvoin, and Paul Riser.
Another three-year break between albums occurred, during which time she collaborated with rapper Queen Pen on the track "Girlfriend." Bitter, for which she was billed as Meshell Ndegéocello, was released in 1999. She took another three-year break and emerged with Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape -- as Meshell Ndegeocello -- in 2002. Comfort Woman followed in 2003 and Dance of the Infidel, a sprawling album made with numerous collaborators from the jazz world, surfaced in 2005. Two years later, her fantastic Decca debut, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, which included guest appearances from Pat Metheny and Oumou Sangare, was released.
Her first pop-related recording in half a decade, 2009's Devil's Halo featured Ndegeocello in a quartet setting. The album also included guest spots from Lisa Germano and Oren Bloedow. Ndegeocello toured the album in opera houses and concert halls across the United States and Europe. In 2011, she partnered with Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry for the album Weather; it was issued on the Naïve label. In 2012, Ndegeocello released Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, a collection of tunes intimately associated with the legendary vocalist and pianist. Comet, Come to Me, another deep set of introspective songs, followed in 2014.
Meshell Ndegeocello (/ɪˈʃɛ ɛˈɡeɪoʊtʃɛoʊ/; born Michelle Lynn Johnson, August 29, 1968) is an American singer-songwriter, rapper, bassist, and vocalist. Her music incorporates a wide variety of influences, including funk, soul, jazz, hip hop, reggae and rock. She has received significant critical acclaim throughout her career, and has had ten career Grammy Award nominations. She has been credited for having "sparked the neo-soul movement."Lecaro, Lena (October 24, 2002). "Head, heart and soul". Los Angeles Times. pp. E–12. Retrieved 2009-02-28. "Grammy Nominations For J J Cale, Bettye LaVette and Meshell Ndegeocello – Just Announced". News, December 2007. The Rosebud Agency. December 6, 2007. Retrieved 2009-02-28. "Meshell Ndegeocello to Perform at 'You Rock My Soul' GMHC Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall on November 11th". NY Rock. August 14, 2002. Retrieved 2009-02-28. Yarbrough, Kenya (August 9, 2002). "Me'Shell Ndegeocello: One Tough "Cookie"". EURweb. Rabercom Enterprises. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
Ndegeocello was born Michelle Lynn Johnson in Berlin, Germany, to army Sergeant Major and saxophonist father Jacques Johnson and health care worker mother Helen. She was raised in Washington, D.C. where she attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Oxon Hill High School. In early press releases from Maverick Records her birth year was erroneously listed as 1969. The 1968 birth date has been confirmed through a previous manager and lifelong friend.
Named Michelle Lynn Johnson at birth, Ndegeocello adopted her surname at the age of 17, which she says means "free like a bird" in Swahili. Meshell Ndegeocello is pronounced Mee-shell N-deh-gay-o-chel-o. Early pressings of Plantation Lullabies were stickered with the instructions. The spelling has changed in the hands of record labels a few times during her career; however, the correct spelling of her stage name is now Meshell Ndegeocello.
Ndegeocello is bisexual and previously had a relationship with feminist author Rebecca Walker. Ndegeocello's first son, Solomon, was born in 1989. She is currently married to Alison Riley, with whom she has a second son. She suffers from photosensitive epilepsy and is susceptible to seizures induced by flash photography when she is performing live. She has gone by the name Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur which is used as a writing credit on some of her later work."FreeMyHeart.com". FreeMyHeart.com. March 3, 2001. Retrieved 2011-07-18. Zwerin, Mike (February 23, 1994). "Me'Shell - Debut on Madonna Label - NYTimes.com". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2011-07-18. DiGuglielmo, Joey (November 10, 2011). "Meshell's magic". Washington Blade. Retrieved 2014-07-10. Layman, Will. "Me'Shell Ndegeocello: The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidels < PopMatters". Popmatters.com. Retrieved 2011-07-18.
Ndegeocello honed her skills on the D.C. go-go circuit in the late 1980s with the bands Prophecy, Little Bennie and the Masters, and Rare Essence She unsuccessfully tried out for Living Colour's bassist position, vacated in 1992 by Muzz Skillings. Going solo, she was one of the first artists to sign with Maverick Records, where she released her debut album, Plantation Lullabies. This recording presented a distinctly androgynous persona.
Her biggest hit is a duet with John Mellencamp, a cover version of Van Morrison's "Wild Night", which reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Her only other Billboard Hot 100 hit besides "Wild Night" has been her self-penned "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)", which peaked at No. 73 in 1994. Also in 1994, Ndegeocello collaborated with Herbie Hancock on "Nocturnal Sunshine," a track for the Red Hot Organization's compilation album, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album, meant to raise awareness and funds in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African American community, was heralded as "Album of the Year" by Time magazine.
She had a No. 1 Dance hit in 1996 with a Bill Withers cover song called "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?" (briefly featured in the film Jerry Maguire) as well as Dance Top 20 hits with "Earth", "Leviticus: Faggot", "Stay" and the aforementioned "If That's Your Boyfriend.. Last Night)". Ndegeocello played bass on the song "I'd Rather be Your Lover" for Madonna on her album Bedtime Stories. Ndegeocello was also tapped, at the last minute, to perform a rap on the same song. This came after Madonna and producers decided to remove Tupac Shakur's rap (which he did while he and Madonna were dating in 1994), after he had criminal charges filed against him.
Her music has been featured in a number of film soundtracks including 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.
She has appeared on recordings by Basement Jaxx, Indigo Girls, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. On The Rolling Stones' 1997 album Bridges to Babylon she plays bass on the song "Saint of Me". On Alanis Morissette's 2002 album Under Rug Swept, she plays bass on the songs "So Unsexy" and "You Owe Me Nothing in Return". On Zap Mama's album ReCreation (2009), she plays bass on the song "African Diamond".
She can also be seen in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, singing The Miracles' "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and The Temptations' "Cloud Nine". In the late 1990s, she toured with Lilith Fair. She also did a remake of the song "Two Doors Down" on the 2003 release Just Because I'm A Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton.
Ndegeocello was also a judge for the 2nd annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers.
Her song "Tie One On" was chosen as the Starbucks iTunes Pick of the Week on February 23, 2010.Wiltz, Teresa (June 19, 2005). "Meshell Ndegeocello Breaks Step With Pop". Washington Post. pp. N01. "Past Judges". Independent Music Awards. Retrieved 2011-07-18. Heringer (February 23, 2010). "Starbucks iTunes Pick of the Week – Meshell Ndegeocello – Tie One On". www.mark-heringer.com. Retrieved 2011-07-18.
In 2002, Ndegeocello collaborated with Yerba Buena on a track featuring Ron Black for the Red Hot Organization's tribute album to Fela Kuti, Red Hot and Riot. Proceeds from the album went to various AIDS charities, per the Red Hot Organization's mission.
In June 2010, she contributed a cover of U2's "40" to the Enough Project and Downtown Records' Raise Hope for Congo compilation. Proceeds from the compilation fund efforts to make the protection and empowerment of Congo's women a priority, as well as inspire individuals around the world to raise their voice for peace in Congo.
In 2010, Ndegeocello contributed to the essay anthology It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller in the vein of the It Gets Better Project.