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Meshell Ndegeocello shares her inner life, praises Emory as 'amazing campus'

Musician Meshell Ndegeocello didn’t sing or play a single note, but still captured the audience's attention for her full time on stage. 

Instead, she opened Emory's 2019-2020 Provost Lecture Series by talking through the chapters of her life — not so much the 30-year musical career that has brought her 13 albums, 10 Grammy nominations and the chance to work with artists ranging from Herbie Hancock to Madonna, but her inner life. And she did it exactly as her followers have come to expect: with no holds barred. 

“I have been searching since the day I got here”

Ndegeocello, who shares her birthdate, Aug. 29, with fellow musical legends Michael Jackson, Charlie Parker and Dinah Washington, was her mother’s third child.

It was not an easy birth for mother or child. Ndegeocello spent several months in incubation, while her 21-year-old mother — who bled profusely during the birth — felt compelled to accept having a hysterectomy. The effects for both women were profound: a resulting hormonal imbalance created lifelong mental issues for her mother, while Ndegeocello acknowledges “issues bonding with others.”

Ndegeocello was raised in Washington, D.C., a town “both urban and provincial,” as she told the audience Oct. 3 at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Her father served in the military, was a member of a big band, played at two presidential inaugurations and, without question, sparked his daughter’s interest in music.

Given her father’s connections, she briefly held a food-service job at the Pentagon at the age of 14. Even then, the budding activist knew she was “not comfortable in an environment where they make war.”

Growing up, she gave the family turntable no rest and learned to play piano and bass alongside her father and brother. Today she plays “an old bass that weighs 35 pounds.” Despite her lifelong love of it — which she describes as “a good instrument, not narcissistic like the singer or guitar player” — she finds it physically challenging and lately has explored the piano and banjo more. 

She is, by her lights, an accidental singer — doing so “only out of necessity.” According to Ndegeocello, “My ears are everything to me. When we evolve as a species, I hope we will have no eyes.”

An autodidact who dropped out of high school, Ndeogeocello gratefully recalls the teacher who suggested that she go instead to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where it was “game-changing to be around people who gave me books and movies to check out.” 

That time spelled her introduction to the likes of Toni Morrison and Angela Davis, and she went on to study music at Howard University. For the Emory audience, she unveiled the short stack of literary muses she always carries with her for inspiration and played a long audio passage from James Baldwin.

Kevin Karnes, chair of Emory’s Department of Music, noted in his introduction of Ndegeocello that, “She never shies away from controversy.” And she did not, touching on trauma and sexual abuse, jail time, a strict religious upbringing — and, in her years as a musician, the “drinking, drugs, long nights and narcissism that can develop when so many people are happy to see you.”

Humbly, simply, she stacked the facts of her life one atop another with no attempt to make the good outweigh the bad and then concluded, “That is pretty much how I came to be me.” 

“I am a vessel for music; I just wait for the transmission” 

Ndegeocello describes the early years of her career as ones of greater ego. Now, at 51, she says that she is “at peace with herself and no longer needs people to clap for her.” 

She singled out John Mellencamp among the artists with whom she has worked.

Having had “an insular experience” making her first recording “Plantation Lullabies” (1993), Ndegeocello was subsequently invited to collaborate with Mellencamp on his cover of the Van Morrison tune “Wild Night.” It remains her biggest hit, climbing to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. She arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, to find out that “he owned the town. On his ranch, it was just people making music together. He was so kind to me.” 

She and Mellencamp delivered an electric performance, and Ndegeocello made a promise to herself, one that she has kept, never to do music in an isolated way again. 

With “Ventriloquism,” her latest album, she has made music for what she describes as our cultural moment — “times so extreme and overwhelming.” She describes the song for which she may be best known — “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” — as “a catty rap song.” It is not the one she would like to be remembered for; that honor goes to “Good Day Bad,” whose first stanzas are: 

I’m surprised every sunrise
The earth would have me back
Surprised my knees hold me up
That it’s not all gone black
And I’m sure by nightfall
I will burn up all I have 

So don’t go out your way
To make a good day bad

She says of the song, “It sums up the person I would like to be.”

The years have clearly brought Ndegeocello more of a sense of peace. Her father’s recent death helped her realize how angry he was and that she didn’t want to follow suit. “People say that life is short, but it is long. There is a lot of time to get angry. I am on this spinning rock in the middle of nowhere.”

Spinning with her and brightening her days are her sons — Solomon, 30, and Atticus, 9. As a parent, she is what she calls a “gardener. In other words, I planted you and don’t know what will pop up.” 

As she looks to the future, Ndegeocello more than once mentioned the possibility of teaching. In her estimation, Emory seems to have the ingredients of a nurturing, creative place. To applause, she noted, “This is the most amazing campus. I have walked around with my feet in the grass. I have written four things already.”

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