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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Comfort Woman

Meshell Ndegeocello: Sista outsider finds Comfort
by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

November 06, 2003 (from NYU's Brownstone magazine)

The B.B. King Blues Club & Grill VIP section is full of journalists, record label personnel, publicists and other people who don't regularly deal with the public. They're all well-acquainted, huddled in the comforts of the semi-circled booths. Egos are hoisted in the air along with platters of $20 buffalo wings en route from an invisible kitchen. On the bill tonight, Meshell Ndegeocello and Soul Live. A man holding a guitar is introduced as K'Alyn. He plants himself on a stool, center-stage. K'Alyn's voice is like silk: smooth and beautiful - although he spoils all of this with a song of heartbreak.

The room grows silent as he sings and strums.
A tiny Meshell rises into view of the now-trembling audience. The motley crew is in awe of the impossibly underrated singer-bassist. They have soldiered through the opening act. A hearty applause sprinkled with whistles and throaty "I love yous" is offered. Bass in hand, hat generously tipped over her eyes, Ndegeocello begins to strum alongside the chords of fellow bandmates. Bob Marley is in the air. They open with the reggae-tinged "Love Song # 1." Meshell finally approaches the mic more than 10 minutes into the intro. "I can only give you what you give me," she explains and rips back into the groove. Turns her back toward the crowd and jams.

Three songs into the set, she sings, "Take me down to your river/I wanna get free with you." Now we're in the mood. Her voice is husky, sexy. It reminds you of that night. Embarrassed, you look around; fondling your ear, hoping no one notices your thoughts.

Pause here.

This is not exactly what is expected of a Meshell Ndegeocello live show. She is known for the seriousness of slaying contradiction with the groove in her bass, putting hypocrites on the spot. Tonight, carefree sensuality is heavy in order. Why? The mood of her latest album, Comfort Woman, says so. Where 2002's Cookie: the Anthropological Mixtape was unapologetically brash and earnest, Comfort Woman lets love rule.

Meshell emerged in 1993 in a Generation X-constructed state of black music. The airwaves were owned by Arrested Development, Das EFX and SWV, which were soon to be taken over by Wu Tang and Biggie Smalls with their reports from the live wire: New York City's rough spots they called home (Park Hill and Bed Stuy, respectively). Ndegeocello's first offering was the controversial "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" from her first album, Plantation Lullabies. She then made a little more noise with the remake of "Who Is He And What Is He To You" from Peace Beyond Passion. With that, she got complex on us and began to explore uncharted themes in R&B, such as biblical contradiction and homosexuality. Layer that with an early VIBE magazine interview in which she purportedly converted to Islam while championing her identity as a lesbian. Whoa.


Meshell Ndegeocello, aka Suhaila Bashir, was born Michelle Johnson in Berlin in 1969. Her religious mother and strict military father relocated her family to Virginia in the early '70s. As a young woman, she took on her new name: Ndegeocello means "free as a bird" in Swahili. Meshell proceeded with music as per the influences of her jazz saxophonist father, first studying at The Duke Ellington School of the Arts and later at Howard University. After the birth of her son, Askia Ndegeocello in 1988, she relocated to New York City.

The rest is history. Signed to Madonna's Maverick Records, Ndegeocello eked out a cerebral body of work. She received critical acclaim, Grammy nominations and hellish album sales. Undaunted, Meshell arrives at her fifth album, Comfort Woman, musing on life's driving force: love. An evocation of vulnerability, a masterwork of warmth, "I wrote [the album] for someone I love very much," she said. "I wanted to offer love as the comforting salve." Can it be at all that simple?

One question: How can one bad sista, who effortlessly charters new musical ground with every album release, be so slept on? Redefining the bass line in the process, she's the scion of any and every kickass bass player. She does see the light of mainstream from time to time. For instance, she paired up with John Cougar Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" for Mellencamp's 1994 release, Dance Naked. Also a soundtrack queen, we caught glimpses of her on "Fool Of Me" from the "Love and Basketball" soundtrack and "Rush Over" on the "Love Jones" soundtrack. She has lent her virtuosity to albums by artists from Chaka Khan to Alanis Morissette to Roy Hargrove.

When conceptualizing Cookie, her label wanted guest appearances, rappers and well-known R&B singers. In the tradition of jazz musician Archie Shepp, who intertwined Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka into his work, she incorporated speeches of bantam figures like Angela Davis and Gil Scott Heron in her songs. Cookie was heralded as her artistic climax.

When the crowd at B. B. King's recognized the intro as "Dead Niggaa Blvd (Part 1)," they went into hysterics and began singing along to the lyrics: "You try to hold on to some Africa of the past/One must remember it's other Africans that helped enslave your ass." Indeed.

"You're put into a demographic that's made for you based on generalizations and you think you're better off, you think you're free because you got black this, black radio or that, you're just marginalizing yourself," she told Mark Anthony Neal, professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, in a recent interview. Cookie and Comfort are in fact two different albums. This time around, it's safe to say Ndegeocello constructed a portrait of love, offering herself as a comfort woman. Always changing her groove, she'll record an Afro-punk record for British label BBE after her jazz album, Dance Of The Infidels, drops in January.

Dreamy excursions describe the feeling of the show's remainder. Most of it is Ndegeocello and her band improvising one, long jam session. Meshell wanders the stage. She does not walk so much as glide, seemingly meditating on the solos. Harsh politics hardly share space on this stage. This is a love story.


At 12:35 AM, Anonymous t said...

Complimenti Blogger per il post riguardante Comfort Woman . Volevo sapere se puoi dare uno sguardo al mio sito che parla di scommesse calcio e dirmi come ti sembra. Se ti interessa l'argomento scommesse calcio non puoi trovare di meglio!

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Chubby Chocolate said...

I love this woman. My favorite song from her is Fool of me (I didn't discover it from that Lathan movie).

I discovered that song when I was going through a bad break up with whom I thought was my ideal mate. The words, the melody, the chords, the notes in that song make me cry to this day.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger said...

sup though!!

hahaha.. 20 dolla buffalo wings.. they was right though!! remember?!?! that was a dope show- glad to have seen it w/ u- and thankful that you recorded it so officially!!! hope all is well with you, sister laylah..


At 11:45 AM, Blogger Laylah Queen of the Night said...

Cubby, I think everybody was soothing their heartaches to 'Fool of Me', even till this day...

Akin, thats from the archives, aint it?! I'm glad u assigned me the assignment and came along too! Nice seeing you, have fun down souf! ;)


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