Meshell Ndegeocello is pausing between songs, onstage at Joe's Pub in New York City's East Village. The club is at capacity on this June night, with a mix of music industry magnates, journalists and diehard fans packed in to hear Ndegeocello debut material from her new album, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. Then a friend approaches the stage and he hands her a gift to commemorate the occasion. All of the 200 or so people inside Joe's can see that the plastic package contains a new vibrator.
"Does it come with batteries?" Ndegeocello asks, then she turns to the crowd. "This is what I want my record company to hand out as tchotchkes, so everybody gets a free joy. You know, as a cross-marketing campaign."
The 32-year-old Ndegeocello knows a thing or two about crossing boundaries. Whether the topic is sexuality, corporate culture or gender and racial stereotypes, Ndegeocello is an anti-diva who isn't afraid to speak her mind. Born Michelle Johnson in 1969, Ndegeocello spent her early childhood in Germany, before her family relocated to Virginia; she took the name "Ndegeocello," a Swahili word meaning "free as a bird," as a teenager.
Her father, jazz saxophonist Jacques Johnson, introduced Ndegeocello to music at an early age. She went on to cut her teeth playing bass for bands in Washington, D.C.'s late-80s go-go scene. In the midst of her foray into music performance, she gave birth to her son, Askia.
After spending time in New York City (and unsuccessfully auditioning for the band Living Colour), Ndegeocello caught the attention of several record labels until, in 1993, she became the first woman artist signed to Madonna's Maverick label.
Along the way, Ndegeocello would be widely hailed as a precursor to the late-90s neo-soul movement -- a tag that still makes her groan. After all, this is a musician who has collaborated with an astonishing range of artists, including Chaka Khan, Guru, the Rolling Stones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and who's probably best known for her duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" in 1994. (Also in 1994, Bass Guitar magazine named her bass player of the year, making her the first woman to grace its cover.)
"That stuff, that summing me up and packaging me, it's not my goal," Ndegeocello says. "I want to be seen as an artist who is challenging herself to make new and interesting music. I'm not no neo-soul singer. I'm just trying to be a really good musician. If I'm not creating, it's not happening."
For her Maverick debut, 1993's Plantation Lullabies, Ndegeocello drew heavily from jazz and R&B, resulting in an album that stood apart from the white-rock grunge dominance of the time. Her 1996 follow-up, Peace Beyond Passion, was more adventurous musically and lyrically, testing cultural boundaries with such works as the biblical metaphor trio of "Deuteronomy: Niggerman," "Ecclesiastes: Free Your Heart," and "Leviticus: Faggot."
It was on her third album, Bitter, that Ndegeocello took a major stylistic turn, inviting disapproval from Maverick. A powerful account of relationship fallout, the 1999 album was critically acclaimed but didn't fare as well with the public. Featuring string arrangements and introspective lyrics, it sounds more Lilith Fair than BET. Ndegeocello is notorious for bitching about her record label -- Maverick is a subsidiary of the AOL Time Warner conglomerate -- so it's not surprising that she's vocal about the conflict over Bitter.
"The fact that they can tell me that the record I made didn't work for the black demographic is a little difficult for me," she says. "It's limiting people's musical experience. And it's hard to have people tell me that it wouldn't be on pop radio because I was black. Who's setting up these criteria?"
Now Ndegeocello has made an album that seems to be working for Maverick. Cookie -- recently dubbed by Rolling Stone "the album that Prince keeps trying to make" -- entered the Billboard chart at No. 67 the week of its release and is shaping up to be her commercial breakout album, "blackness" notwithstanding. According to Ndegeocello, its success is no surprise, considering the music industry's cookie-cutter marketing schemes.
"I put together the right 'cookie' combination," she says. "I have a famous singer [Tweet], a rapper [Redman], and a famous producer [Missy Elliott], so now what I've done is acceptable for the radio." But with such a sudden shift to the mainstream formula, is Ndegeocello selling out? "This is part of my art," she says. "I can do this, too. I love all genres of music. This is just well-received because now you can put the face with the music and it works for you."
The result is a stunning montage. A funk-based venture, Cookie borrows heavily from soul, jazz and go-go, sealed with a big dose of hip-hop, complete with a parental advisory sticker for its language. But Ndegeocello's lyrics are free of gratuitous shock-talk, and her message runs far deeper than dancing, partying and sex. Cookie exposes the smoke and mirrors of entertainment marketing, set to a bump-and-grind backdrop.
"She likes to have money in her pocketbook, and that's all right," goes the contagious chorus of "Pocketbook," the album's first single. In the video for the song, Ndegeocello is clad in black leather pants, her bass strapped on and firm-bodied beauties dancing around her suggestively. The dancers wear matching outfits: white tied-up T-shirts and shorts with the words "BUY MY" across the chests, and "RECORD" on the backsides.
"I'm hoping I'm an example of the massive construct of corporate art, of corporate politics, of corporate strategy," she explains. "To critique culture, you have to be in it. I'm here to show that it this is a machine, that this is not real. This is the AOL Time Warner machine at work.
"Everybody's like, oh you got an AOL keyword. Damn right I have an AOL keyword. I'm on an AOL Time Warner label! Yeah, I got reviewed. It's an AOL Time Warner magazine!"
Onstage at Joe's Pub, dressed in a floral-print button-down shirt, baggy pinstripe pants and a multi-colored knit cap over her shaved head, she's fearless about calling out her corporate allies. "Everybody's trying to make that dollar," she sings, and then names Warner Brothers, CBS, NBC, her own record company, and the two networks that run the late-night talk shows she was scheduled to appear on that week.
The next night, playing a show at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom, she carries these themes a bit further. In the middle of "God.Fear.Money," she speculates, "If Jesus were alive today, he'd be incarcerated with the rest of my brothers, and the devil would have an apartment in the Upper East Side, and he'd be the guest VJ on Total Request Live."
Near Ndegeocello's home in Oakland, Calif., sits the shopping complex Jack London Square, its title honoring the adventure novelist who spent his early years in the city. Ndegeocello credits the local monuments to London for inspiring her concept of an "alternative Negro's travelogue," which she uses to describe her own work.
"[London] wrote travelogues about his travels through Africa and all these different places," she explains. "One person writes one perspective. When people look at the TV, they see that as the only black experience. I want my music to tell a different story. I'm just trying to save people from their demographic."
Once, in New Orleans, she saw a performance by zydeco accordionist Dwayne Dopsie, whom she describes as the perfect example of the alternative Negro's travelogue. "He grew up listening to zydeco music," she says, "and then he listens to Led Zeppelin, and you can hear that in the music. Taking this traditional instrument and freaking it other ways, he blew my mind."
Explorations of the meaning of racial stereotypes recur throughout her four albums. Cookie opens with a track called "Dead Nigga Blvd." that refers to campaigns that endeavor to rename city streets after late black leaders but leave social structures and living conditions unchanged. The song's spoken-word lyrics criticize the notion of whiteness as an ideal, and of white people as a scapegoat for oppression:
White is not pure and hate is not pride,
And just 'cause civil rights is law doesn't mean that we all abide
So tell me are you free?
While we campaign for every Dead Nigga Blvd.
So young motherf--kers can drive down it in your fancy cars
You try to hold on to some Africa of the past
One must remember
It's other Africans that helped enslave your ass
No longer do I blame white folks for the way that we be
'Cause niggas need to redefine what it means to be free
According to Ndegeocello's lyrics, materialism is the bane of African-American culture -- and American culture in general. On "Priorities 1-6," she sings "All I got is love and time to spend," as an alternative to flaunting possessions. The priorities listed in the lyrics include gaudy jewelry, $150 sneakers, and a mate to pay the bills. During last month's show at the Bowery Ballroom, she turned the song's midsection into a freestyle, naming the top six "requirements" for being a black artist. Shouting out where you're from, appearing to be an underworld outlaw, and owning a "big-ass, gas-guzzling, goddamn truck" all make the cut.
"I'm very wary of defining our blackness," she says. "I'm saying be aware of these standards you're setting up, how you purchase your music, how you buy your clothes, according to ideas that have been sold to you."
It's Ndegeocello's down-to-earth tone that saves her from sounding preachy during these moments. Onstage, she focuses on her audience, feeding on their reactions, assuring them that she's on their level. "This is a relationship," she says, arms outstretched.
She also makes a point of never playing bass and singing at the same time. "I want to focus on what I'm saying," she explains after the show. "When I play the bass, I go into the zone, and if I'm in the zone, I'm in no way in contact with the people. I'm not caring what you're feeling. When you have to deliver the words, it's a relationship."
Beyond cultural criticism, Ndegeocello is known for her romantic poetry and unflinching sexual content. She's long since gone public with her bisexuality -- but she eschews that label, as well. "I am a water-based carbon life form. My life isn't dictated by my genitalia. I'm not gay. I'm not bisexual. I'm in love with Rebecca," she says, referring to her partner, feminist author and activist Rebecca Walker, the daughter of novelist Alice Walker.
"Before that," Ndegeocello continues, "I was in love with a white boy, and before that a different person. I'm not ashamed to speak about it."
And she's not ashamed to work it into her music. Ndegeocello's records are filled with deeply personal accounts of her love affairs. "I'm just hopelessly romantic," she admits. "Love is the only thing that really happens. That's my thang."
In New York, Ndegeocello captivates the 650 souls in Bowery Ballroom with a rendition of the new album's "Barry Farms," a slow-groove spoken-word that starts out with a simple music lesson. "Go-go music is party music," says Ndegeocello's low, sexy voice. But this isn't merely a party track -- it's an epic about youth, love, shame and rejection. "She was about 17," the story goes. "She had the kind of kisses that make you sad." The song's narrator falls in love with the girl, but when word gets around that they're more than friends, the girl stops calling. "She couldn't love me without shame," says Ndegeocello to the beat. "She only wanted me for one thing." The bass line funks deeper. "But you can teach your boy to do that." In the next verse, Ndegeocello sees the girl again, hanging out with her new boyfriend. "She walked over, licked her lips and whispered into my ear. She said, 'You know I miss you.' I said 'Cool,' and I said, 'Tell me baby ... what do you miss?"
The music stops. What Ndegeocello says next makes members of the audience gasp and laugh, or cheer and holler.
"I can be graphic," says Ndegeocello. "I can use all those words, but I'm asking how it feels inside me. When you're making love to me, do you feel my essence? It's not just about body parts."
It's a metaphor for the way that Ndegeocello lives her life. "I'm trying to figure out what I can accumulate that's spiritual, not material," she says. A mother of a boy who is now 13 years old, she's as grounded as any pop culture figure could hope to be, given the precariousness of an artist's livelihood. "The machine? It's hard because I'm like, are they going to drop me because I don't sell a million records?"
That question is still in the back of her head, but making progressive music and maintaining personal happiness stay at the forefront. For now, at least, she's made peace with her career concerns.
"I'm very blessed," she says. "I'm far from rich and I'm far from poor, but when you wake up as an artist, and you're like, 'Why am I depressed because I'm trying to win some popularity contest?' it destroys your sense of self. So one day I woke up and thought, I have everything. I don't have a Bentley, and I don't live in the Hamptons, but I'm supremely joyful, and that's all I'm really trying to sustain. At the end of the day, I'm on my own journey by myself. I truly see this for what it is now."