Bassist and Songwriter
2014 USA Fellow
This award was generously supported by Peter D. and Julie Fisher Cummings.
Canonized, marginalized or just scrutinized, Meshell Ndegeocello has given up trying to explain herself. After 20 years in an industry that has called her everything from avant garde to a dying breed, what unquestionably remains is the fearsome bassist, prolific songwriter, and the creativity and curiosity of an authentic musical force. With that, she has earned critical acclaim, the unfailing respect of fellow players, songwriters and composers, and the dedication of her diverse, unclassifiable fans.“Pour Une Ame Souvraine” (For a Sovereign Soul), A Dedication to Nina Simone, is Meshell’s tenth record, her second for Naïve. Produced by Meshell and guitar player Chris Bruce, this album is a labor of love, a reflection of Meshell’s awe, affection, and gratitude for the pioneering work of a woman who refused to be owned by genre, industry, or expectation. Meshell and Chris turned well and lesser known songs into new experiences, inviting collaborations by Cody ChesnuTT, Valerie June, Sinead O’Connor, Lizz Wright, and Toshi Reagon, and the results are intoxicating. While Nina Simone is no longer here to pass the torch, this album, not just a tribute but a transformation, clearly nominates Meshell as her heir apparent.About her choice to record the music made famous by Nina Simone, Meshell says, “Nina Simone was unusual, unruly, unparalleled. She has an unmistakable voice and an unavoidable spirit – she’s terse and angry and expressive of her despair and her joy and her sexuality. She is not an industry player, she was obviously difficult and volatile. She wanted success, was pressured to make hits, but her own sound was still irrepressible. She had things to say, she protested. She was a loud, proud black, female voice during a time when black female voices were not encouraged to make themselves heard.” Meshell Ndegeocello was born Michelle Johnson in Berlin, Germany and raised in Washington DC. By the early 90’s, she had landed in New York armed with a demo recorded in her bedroom, joined the Black Rock Coalition, and was soon signed to Maverick. Each of her albums have offered lyrical ruminations on race, love, sex, betrayal, God, and power, and she has simultaneously embraced and challenged listeners with her refusal to be pigeon-holed musically or personally. Meshell has been both celebrated and berated for her politically charged lyrics, sexual boundary crossing, and for choosing the road less traveled – a winding adventure through her own musical ambitions rather than the industry formulas. Everything that once counted against her has emerged in her favor, earning her unusual artistic freedom, pride in her open identity, and longevity due to the integrity and artistic ambition of her recordings.A bass player above all else, Meshell brings her signature warmth and groove to everything she does and has appeared alongside the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Alanis Morrisette, James Blood Ulmer, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Tony Allen, John Medeski, Billy Preston, and Chaka Khan. As for her own bass-playing influences, she credits Sting, Jaco Pastorius, Family Man Barrett, and Stevie Wonder. Meshell was the first woman to be featured on the cover of Bass Player magazine and remains one of few women who write the music and lead the band.
Portrait photo by Mark Seliger.