Despite having earned a tough rep for being an "angry, black, gay person," Meshell Ndegeocello is timid and reserved when she answers the phone. She later reveals that she gets nervous during interviews. It's clear that the 42-year-old, who was born in Berlin and raised in Washington D.C., is nothing like the image she's become known for.
Even with 10 Grammy nominations and eight albums, her latest Devil's Halo, under her belt, Ndegeocello, which means 'free like a bird' in Swahili, continues to push for more. Yet the one thing she still hasn't received is understanding. Even after being in the public eye for close to 20 years, people still ask: 'Who is Meshell Ndegeocello?' Not to mention: 'How do you pronounce her name?' (In case you're wondering, it's Mee-shell N-deh-gay-o-chel-o.)
What can't be denied is the passion that comes through in her lyrics. Take for example a tune called "Leviticus: Faggot,' off her second album, which focuses on how organized religion treats minorities. It's that strength and her refusal to follow other singers that landed her in the 1996 Out 100.
Today, she's the mother of two and has been in a relationship with her partner, Alison, for five years. Although much has changed in her life since her debut album, Plantation Lullabies in 1993, the one thing that remains constant is her brass: No matter what, Ndegeocello speaks her mind.
Out: On your website it says you have given up on trying to explain yourself.
Meshell Ndegeocello: Yeah, I had to.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
Do you have any?
Are you reversing the roles here?
No, I just don't have any idea. I think early on when the music business was a little different, and they had to create some sort of persona to sell, I think I got sold as this angry, black, gay person. I think that's a huge misconception. Other than that, I don't really think about it. That's why I had to ask you.
You once told NPR: "Either you do it for the music, or you want to be a star."
I think there's some gray area in between there, but go ahead.
Well, they are two different things. When you look back on the career that you've had, are you satisfied?
Oh, definitely. It's been fun. It's what has helped me get to where I am now. I can pretty much play any kind of music I want to. I can stay creative. I don't have to be locked down to a persona or a generalization for a marketing team. It's scary sometimes just because you don't know what the next thing is going to be, but creatively it's great. You can just stay ' I hate to say true. I don't really believe in the word true. I can stay honest with my idea.
What is the difference between true and honest?
Truth is subjective. I think honest, if a person is saying it, they are trying to give an adjective to their intentions.
How is the Meshell of today different from the Meshell of 1993, when your debut album was released?
I've lived a little longer, so I've had varied experiences. I have more things to use when making choices. Not to generalize, but I think when you're in your early twenties, you have a bravado or a sense of 'I'm going to take the bull by the balls' attitude.
Not by the horns?
By the balls! I don't really have that now. I really don't need to have that experience anymore. I'm more about the inner sanctum of who I'm trying to be and not trying to look into the future. Just have a now kind of experience.
Do you have any idea who you are trying to be?
[Laughing] Alison just had a baby. He's 11 months now. So I just try to be a good parent. My eldest son just graduated from college, so I'm trying to be someone who is there for the people I have responsibility for.
Your son is going to be 11 months? His birth was kept out of the media. Was that intentional?
Yeah, I try, but it's OK with this. I think it's kind of important to get it out into society about people who are gay or different'they can have a family.
What kind of mother are you?
That's hard. If I looked at myself, I might run away. I try not to delve too deeply into my psyche. I think I'm a quiet, low-key kind of parent. I think I suck at discipline, but I'm really good at the love. I just try to have fun and keep the environment mellow.
Your eldest son, Solomon, is 21. Does he want a career in show business?
No, he just graduated with a degree in like computer game design. He's a dork [laughing]. He lives in the Bay Area, and he likes to get out, party, and play with computer games.
Who or what is currently inspiring you?
I really love this group Men. I like to take myself back to the past. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of Ike and Tina Turner. I'm just all over the boards. I like watching strange movies. I liked An Education. Seems kind of boring, but I liked it. It really made me wonder about people's sincerity and what is truth.
Growing up in Washington, D.C. what were you like?
Chatty and curious is what I hear most. Either I was really, really quiet or I'd talk your ear off.
Was it difficult coming out as bisexual?
I'm lucky. I went to an arts high school. So, I was able to explore and be myself no matter what that path was at the time. It was hard for my parents, who are really sort of religious. I'm so excited for people now when you live in a progressive state that it's a little bit easier. After hearing about this Rutgers incident, I'm not mad at people. What I'd like to say to young people now is that there is nothing to be ashamed of. There's nothing you can do or be ashamed of to make someone want to take your life or for you to take yours. The world is built on diversity. It's what makes this planet interesting.
Does "bisexual" still describe you?
I've loved many different kinds of people. Maybe different races, maybe different genders. That may sound completely hippie and dippy and bullshit, but I have larger worries and concerns.
You once said you didn't want to be defined as a gay artist. Why?
It limits me artistically. I'm not ashamed of it at all. There's a lot more to me. I'm trying to be patient for a society where we're not so oversexed. I would be embarrassed to ask, 'Who are you fucking now?' I don't even know you, but we live in a society that we feel that kind of information is OK. I'm hoping to be a catalyst for change that way.
In the chorus of your song 'Die Young' you sing: 'I always pick the wrong way / It feels right, the way to go.' What does that mean?
Well, again, that's something that's subjective. I'm always told that I pick the wrong way. That's how it's been labeled. But to me or some other people's perspective, it can be the right way. There is no absolute. Life is short. I'm absolutely against murder. The other things, they are too gray an area. That's really what this album, Devil's Halo, is about for me. The devil started out as an angel, and he had jealousy and envy. I'm really clear that no one so far I have met on this planet knows everything.
You don't shy away from politics. You have been outspoken against the war we fought in Iraq. How do you feel this administration is handling LGBT issues?
[Laughing] It's funny because I think that's the least of [Obama's] worries. I don't know. I wish I had better words for this. The system is so broken I can't invest that much thought into it. I cannot imagine being him at all. I wish he would've ended the war sooner. That's my only true issue with him and that he continued the Patriot Act. Those things are just hard for me to understand. At the same time, I'm so grateful for him because he's showing that in this country there is still this element that's quasi-racist and incredibly sexist and completely homophobic. He's giving people the chance to see just how conservative America is.
Another song of yours with powerful lyrics is 'Fellowship.' You sing: "Would you walk a righteous path without the promise of heaven, paradise streets paved in gold?" Do you feel religion causes a lot of the problems today?
Oh, yeah. I struggle with religion. I was raised with it. It's really a heavy burden. Then I converted to Islam. I think I've looked into them all. As I grow older, to me they are just faddish. I think religion is really mind control. It can bring about some positivity, but I really believe it is a dangerous force. Religion is definitely soothing to you when you have nothing else. Intellect should be grounding.
If you could do anything -- we're talking wildest dreams here -- what would you do?
I wish someone would give me a five-star hotel room for a month in Sweden, and I could just hang out and meet people. I just want to experience something different. It's a great feeling when you no longer think that New York is the center of the world.
Where do you live today?
Hudson, N.Y. Upstate.
Is it true you were mentored by Prince?
Ugh, no. I'm just a huge fan of his. I've met him a couple of times. He's a jerk.
Did you just say 'He's a jerk'?
Yeah, I've met him a couple of times, and it's never gone well, but I'm totally inspired by him. He inspired me to play music and want to make records. I remember hearing his first recording, and from that moment on I knew that's what I wanted to do.
What song is the most "you" from your catalog?
Probably 'Devil's Halo.'
You have been nominated for 10 Grammys. Do you just want to win the damn thing?
Not really. The last thing I need is another tchotchke. So I'm cool.
What are you the most proud of?
It changes all the time. I guess I'm proud of the music I've made. Also my sons, Atticus and Solomon.
To learn more about Ndegeocello, visit visit her official website.