She Can't Hide Her Feelings

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

After all the times she's been asked how to pronounce her surname, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, one of pop's boldest newcomers, must wish some days that she had made some other choice when she dropped what she calls her old slave name.

However, Ndegeocello--whose name is a Swahili phrase that means "free like a bird" and is pronounced "n-day-gay-O-chello"--seemed the perfect choice for the former Michelle Johnson back in the mid-'80s.

After a troubled childhood that left her with an almost crippling lack of self-esteem, she felt her life was finally taking flight. She had found in music a direction and hope--and you'd think her dreams were fulfilled.

In "Plantation Lullabies," her 1994 debut album on Madonna's Maverick Records, Ndegeocello examined sexual and social politics with a fire that was mirrored by the striking mix of funk, soul, jazz and hip-hop elements in her music.

Rolling Stone magazine named her the year's brightest hope in rock and she received four Grammy nominations, including best R&B; female vocal and R&B; song for the saucy but pointed "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)."

Her second album, this year's "Peace Beyond Passion," is even more acclaimed for its savage commentaries on racism, sexism and religious contradictions. The songwriting, much of it reflecting her black and bisexual perspective, has drawn favorable comparisons to such towering soul figures as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. The Who personally invited the singer-songwriter to open three of its recent "Quadrophenia" concerts at Madison Square Garden.

But don't spend too much time trying to master the pronunciation of Ndegeocello--the name may soon be history. Ndegeocello, who'll be 28 on Thursday, says she wants a break from the pressures and controversy surrounding her, and part of that break would be a new name. She already has a possible one picked out: Bashir, which in Aramaic means "sender of good news." She likes its positive ring.

"This was the last Me'Shell Ndegeocello album," the 5-foot singer says, sitting in a modest restaurant in Little Tokyo, a few blocks from her downtown loft. "I'll still do music, but it'll be in some other form . . . maybe just instrumental music. I've already said as much as I can say in my songs at this point. I need to take a break. . . . I hurt."

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Like so many artists before her, Ndegeocello thought music--and success--would heal all the emotional scars she had accumulated while growing up. It's a naive idea, but no more so than for the rest of the pop world to think that some of our most provocative artists can release their demons just by writing about them.

Rock history is filled with tales of captivating figures who could never sing or write away their torment, such as Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. In recent years, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Sinead O'Connor, among others, have spoken about the disorienting effect of trying to deal with pop adoration while suffering from feelings of low self-esteem instilled in them during childhood.

Benny Medina, the former Warner Bros. Records executive who manages Ndegeocello and actor-rapper Will Smith, says the fiery singer went into a depression after the first record--a time when you'd think she'd be popping champagne corks.

"I think she honestly believed that by making a record it would cure all the things that she writes and feels so passionately about," he says in a separate interview. "I'm talking about all the things that you hear in her music . . . the lack of self-esteem that has been indelibly etched into her psyche."

There is even a sense of desperation in Ndegeocello at times that alarms him.

"I know her feelings on the day she found out about Kurt Cobain's suicide and she was contemplating the same thoughts," he adds.

About the lead singer of Nirvana, who killed himself two years ago, she says: "I know what he meant when he said he found it hard to accept all the attention. There'll be times after a show when people come up and tell you how much they like your music and all--things you wished you had heard all your life. Like Kurt, you wish you could have heard it at 12 when you really needed it and it just wasn't there.

"You start to question whether you are real. Is what you say truthful? They aren't just words in the songs. There are memories attached and I don't want to dig any deeper inside my past."

But isn't bravery one of the tests of an artist?

Ndegeocello pauses and takes a sip of green tea.

"Well," she says finally. "Maybe I'm just not that brave."

*

The white, no-frills building that houses Ndegeocello's third-floor loft sits in an industrial area just south of downtown, and it's not inviting from the outside. There's ominous razor wire on the top of an adjoining chain-link fence, and the grounds are covered as far as you can see with concrete and pavement rather than comforting lawns or shrubbery.

Once inside the building, you can either take the stairs to her loft or ride the kind of freight elevators you often see in warehouse scenes in film noir movies--the ones with gates you have to lift to enter. You half expect to find the Coen brothers roaming the halls, scouting new locations.

Ndegeocello's spacious loft itself, however, has a bright, homey feel. She lives here with her companion, celebrated choreographer Winifred R. Harris, and the singer's son, 7-year-old Askia. The latter is away this afternoon, but Naima, a cat named after a John Coltrane composition, rests on the bed. Bookcases (dominated by works on African American history) and record shelves (a diverse collection ranging from the Beatles and Stevie Wonder to Joshua Redman and Nirvana) rest against two of the walls. Recording equipment is tucked away in a corner nook.

"I just love this place," the singer says, staring out the window at the endless concrete. "It's so quiet and peaceful."

One surprise is the photograph of Jesus in a frame on the table next to her bed.

In "The Way," a scathing song about organized religion from the new album, she lashes out at Christianity, which she feels, among other things, is intolerant of gays.

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Your followers condemn me

Your words used to enslave me. . . .

I too am so ashamed on bended knees

Prayin' to my pretty white Jesus.

*

When she is asked about the picture, Ndegeocello's eyes brighten.

"Don't you just love it," she says in response. "My grandmother had this picture . . . this exact [image]. I was over on Olvera Street one day and saw it and had to buy it."

But what about the song?

"I don't have a problem with the prophet Jesus, who from the stories is an amazing person. I admire him immensely."

Her problem with Christianity is the administration of it. In search of spiritual answers, she has turned to Islam even though it, too, does not accept gays, she says.

"Sometimes, I feel like I am under attack from every direction," she says later, walking to a neighborhood restaurant in the midafternoon sun.

"People see me as a heretic," she says. "Homophobia is rampant in the black community, so I am a traitor to my race, and gay people don't like me because I'm not gay enough."

There's something about this harsh industrial area that serves as a refuge from the outside world.

"Someone asked me why I live here rather than Malibu or somewhere. Well, I could sell a million records and I'd still be just another Negro on the street. I mean, the fact that I'm so asexual looking. When I walk down on the street, a white woman will clutch her purse. That is the reality I live in."

*

The restaurant is closed when Ndegeocello arrives, but a woman behind the counter who is getting things ready for the dinner rush waves her in anyway.

Eating noodles with chopsticks as she sits in a booth, she speaks with sometimes unsettling candor about the bitter experiences that led in the new album to such stark songs as "Leviticus: Faggot" and "Makes Me Wanna Holler."

In the former, she tells about parents who are so opposed to their son's gayness that they in effect push him to his death. In the latter, she shares her anger toward her own parents, especially her father.

Ndegeocello was born in Berlin on Aug. 29, 1968. Her father played tenor sax in the U.S. Army band and he was transferred to the Washington area when she was around 3. She speaks enthusiastically of how he played at the inaugurations for two presidents and later did society gigs, including Ted Koppel's wedding. She got her love of jazz from him.

But she pauses when she begins to talk about her other memories of her father, notably his relationship with her mother, a health care worker with the elderly. "It was horrible watching the way my father treated my mother and not feeling I could help her," she says, setting down the chopsticks and growing tense. "I've seen my father cheat on my mother several times in front of my face, and I wasn't strong enough to tell my mother that. Even though I knew she knew, I felt like I betrayed her by not telling her."

She wasn't any more comfortable at school, where she felt unattractive (she cut off her hair at 16) and isolated because of her sexual orientation.

Through her brother, Ndegeocello began learning about funk and other pop forms. By 16, she was starting to write songs and play the bass. She even began performing with groups, and it gave her some confidence.

After high school and a brief time studying music history at Howard University, she moved to New York and began working toward a career in music. She was a mother herself by now, though she refuses to talk about the father.

The good news, career-wise, was that some executives out in Hollywood heard a tape of her songs in 1992 and flew her out for a private showcase. The worst, she prayed, was behind her.

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Freddy DeMann, co-CEO of Maverick Records and Madonna's manager, was at the showcase and signed her.

"She was incredible, mesmerizing," he says. Manager Medina, who then worked for Warner Bros. Records, was also on hand and called her performance "amazing, just breathtaking."

Madonna, who wasn't at the showcase but is also an enthusiastic supporter, describes her as "a unique artist . . . an extraordinary songwriter and musician."

But all was not smooth in the studio. Ndegeocello felt so much self-imposed pressure that she went AWOL at one point for months in 1993 during the final stages of the recording process. She ended up addicted to crack.

"Everything happened so fast," she says. "I was playing a club and within a week or two weeks, I was signed. Then, I was in a studio, working 18 hours a day. I thought I could handle it, but I couldn't."

She said it was her love for her son, in large part, that gave her the strength to battle the addiction and return to her career. She's been clean ever since, she says.

None of the key professionals around her think she'll eventually withdraw from music.

"I don't believe this is the last record," says David Gamson, who produced "Peace Beyond Passion" and part of the debut album. "I've heard that before and I know she continues to write. Most artists I know are delicate. The difference is, she is open about it. A lot of people are less open about their vulnerability and that's what makes her music so compelling."

Medina says Ndegeocello believes she's going to quit when she says it, but that she has always been drawn back to the music. "To me, the experiences she is putting into her records and in her conversation are her therapy . . . her way of working through these things."

DeMann believes the success of the new album will encourage her to go back into the studio and make more records. The debut album sold about 250,000 copies, and he expects the new one will eventually sell at least twice that many, despite strong radio resistance to the first single, "Leviticus: Faggot," over the title epithet. The new single, a remake of Bill Withers' "Who Is He and What Is He to You," should find much greater radio acceptance.

*

It's a week after the interview in the Little Tokyo restaurant and Ndegeocello has had time to think about her declaration that there'll be no more solo albums. Artists often say they've had enough, but history has shown most of them change their mind.

Not her, so far.

"That's me. . . . that's what I feel," Ndegeocello says when the quote about this being her last solo album is read back to her. "I've thought about it more and that's still what I really feel. This is going to be the last one."

The plan is to form a group, where she can share songwriting and singing chores, she says by phone from a stop on the H.O.R.D.E. rock tour. She's even got a group name: Polythene Pam, named after the Beatles song that opens with the line, "Polythene Pam, she's so good looking, but she looks like a man."

Ndegeocello chuckles at the name but swears she's serious.

"I want some sort of collective experience . . . a more comfortable setting so that all the pressure isn't on me to be the one who has to do interviews and speak well about the music," she says.

She pauses, searching for another way to express her desire to withdraw from the pressures and controversy surrounding her.

"When you stand up onstage and wave your hands around, what you are really saying is, 'Look at me and love me,' " she offers finally. "I'm not denying that. But I'm at a point where I have to get this from some other way. I'm tired of being criticized and tired of having all this fun onstage and people cheering, but afterward still being the empty person you were before.

"I have to find another way because I've seen what can happen to you if you think you are invincible in this business. I want to find a more comfortable way to express myself through music. If the band won't work, then I'll just play on other people's records or make instrumental music. I know one thing: I'm not willing to let it destroy me."

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