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Seething Is Believing in Equality : Pop music: Me'Shell NdegeOcello, who plays the Coach House on Sunday, explores white racism with unvarnished contempt.

August 27, 1994|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Me'Shell NdegeOcello doesn't mince her words, whether they are poetically splashed across a song from her confrontational debut album, "Plantation Lullabies," or spoken during the course of a refreshingly direct and honest conversation.

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NdegeOcello means freedom in Swahili, and, appropriately enough, freedom is what she's all about--be it freedom of thought, freedom of speech or freedom to compose music that at times is almost astonishing in its revolutionary vision and wild eclecticism. A complex, talented and highly intelligent person, NdegeOcello released "Plantation Lullabies" in 1993. It is one of the most intriguing albums released that year.

The 25-year-old singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, who appears Sunday at the Coach House, creates music that absolutely seethes with lyrical passion and anger, pride and resentment, romanticism and a self-assured sexuality. Playing all the rhythm instruments herself, NdegeOcello is abetted on "Lullabies" by such heavy company as saxophonist Joshua Redman and guitarist Wah Wah Watson. The overall vibe is a sophisticated brand of hip-hop, with loving nods to funk, soul and jazz, but the voice and vision are hers alone.

Still, NdegeOcello (pronounced In-DAY-gay-o-CELLO) is quick to acknowledge her many mentors, both in the nods she accords them in her lyrics and during a recent phone interview from the road.

"I think I'm a mutant hybrid of several people," she said. "I'm a big fan of Prince, Miles Davis. I love Tribe Called Quest, Sly Stone, Parliament. I think I've just moshed them all together somehow in my brain."

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Another artist she recalls in her narrative approach and social perception is radical jazz poet Gil Scott Heron.

"A lot of people have brought that up before, and it's funny, because I never really listened to him before," she said. "But I find it very flattering. I've been listening to him a lot lately, his older stuff. It's funny; maybe I somehow conjured up his spirit."

NdegeOcello was born in Berlin and grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father and brother are musicians, and she was exposed to a variety of music growing up. But exposure to more sinister elements served to perhaps shape what she would become to an even larger degree. The scars left by racism have affected her deeply, both in her personal life and, as a result, in her art.

"My father was in the military, one of the few blacks," she said. "He's from the South, and so is my mother, who is mixed. She grew up on the same plantation as her forefathers. I'm very much aware of racism. All my life, I'd be called a nigger--by kids, adults, trying to get a job. White boys would say I'd better be different if they were going to sleep with me, like I have to be exotic for them. You know, (magazines) will show bare-breasted women in an African tribal scene, but you'll never see white women betrayed in that fashion.

"In high school, I began reading a lot of books by black authors like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, so I became very aware of what was going on," she continued. "And then I took a literature class, and all they would talk about was William Shakespeare, who I think is brilliant. But so much was left out. I became so angry, I wanted to slit the throat of every white person I saw. Cheated, I felt cheated . Now, it's not so much anger I feel, it's a customary sadness I live with. I look, and I don't see our future. I don't see my place, and I'm struggling to find it."

NdegeOcello's music would seem to serve as therapy. She explores themes of black pride with obvious relish and of white racism with unvarnished contempt. Throughout, her phrasing and singing is executed in a deep, warm, assuring voice that oozes intellect and self-confidence.

She also delves unapologetically into her own sexuality and into gender relations, with some of her sentiments raising the ire of feminists.

"I'm not a feminist, not at all," NdegeOcello said. "Feminism is a white concept for white, middle-class women who want to have the same opportunities as their white, male counterparts. We can fight our men, or we can fight the system. I'm not going to fight my brothers; I'm going to try to stand beside them. I try to support my brothers on many terms; I cannot talk bad about them--I refuse, I refuse to. I just hope they turn around and give me the same respect, that's all.

"A lot of women take issue with what I have to say," she added. "To me, an issue is all the women--black and white--who are on welfare. To me, an issue is incorporating the men, who are in control of the patriarchy, into how we feel. If we separate them, they'll never know."

Perhaps because of the controversial nature of her work, radio has been slow to add "Plantation Lullabies" to its playlists, and NdegeOcello said she had been censured by executives at Maverick Records for her outspokenness--which, inevitably, results in further vitriol.

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