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COVER STORY

She Can't Hide Her Feelings

Me'Shell Ndegeocello makes music so passionate, so personal, she can hardly live with herself. In fact, the acclaimed pop newcomer is already contemplating a new outlet--and a new name.

August 25, 1996|Robert Hilburn | 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."

*

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.

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