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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

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.

*

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.

*

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

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