Herstory 16: Meshell Ndegeocello, The Genre-Blending Bassist That Sparked Neo-Soul
While Meshell Ndegeocello’s name isn’t always mentioned with her contemporaries that we credit today, her impact is rooted deeply in what we listen to today. Having a background as a bassist, singer, and rapper, Ndegeocello used her experiences to launch into supporting acts and projects behind the scenes as well as in her own light. This is her story.
A cover of a song featured on Bill Withers’ 1972 album, Still Bill
The Early Days of Neo-Soul
We often have a conversation about genres and which category artists’ bodies of work can be placed in. When the broader categories don’t suffice, we lean towards a library of sub-genres to fill the gaps where different combinations are made. In this case, that is where Neo-soul makes an appearance. While the 1980s era of music came to a close at the end of the decade, a question of what the music of the end of the century would be characterized as brought a lot of guesswork into the fold. Neo-soul was born out of a need to break away from the increasingly digital and production-heavy sound of R&B of the time. Drawing from some of the contemporary R&B influences and partnering it with further experimentation in grooves and conscious-driven lyrics, became some of its earliest foundations. In 1993, Meshell Ndegeocello released her debut album, Plantation Lullabies, that took these elements into practice. The reception brought acclaim in critical success and three Grammy nominations.
Over the next few years, the genre later broke through to mainstream and commercial success with the contribution of acts like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Les Nubians, and Lauryn Hill finally having proven that it was a style that wasn’t going away quietly. While being credited with sparking the neo-soul movement, Ndegeocello is actually pretty difficult to attach to a single genre as her discography expanded. Elements of soul, rock, jazz, R&B, Hip-Hop, reggae and funk are fused with subject matter that explores race, gender, sexuality, and politics to bring the influences Ndegeocello was raised on to a focal point.
Her Musical Evolution
Born Michelle Lynn Johnson in Germany to her parents Helen Johnson, a health care worker, and Jacques Johnson, a Sergeant and jazz saxophonist. She was originally born in Germany but raised in Washington, D.C during her formative years. Citing Prince’s credits for both writing and playing every instrument on the track “Soft and Wet” as her inspiration to play music, Meshell soon adopted the surname Ndegeocello (adapted from the word in Swahili to mean “free like a bird”). Having gone through a few iterations as a stage name, in its current form, she is known as Meshell Ndegeocello (Pronounced as Mee-shell N-deh-gay-o-chel-o).
A single from her second studio album Peace Beyond Passion .
A Well-Deserved Spot in Music History
Ndegeocello’s contributions speak to the versatility of her work as a singer, rapper, and bassist. Meshelle had been involved with and toured in Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair, an all-female music festival (see: Herstory 6) created in the late 1990s aimed at challenging a lack of gender diversity in festival spaces.
In 1994, after already supporting the Madonna’s “ I’d Rather Be Your Lover” as a bassist, Meshelle served as a last-minute feature (a spot that had originally been intended for Tupac Shakur, but was removed following legal troubles).
Her experiences later led to work on movie soundtracks of the late 1990s/early 2000s including How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Batman & Robin, Love Jones, Love & Basketball, Higher Learning, Down in the Delta, The Hurricane, and Soul Men (Rounding out with most recently developing the theme song to Queen Sugar). Most of the preceding works listed were released to varied commercial box office success but remain as cultural staples today.
A 25+ Year Legacy
Ndegeocello once said “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.” Ndegeocello’s latest body of work , released in 2018, titled Ventriloquism captures classic songs from the 80s and 90s that led her back to the foundation that her own career was inspired from. Having now been working in the industry for over 25 years, Ndegeocello has deservedly owned the space she set out to. Refusing to be tied down to industry standards and making music that is deeply personal and unique to her experience. What more could we ask of her?
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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