Image: Charlie Gross

Meshell Ndegeocello is as much a scholar as she is a creator of popular music. For an hour on Thursday, we spoke over the phone about everything from the spiritual underpinnings of the raging debates over cultural appropriation to finding compassion for LGBTQ musicians who don’t necessarily feel comfortable living as openly as they could, idealistically speaking.

We talked a lot about covers—her album featuring 11 versions of beloved R&B songs from the ’80s and ’90s, Ventriloquism, is out today. Making other people’s material her own has helped define her career, now in its 25th year—her biggest hit was a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” with John Mellencamp, she’s done memorable revamps of tracks by Bill Withers and Ready for the World, and in 2012 she released an entire album of Nina Simone covers.

We talked a lot about the music industry—now on the indie label naive, Ndegeocello’s first five albums were released on Madonna and Guy Oseary’s Warner Bros. imprint, Maverick. Her debut, 1993's Plantation Lullabies was a landmark neo-soul album whose subject matter (black pride, white supremacy, black hair, opiate use, unethical non-monogamy) remains relevant. A prodigious bass player with a buzz cut and determination for self-expression, Ndegeocello slipped through the window more adventurous major labels left cracked, back when “alternative” was a buzzword. In our interview, she tells me she doubts she’d get signed to a major today if she were 25 and just coming out.

We talked a lot about life and death, for that matter. And of course, we talked about the recent comment she made to Billboard in which she described Bruno Mars’s “Finesse” as “karaoke.” All that and more is in transcript below, which, as wide-ranging as it is, has been edited for length and clarity.


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JEZEBEL: What precipitated the idea for an album of all covers?

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: I had to hand in something to the label. It came at a really strange time. My father passed away, my mother was beginning the stages of dementia, and I’d just been fired from some TV show. I found myself going back and forth to my childhood home, and there’s a radio station I can only get in my mother’s car, and it only plays oldies, songs from my youth. It started to be a tiny time machine as I was going through emotional things with my family; it also was the soundtrack. It just seemed like a good idea and something I could focus on instead of my own music.

I wonder what your relationship to genre is at this point, because some things on this record re-contextualize R&B classics into a decided genre, the way you give Force M.D.s’ “Tender Love” a country twang, whereas your cover of Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” is completely unclassifiable in my mind.

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I can explain “Tender Love.” When I get to LA, the drummer and I, we get in the car, and we either listen to Harvest by Neil Young or Steely Dan. It’s just our, We’re going to sit in traffic from LAX for a minute to get to Eagle Rock, so this is the music that soothes that ride. I think a lot of Neil Young is in “Tender Love” because that was the song that was soothing me for that period. I love Neil Young. I never want to meet him because I hold him on such a high pedestal.

Is there a sense, too, of willfully blurring genre? Taking decided R&B and transforming it into something amorphous?

The genre thing is hard. I get it, I can intellectualize it with you, but I’m not consciously thinking that. I’m almost 50, so I’ve heard R&B four times over. I’ve heard that and that’s in me, but I also love the Cure. I love Prince, and I think that comes out. Within our atomic structure, we’re all these different things. I don’t think of it as a business venture: “I’m going to be successful in this genre so let me stick with that.” I’m trying to grow as a musician to be culturally fluid. I hate that when I show up, people just expect me to do one thing. That never interested me that much.

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Much like Prince.

Yeah, he is definitely the reason why I play music.

Isn’t it insane that one of the saddest songs in his catalog, which you cover on this album, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” seems to speak to his death in retrospect? He died on April 21. There are so many coincidences within his music that are so profound that you get a sense of greater spiritual depth in his work looking at it through the lens of his death. 

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Yep. Coincidences, patterns, pattern recognition. They are patterns. About that song, a lot of people know how to write a love song. Or you can write a dance song. Or a story kind of song. When I listen to that song, he gave us a song to mourn to. That’s a gift. I think it resonated for several people in my mind. It’s something that allowed me to mourn.

That was a complicated brother. I think Prince was very smart not to let you know too much about his personal life. He maintained a mystique. Do we somehow bring our deaths to fruition in our minds? That’s a deeper conversation. But why I connected to him was the struggle between sex, God, and gender. All those things. I’d never heard an artist that spoke to me that way. I just think it’s sad that he died in pain.

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Did you know him?

I met him a couple of times. Me and him didn’t really jell. He’s one of the reasons I’m like, “Don’t ever meet your heroes.”

Can you put your finger on what didn’t jell?

I don’t know. I can’t say. I’m one of those people who has respect for the dead. But I loved him and I learned a lot from those interactions. He was the guiding light that gave me the confidence that, yes, I can do this.

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When your source material for this album came out, you were in your mid-teens to mid-20s. There’s something about that period in one’s life that makes the music you hear particularly resonantNew York magazine did a piece connecting this to the development of our prefrontal cortex. That makes your album of other people’s songs particularly personal.

That’s when I would just sit in my house and learn Prince songs, or put records on and learn the bass lines. It’s how I taught myself to play. School wasn’t a very pleasant experience. I would spend a lot of time not going. I would practice and listen to records—I was just obsessed with music. It’s what got me through my childhood.

You’ve covered other people’s work prolifically in your career. I wonder if you have any philosophy as to what makes a good cover?

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I think maybe I’m more excited about arranging and rearranging things. I just try to pick songs that I have a strong affinity to. I like when covers get you not thinking about the [original] in the sense of, “God, I wish I was listening to the original.” If it can get you to: “Well that was an interesting take on that.” That’s all I’m trying to achieve.

I don’t like when covers flatten the original.

Flatten.

Yeah, like Frente!’s cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” took a sad song that New Order complicated with a jubilant accompaniment and just focused on the sadness. That seemed really reductive to me.

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But that’s okay. It goes back to you just didn’t feel that one. Because of your love and reverence for the original, that arrangement did not allow you to enjoy the moment of now.

It was offensive to me when Sam Smith covered “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston and changed the gender-specific pronouns to “you,” even though he was already out at that point. He obscured his sexuality to be more listener friendly.

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Of course he did, it’s Sam Smith! You want blood from a turnip. When I see Sam Smith I want to hold him and love him. He is not a radical. He is not my gay radical.

But doesn’t it frustrate you to see someone who isn’t engaging with their sexuality for the sake of public consumption?

Are you gay?

Yes!

It’s hard. I don’t know, not everybody’s up to the task. People are cruel.

I agree, but at a certain point isn’t tiptoeing around their cruelty living selfishly?

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No…or you’re protecting the part of yourself that would be crushed. Or your career. You don’t know! We just don’t know what he’s going through. We don’t know how strong the beliefs of others influence him. And that’s hard.

That’s what I don’t like about this. This is what I’ve been hating about this whole thing for a while. When you want to make music, you’re dying to make music. And there are all these other things you have to do because your life becomes public. And some of it, no one has prepared you for. No one’s prepared you academically about the history of the gay struggle, or no one’s prepared you emotionally. You might not have that fight that the platform affords you.

It’s especially compassionate hearing this come from someone who was out in the early ’90s, when there was no certainty at all in terms of how that would go.

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But look at me. I don’t think I could play a straight person. Even though I’m very fluid, I’m a fluid person. But I’m more like in the James Baldwin sense of, all this is so trivial. Gender, sexuality…I’m trying to get to the place where we can all have some empathy for one another. That’s what scares me. I’m living in a time where there’s no nuanced debate. I think we are all struggling to find acceptance in a world that is really quick to judge you. It can have severe consequences on your financial life and otherwise.

Has that been the case for you?

Yeah, I’m sure. There are days when I’m like, “This could be a little easier.” And then there are days where I’m like, “Nope. I’m having a very sincere, honest life and I think if I died today I’d be okay.” Just to simplify that. I also learned early. I mean, my own mother didn’t like me, so I don’t need a cheerleader. I just have a certain kind of personality that has allowed me to stay focused on the thing I love the most, and that is trying to be creative and making music. I’m very clear about what I’m doing. I’m hoping people buy the record so proceeds can go the ACLU. My concerns are larger. Yeah, R&B is in a hard place right now, but one day we’re not going to have water. I have perspective. These gender discussions have to get deeper. I’m curious about what’s going on now with people and how we’re treating each other.

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When you cover Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity,” and you sing, “You need a man with sensitivity/A man like me,” does that speak to what you’re talking about here?

Oh yeah. Definitely. I feel that. I mean, I’m called “sir” all the time, but if you know me, I’m a fragile flower. I forget that I’m a tatted up, braided, black person. I look like a dude. And sometimes I’m treated as such. I’m very aware of those realities. Also I love that song. Men need to have a conversation. What does it mean to be a man? I think we’re on a precipice right now. I just want to ask some other questions. What is it to be a compassionate human being in society and not be so influenced by our eyes? To really take time before we judge a person?

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Did you ever read bell hooks’s “Selling Hot Pussy,” in which she rips Tina Turner a new asshole?

No! You can’t rip Tina Turner a new asshole! Why would you do that?

It’s part of a larger argument that so many black women pop stars were reifying notions of black female sexuality with 18th Century origins that were used to justify racism, while being racist in their own right. That said, I think “Private Dancer,” which hooks does not factor into her critique of Turner’s image and “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” pokes holes in the thesis. It’s about the reality, the human element behind the sexual facade. The bleakness of objectification. I never realized just how dark that song was until you sang it.

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Isn’t it dark? I know. Mark Knopfler wrote it. He also wrote [Dire Straits’] “Money for Nothing,” which is another dark-ass song. I feel sad I’m not versed in that essay. But I don’t know, man, the singing and the dancing, that’s just part of R&B. Words are diving boards. You have to be very careful about what you say. I’m learning that daily.

Are you talking about the Bruno Mars controversy?

Oh my god. That writer? I feel like he took a lot of what I said out of context. It was not nuanced. It’s only two songs [I feel that way about]. I would love to ask Bruno Mars, “Were those songs sent to you by writers for the label and they were like, ‘These are hits,’ and you did them? Or did you truly want to sing that?”

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“Finesse” and what else?

“24K Magic.” Ventriloquism is an act of stagecraft in which a person changes his or her voice so that it appears the voice is coming from somewhere else. I loosely use that because I’m trying to channel other things while doing other people’s songs. Like they’re putting their words in my mouth. Karaoke is a device that plays instrumental accompaniment for a selection of songs with which the user sings along. I’m just saying that’s how it feels when I watch the video that looks like In Living Color. I thought this one wasn’t well thought out, but it is a hit so it connects in some way. But to me, it feels like a performance, like karaoke.

My pro-“Finesse” argument is simply that it’s been decades since an R&B song with a swing beat has been a hit. The new jack swing revival never materialized, this is the first one that’s been any kind of sizable hit. So it speaks to me to hear new jack swing on the radio makes me selfishly excited, even though I think your point about the artist’s relationship with his material is valid.

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I love him! That’s what makes me mad. I’m a sucker for the Bruno Mars ballads.

That said, you kicked off a pretty widespread debate about Bruno Mars and authenticity.

Oh, I don’t think that guy’s appropriating. I think people use the word incorrectly.

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What would be an example of an appropriator in pop, then? Justin Timberlake?

Mmm, I don’t know! Am I appropriating when I make “Tender Love” sound like Neil Young? It gets confusing to me. To me, appropriation is the act of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. Don’t nobody own any of these chords! Don’t nobody own any of these beats! Who made the swing that ended up in new jack swing? It just goes on and on. I consider that a spiritual conversation. I don’t own any of this. I feel very blessed to be able to participate in music and all the things that my ancestors have given me. My dad was a musician. I’m sure that’s why I could do it as well as I can. And his father before that.

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To me the issue is, Justin Timberlake, if you were walking down the street and you saw a brother with his hands up and a police officer, would you help that black man? You can sing all the R&B music you want to, but what is your position in terms of what’s going on in society to black people. Not the culture, how do you feel about black people?

Justin Timberlake didn’t help the black woman whose breast he exposed with his own hands on a national stage.

For his career. But see that’s another conversation. Bruno Mars? I feel that’s a scrappy dude. He’s a person of color. I don’t care, that man walk in a room, he black. Sorry! That’s the other issue.

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I think what complicates all this is capitalism and selfishness being written into society.

That’s why I like Bruno’s ballads. I don’t want to hear you singing about millions because right now it’s really hard for people. What are we putting out into the world? I don’t want everything to be Pete Seeger, but have that conversation.

You’ve been a working musician, on major and independent labels, for about 25 years. How has the music industry treated you? Do you live comfortably?

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I’m far from rich and I’m far from poor. I finally have no debt. I’ve had managers and accountants do horrible things. I was on a label that thought it was okay to take my publishing. You learn these things, they’re just lessons. And now I’m financially stable, I have a healthy relationship, and lovely children.

Sometimes I teach. I went to Berklee and told them, “If you want to be a star and super famous, I think there’s a path to that. But just because you’re on that path doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed success. But there are things you have to do.” Do I regret some of the pictures where I’m half-naked? I look back on that like, why does every woman R&B singer have to be half-naked? Men as well? Those things I’ve learned and you have to decide if you want to do it. If there’s a camera in the room and you’re naked, ain’t nobody else to blame but you. You can’t later on be like, “Oops.” Hopefully, you learn over time how you present yourself and what you can live with.

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How do you feel about Madonna today?

I would like to talk to her. I would like to ask her about how she feels about all this. I would ask her, “How are you feeling about your career?”

Interpersonally, I mean?

We had a very simple, quick relationship. I love her. There are five people I have to thank for being able to do this, for having a career, and she’s one of them. She took a chance. I had a chance to sign with her or Prince and I signed with her. That first record is a true expression of everything I wanted to do. How many people can say that?

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Your first single is about black hair.

Yeah, and then, sadly, my second one is about taking someone’s boyfriend. I had to laugh. I was with one of these children I love like my own child. She was asking me, “What do you think of the SZA record?” I was like, “Oh my god, the lyrics, they’re so harsh!” And then I had to catch myself and laugh, like, “I’m such a hypocrite!”

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You mentioned that you’re donating some of the proceeds of Ventriloquism to the ACLU. Why?

’Cause it’s the right thing to do. Given all the need for work on behalf of gender, race, my community—the LGBTQAI community—for justice for all, I think the ACLU addresses all of them. It’s really hard. I want to give money to everybody. I’m in LA, and the homeless thing is off the chain. How do you make that different? Saturday, I’m going on tour and that’s how I make money. I travel and I see so much shit, and these conversations about music, they disintegrate in my mind. I’m aware there’s so much suffering. All this just seems like a waste of time. Stephen Hawking just died and he said we’re just custodians of these atoms for a short time. And then they go off to be other things, to rejoin the universe. That’s comforting to me. I was raised with the insanity and hellfire of religion and it’s taken some time to get those ideas out of my mind.

Do you think things are getting better?

It’s different now, the intersectionality. But I can’t say that right now. I can’t say it’s getting better just at this moment. I feel that this president has opened a floodgate. But then I’m just like, “Am I overreacting?” Hate crimes have risen racially and against gay, lesbian, transgender people. I can’t say I do [think things have gotten better], but I just have hope that people will really understand that this is a finite experience. It’s already difficult. Let’s try to make it as good as we can. You know?