So what if the Bible tells me so
Me'Shell Ndegeocello doesn't like morally superior people. But then she's a Go-Go girl from DC.
Friday 28 June 1996
Three years on, Ndegeocello is now taking on the Bible. "Here's a book that enslaved so many black people, yet so many black people are devout Christians," she muses, and it's safe to say that her music isn't likely to be playlisted by gospel stations. Probably the most controversial track is the first US single, "Leviticus: Faggot", which tells of a young gay man who is beaten to death in the street despite his mother's prayers to save him from his sins.
"My mother would often tell me that she didn't understand me, but she'd pray for me," she explains. "And I always felt she'd forsaken me totally." Labels like faggot and nigger are used to dehumanise, she argues, and by labelling some as morally inferior, right-wing Christians are saying that their lives matter less. "Some people believe that if you're gay you deserve to die, and that they have the right to say that because they're holier than thou. So it's not an anti-gay song. It's just me dealing with my issues, my sadness, my inability to find out where I fit. I feel ostracised at all times for being gay. Especially being gay, black, a woman, and a mother. I don't hate men, I have to raise one. And that's been hard to get across to a lot of gay women.
"I almost think I was naive to be so open about it, because I didn't know it was such a big deal. I get up every morning to make my son breakfast, he goes to school, and when he comes home we do homework. My life is no different to anyone else's. My partner happens to be a woman. I don't get what it is that makes people so upset; I'm a decent citizen, I pay my taxes."
Ndegeocello spent her formative years in Washington DC, where the city's underground Go-Go scene provided her musical education. Celebrated briefly by the British music press and even featured in a movie, Good To Go, Go-Go is a black club sound with live bands playing chart hits, old classics and their own songs for hours at a time over a relentless funk beat. The feedback from the crowd is crucial, which is why the music has never travelled well - the bands engage in elaborate call-and-response games with their audience that Ndegeocello says inspired her own half-sung, half-rapped vocal style. She played bass at the Go-Go club five nights a week, and still has an old-fashioned belief in playing live: she prays, she says with a laugh, "for the rebirth of soul music". Pronounced en- day-gay-o-chello, Ndegeocello is a name she chose herself a few years back - it means "free as a bird" in Swahili. Her father was "an alcoholic and a womaniser", and she describes her childhood as a vicious circle of abuse: "He treated my mother with no respect so therefore my mother didn't have any respect for us. It was a downtrodden mental game we were playing as a family." By the age of 20, she had a baby, a drug habit, and the strength to leave for New York, working various jobs by day, writing her music at night and raising her son alone. It was, she says, no big deal. "When I got pregnant the first thing they wanted to do was put me on welfare. But I'm not afraid of working. I like to work. If it wasn't for my son I'd probably be dead - I had no focus."
She's been sober now for about four years, but is refreshingly frank about the attractions of crack, cocaine and weed. "I loved them," she smiles. "In rehab they say, 'Drugs are bad for you. You know you don't like them.' And I'd say, 'Yes I do!' Malcolm X said they're salves for unseen wounds and that was what they were for me".
Her childhood is dealt with on the last track on the album, "Make Me Wanna Holler", a reworking of Marvin Gaye's classic protest song "Inner City Blues". It's an appropriate reference, for there are no abrasive edges in Ndegeocello's music: think Gaye's What's Going On album and give it a husky, female voice. "If you don't want to have sex after hearing my music," she once said, "I'm doing something wrong." Sweet, with just a touch of bitter in the lyrics, Peace Beyond Passion gets it just about right.
n 'Peace Beyond Passion' is out on Maverick/ WEA. Me'Shell Ndegeocello plays at the Phoenix Festival on 21 July and at London's Subterranea on 23 July
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
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