June 15, 2021
Co-sponsored by the Black Cultural Center
Free my heart so my soul may fly
Free my mind of my worldly wants and desires
I look towards heaven with my arms open wide
Take my hand, come and take my hand
— Meshell Ndegeocello, Free My Heart (Peace Beyond Passion)
As a rural Southerner raised in a Black Freewill Baptist tradition, prayer and ritual remain my nucleus. Road mercy, invocations for the sick and shut-in, sanctuary in the midst of storms, Black baptists have a prayer and procession for every occasion. When I began performing my original music in front of scant, open mic crowds at the burgeoning of a late-90s spoken word movement, I leaned heavily into those proven prayers and rituals to soften my intimidation of the stage. In green rooms and hallways, before each performance, I’d call my momma to receive her blessing (ritual) and listen to Free My Heart by Meshell Ndegeocello (prayer). This disperate, definitive duet encouraged me to cross the invisible line between secular and sacred. Momma embodied rapturous faith. Meshell confronted ghosts, lurking and holy. Both women had been resurrected more than once. Together, they helped me be born again.
For me, Free My Heart was the magic and the mantra on Peace Beyond Passion, Meshell’s 1996 sophomore album. However, that record was not my introduction to the work of Meshell Ndegeocello. In 1993, I was an adolescent poet and bass player, having been gifted a scarlet blast-of-a-bass by Uncle Carl, my daddy’s youngest brother. I’d never played an instrument and couldn't carry a note any worthy distance. But I loved holding the possibility of that bass in my grasp. As I was learning to articulate my queerness, I found refuge in its guttural gospel. I’d sit, mouthing bass lines until my fingers could pluck them. Shortly after acquiring Uncle Carl’s bass, a friend gave me a raggedy Maxell tape with a fine-tipped Sharpie inscription. It read, Plantation Lullabies. I listened until the cassette player in my best friend’s Sentra chewed the tape to shreds. Every song on Meshell’s inaugural masterpiece introduced me to the audacity of Black women who bumrushed the patriarchy without invitation. I internalized every bassline and aligned myself with the Black writers and musicians overtly or covertly referenced. Through that album, I was gifted the expansive perspective of a certain Black woman; a Black woman radicalized by Eldridge Cleaver; a Black woman who rocked fresh Caesar cuts and stroked the dred locs of Black men while serenading their girlfriends with old soul records and picture shows. I became hip to the intersections of jazz, rock, go-go, soul, funk, and singer-songwriting as quintessential modes of Black storytelling. I followed Meshell from city to city, the way Deadheads chase Garcia. I studied the way she altered her musical personnel and persona. At her music’s instruction, I aimed to make my basslines their own signature voice. I know there will always be a word in her compositions for me, so I search every album for that intimate whisper: Bitter, a broken heart’s lament; Comfort Woman, a celestial being’s calling; Weather, a songwriter’s best effort at the metaphors of meteorology; right up until Good Good from her latest offering, The Omnichord Real Book — "Feeling so good, good. What you gone do with me?" A question I pine daily as an ode to a life and a wife, both earned, charmed and chosen.
Meshell remains a beacon of genre defiance, craft-tending, and wrenching self-evaluation. She reminds me that music created in a stolen homeland is of a beautiful, bastard nature — blues midwifed jazz, R&B mothered soul, country is every plantation’s deadbeat dad. Meshell’s music resuscitates us amidst Western efforts at our erasure.
Hole in the Bucket appears on Meshell’s wonderful new work, The Omnichord Real Book. In this interrogating ballad, she asks, “Where’s the gold?” I believe the gold is in the concrete jungles and red earth that bore us. Meshell Ndegeocello tells me that the gold is in the mining and our willingness to constantly churn.
— Guest Curator Shirlette Ammons
About Meshell Ndegeocello
Traversing soul, R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and rock, Grammy winner Meshell Ndegeocello’s work is bound by the search for love, justice, respect, and resolution. The multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter has defied and redefined the expectations for women, queer artists, and Black music for over 30 years, and she remains one of few women who write the music, sing the songs, and — bass in hand — lead the band.
Ndegeocello makes her Blue Note Records debut in June 2023 with The Omnichord Real Book, a visionary, expansive, and deeply jazz-influenced album that marks the start of a new chapter in her trailblazing career. Following her 2018 covers album, Ventriloquism, Ndegeocello returns with an album of new original material that taps into a broad spectrum of her musical roots. The Omnichord Real Book was produced by Josh Johnson and features a wide range of guest artists, including Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Ross, Jeff Parker, Brandee Younger, Julius Rodriguez, Mark Guiliana, Cory Henry, Joan As Police Woman, Thandiswa, and others.
“It’s a little bit of all of me, my travels, my life,” says Ndegeocello. “My first record I made at 22, and it’s over 30 years from then, so I have a lot of stored information to share.” Reflecting on the impact that the forced stillness of the pandemic lockdown had on her, she says, “I must admit it was a beautiful time for me. I got to really sit and reacquaint myself with music. Music is a gift.”
“This album is about the way we see old things in new ways,” Ndegeocello explains. “Everything moved so quickly when my parents died. Changed my view of everything and myself in the blink of an eye. As I sifted through the remains of their life together, I found my first Real Book, the one my father gave me. I took their records, the ones I grew up hearing, learning, remembering. My mother gifted me with her ache, I carry the melancholy that defined her experience and, in turn, my experience of this thing called life calls me to disappear into my imagination and to hear the music.”
Ndegeocello first appeared on a Blue Note record a decade ago with her stunning feature on The Consequences of Jealousy from Robert Glasper’s Grammy-winning 2012 album, Black Radio. Two years later she collaborated with Jason Moran on ALL RISE, a vibrant reimagination of Fats Waller’s music where Ndegeocello was both featured vocalist and producer. Reflecting upon time spent with her parents’ record collection during her childhood, she recalls, “I loved going through the records and seeing the Blue Note insignia. I stay away from the word ‘jazz,’ it’s a really heavy word, but I am so moved to be on a label that is about self-expression.”
This is Meshell Ndegeocello's first performance at the Moss Arts Center.