Meshell Ndegeocello on Why D.C. Got Rid of Go-Go
There's a song on Meshell Ndegeocello's 2002 album, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, called "Barry Farms," which takes its name from the Anacostia public housing project known for its Goodman League basketball tournament. The track carries a light go-go swing and taps into the musician's days as a bassist for D.C. go-go band Rare Essence.
On Tuesday, Ndegeocello, who grew up in Southeast and neighboring Oxon Hill, Md., will release her 11th studio album, Comet, Come to Me, which collects soul, reggae dub, and rock into one comprehensive set. A press release for the album states that Comet begins with bass lines and finishes in space.
"I didn't write that, so I don't know," Ndegeocello says with a laugh. "I guess that's just the ethereal feeling, trying to describe how one might feel. The foundation is always a groovy bass line, but I definitely try to get them somewhere less grounded in reality."
On Thursday night, she'll perform a sold-out show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., the third date of an expansive world tour that includes stops in Japan, Switzerland, and France, among other places. I spoke with Ndegeocello about her expansive new album, how it's influenced by her D.C. upbringing, and why the city doesn't embrace go-go.
What's the mission statement for Comet, Come to Me?
To not have one. It's for the listeners to decide. I created something, I made it for you,so have your own experience. It's not for me to dictate to you. That's the problem I have with so many marketing tools and schemes: So much of society is about trying to create a demographic and tell you something. Of course I wanna sell my wares, I want people to buy my music, it helps me take care of my family. I'm not trying to sell you a lifestyle, an idea, or any kind of philosophy. It's really up to you what you get from it. There's a lot of things in there. It's about all the aspects of life.
The music feels very personal—is it?
That's funny—a lot of these songs are written by other people with whom I collaborated. Everyone thinks these songs are so personal. But that's why I love music: It's personal to everyone. You can feel it, so I just write about what I see. I'm just like a reporter. I take in what other people are feeling sometimes, and I wanna be able to write about that, too. I try to be empathetic, that's all. Life is the muse. It's nothing that deep to me anymore. We're all just trying to do the best we can. That's much more fascinating than muses and money, just the human condition is what inspires me.
How is Comet different from your previous work?
I don't think it is. I think it's a culmination of all things that are me. Other people say that my records are different. I'm inside myself, so it's not that different to me. I just hear it as music, and that's the great thing about growing up in D.C. I had [radio stations] DC101 and WOL. I had all kinds of music. It wasn't just programmed radio, so all those different genres live within me. I think on Comet, Come to Me, there's some dub, there's some rock, there's some soul, there's some hip-hop, but all that is me.
How much does the city's music influence your sound?
It's all of it. It's totally there—the way I lead the band, the way I deliver lyrics, it's always in there. The fact that I'm so groove-oriented comes from playing in go-go bands and being in D.C. Also D.C. was a place where we could go play live—and if you were good, you were good. People didn't have to know your music. If it was good music, it was good. I think that little bit of swagger I have just comes from being there, where you just have to show and prove.
You were in D.C. long before the current music scene. What were the changes you saw during your time here?
It became more hip-hop oriented and moved out the go-go scene. It seems like the go-go artists would emulate and do the hip-hop material in their songs instead of coming up with originals. You had Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, and E.U., and they would write their own material. But as I got older, I saw that it sorta dissipated.
Also, D.C. had a really strong jazz scene. It's the home of Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, and so many other great artists. It just seemed a lot more well-rounded, but as the '90s came, radio stations changed and became more programmed. You did have WHUR, which brought a classy kind of vibe. I think it just came down to marketing. They really wanted to capitalize on the black market and so many other things were set to the side.
I saw Bad Brains and Fugazi. I was able to have all that, but as the '90s came, it became more homogenized. Everybody wanted to get on the hip-hop train. It got rid of a regional music and that's the sad thing. You could go down to Adams Morgan and find people playing their original R&B songs, and I don't see that too much anymore. When I come there, maybe I'll go record shopping, or ask around and see what I can get into.
Anything special planned for the hometown gig?
It will be the beginning of our tour. I think we'll be trying to settle into a set, so I'll see how it goes the first few shows before I throw any tricks or treats in there.
Meshell Ndegeocello plays at the Birchmere, 7:30 p.m. Thursday night. This show is sold out.