By Daniel Garrett
Producer: Craig Street
Following the instrumental composition “Adam,” the beginning of the album Bitter, Meshell Ndegeocello sings “I remember when you filled my heart with joy./ Was I blind to the truth, just there to fill the space?,” the first lines of the song “Fool of Me,” a song of disheartenment, of dismay: “What kind of fool am I that you so easily set me aside?” The song—written by Ndegeocello with Federico Gonzalez Pena—traces the hope, the longing, the despair, and the anger of a love that has gone wrong, of a love that may not have been love at all. Meshell Ndegeocello’s voice—with low, round, sad, warm tones—expresses intimacy and urgency, and I listen and do not question her sincerity. Meshell Ndegeocello sings, “I want to kiss you. Does she want you with the pain that I do?” Those lines—so articulate—are awful in their misery; and when she adds, “I smell you in my dreams, but now when we’re face to face you won’t look me in the eye” it is like stepping into a nightmare—or a memory. That is the kind of experience one wants a new year, a new millennium, to put to rest; and that is the kind of experience that will be ever new for someone somewhere. Ndegeocello sees, says, shows (in “Faithful,” co-written with David Gamson) how the hurt is passed on: “When I touch myself I think of only you, and when I touch someone else.” Casual sex replaces believed-in love. A guitar solo provides a heated intensity that loud drumming feeds before the song’s end. “I’ve searched my whole life, this life, for the reasons that we cry,” she sings in “Satisfy,” a song that speaks of a lover’s power to satisfy, with music that suggests European classical, jazz, and rock elements. Ndegeocello’s pronunciation of the words has the ritual formality of poetry and the fever of a street hustle—how does she do that? Before performing Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love,” with its equation of nature, imagination, and love as solace (Hendrix seems a touchstone for black artists who want to signify cool independence), Ndegeocello faces fury in the song “Bitter,” from which the collection takes its name. In “Bitter,” with Ndegeocello’s voice tender, and an acoustic guitar a nice touch, there is the irony of a beautiful song with an ugly theme: the circle of disillusionment remains unbroken, when “You curse my name bitterly” and “my eyes look at you bitterly.”
Meshell Ndegeocello is, to me, an interesting, neglected, and valuable talent. She spoke once of being surprised that her record company saw her as a failure. I am surprised by her surprise: we live in a world in which to be an artist or an intellectual is not the expected thing for a black person (rather one is expected to be too distracted by the fantasy of race and the rigors of reality for creative, independent endeavors). If you do not pull or push a plow, work for the post office, or stand in a pulpit telling pretty lies to women with their bibles and sometimes legs open, you have no ordinary purpose, no ordinary role. If you are not a basketball player, or a hip-hop star, you do not register on the cultural radar. If you are not making someone a lot of money, your ideas are pretensions, your feelings are irrelevancies. That your work might illuminate human experience is worthless to many, maybe to most. The individuals who are able to live as artists and intellectuals are so unknown to common consciousness that they may as well not exist. I do not accept any of that: for me, art and intellect remain important. I value the work of Meshell Ndegeocello, whose albums include Plantation Lullabies (1993), Peace Beyond Passion (1996), Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2002), Comfort Woman, her last recording for Maverick (2003), and The Spirit Music Jamia, on Shanachie (2005). I do not know if it is true, but I am inclined to think that as artists grow and live they move from contemplation of fact and world to contemplation of idea and self; and I see Bitter as an introspective work, but instead of barring the rest of us, it destroys many walls, and for me its power has not dimmed in the years that I have lived with it.
“He loves with sweetness and sincerity, while she can only pretend,” is the maddening refrain in “Sincerity,” which Meshell Ndegeocello wrote with Doyle Bramhall. Meshell Ndegeocello, with songwriter Allen Cato, in the song “Loyalty” describes two young lovers who fear betrayal—come be with me, soothe my broken heart, show me loyalty—and the lovers have come to love with knowledge of what their parents suffered, of what the world does, and yet they dare think and say “all that I have I give to you.” Youth. In the song “Beautiful,” Ndegeocello allows herself a simple celebration, one for which there are few words: she does little more than repeat, “May I kiss you there, so beautiful you are,” following that with the instrumental “Eve,” companion to “Adam,” the composed piece that opens the collection. “Eve” is both beautiful and dissonant.
Our bodies must survive so that our minds and spirits may live, but life is about more than animal survival and lusts. I do not think that love is the salvation of human life, but instead that justice, intelligence, and understanding lead to peace, and self-acceptance, self-fulfillment, and self-restraint lead to happiness. However, when I was younger, though I was not ever promiscuous, I did think that erotic power was a real power, and that seduction might achieve what reason and rhetoric, what compassion and community, would not. While I was attracted to particular individuals—to what they were, and what they were not—I thought that the personal could facilitate political transformation. It seems to me now, a perception that has been growing for more than a decade, that sensual awareness is more significant than sexual openness; and that the sensual is also spiritual, but that the sexual is merely material, with the sensual being liberating whereas the sexual—even if one is polymorphously perverse—is confining. I would not expect a full explanation or exploration of such matters in popular art, and yet the limitations of common concerns, as expressed in popular art, can compel that kind of contemplation: when the arts tell us again and again that love does not work, we have to look more deeply at why it does not work. Lyrics that go on and on about love, while appealing to many, can cause a thinking person to wonder, Is that all there is?
I wish that we would not see our fulfillment in another person’s face or form, but it’s hard to think of love, of spirit, not having a material representation: and so, instead of just nurturing our inner lives, and accepting the world as other, we keep looking at people, expecting deliverance, expecting fulfillment: or as Ndegeocello says, “You rarely notice but I hang on your every word” and “wasted time on loving you, wasted time./ Wasted time on someone who won’t love you as much as I” and “in my fantasy you are asleep beside me” and “brokenhearted, I dream for you to notice me.” (“Wasted Time,” which seems to end abruptly, like many relationships, is the song I like best on Bitter.) Is it possible to move beyond dreams of romance? Is it possible to move beyond dreams of control? When Meshell Ndegeocello sings in “Grace” first “Can’t say I have ever been faithful, except to god” and then “sometimes god calls out to me to come home, ‘cause I feel so alone, then I taste your kiss, your touch, your sweet love” is she giving a true testament, a picture of the other side of loneliness, of what fulfillment is or actually might be like, or is she still dreaming? In “Grace,” she sings, “Your love is my only saving grace”—but that sounds like damnation to me.
Daniel Garrett, a resident of New York, is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, and an organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, Daniel Garrett has written work that has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Garrett’s commentaries on books, films, and music have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader for several years; and include as subjects Louis Auchincloss, James Baldwin, Devendra Banhart, Beyonce, Bright Eyes, the Dears, The Devil Wears Prada, The Illusionist,Leela James, The Line of Beauty, Wynton Marsalis, Nietzsche, On the Waterfront, Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture, Private, Alain Resnais, Rocco and His Brothers, Diana Ross,Schultze Gets the Blues, Frank Sinatra, (Michael Winterbottom’s) Tristram Shandy, and Lizz Wright. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org