By Daniel Garrett
Meshell Ndegeocello, Comet, Come to Me
Sounding both acoustic and electronic, Meshell Ndegeocello’s interpretation of the song “Friends” becomes a meditation—lyric and musical, individual and communal, honest and critical—on friendship, featuring “homeboys through the summer, winter, spring and fall / and then there’s some we wish we never knew at all.” The lyrics present a situation in which friendship is betrayed for sexual love. Love sought, love found, and love lost are the themes through which many people see their lives, although nature, science, philosophy, law, and economics may be much more important. Brave, disciplined, experimental, passionate, Meshell Ndegeocello is an artist—bassist, singer, songwriter—whose work has been distinguished by imagination, truth, and funkiness: her albums are Planation Lullabies (1993), Peace Beyond Passion (1996), Bitter (1999), Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2002), Comfort Woman (2003), The Spirit Music (2005), The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (2007), The Devil’s Halo (2009), Weather (2011), Pour une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone (2012), and Comet, Come to Me (2014). “Friends” is the opening song on her album Comet, Come to Me, a collection that explores the personal and the social, as the work of Meshell Ndegeocello often does. Meshell Ndegeocello is one of the few artists whose work is expansive enough to be compared with that of Nina Simone and Nona Hendryx, women whose radicality transformed received traditions; although there are, of course, different kinds of independence and individuality among African-American women musicians and performers—Josephine Baker, Erykah Badu, Kathleen Battle, Betty Carter, Diahann Carroll, Regina Carter, Alice McLeod Coltrane, Betty Davis, Rachelle Ferrell, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Barbara Hendricks, Shirley Horn, Lena Horne, Valerie June, Alicia Keys, Bettye LaVette, Abbey Lincoln, Melba Liston, Amina Claudine Myers, Jessye Norman, Florence Price, Leontyne Price, Dianne Reeves, Minnie Riperton, Diana Ross, Brenda Russell, Jill Scott, Bessie Smith, Valaida Snow, Angie Stone, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Sarah Vaughan, Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, and Cassandra Wilson. On Meshell Ndegeocello’s album Comet, Come to Me the listener can detect elements ranging from jazz to funk to punk rock. “Friends” is followed by the melodious, intimate “Tom,” a delicate and engaging construction that has elements of funk and blues; and in it, a relationship has lost intimacy and trust, sharing now only nothing. It is very good to have more work from Meshell Ndegeocello—as probing, as sensual, as ever.
The connections between beauty and love and thought and truth are a subject that artists and lovers have come to again and again, generation after generation. “Art and morals are, with certain provisos which I shall mention in a moment, one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so at and morals, is the discovery of reality,” wrote the British philosopher and creative writer Iris Murdoch in the essay “The Sublime and the Good” in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1998; page 215). In the essay “The Sublime and the Good,” amidst a discussion of beauty, the sublime, morality, and freedom, with consideration of Kant’s idealism of nature and Tolstoy’s religious interpretation of art, Murdoch gives a definition of freedom as something revealed through knowledge within a relationship: “Freedom is exercised in the confrontation by each other, in the context of an infinitely extensible work of imaginative understanding, of two irreducibly dissimilar individuals” (page 216).
For artists and lovers, freedom and control are frequently in contention: one wants control but thrills at the loss of it; and one sometime mourns the pain that comes with submission and, after a time, celebrates the wisdom that follows the experience. The musical control in the song “Good Day/Bad” on Meshell Ndegeoccello’s Comet, Come to Me is impressive—about a failed romance and the forgetting found in drink, the lack of peace and stability; and the work is at once beautiful and intense and original and classical and contemporary, quite pleasing: its sounds and theme are thoughtful, well-crafted. Personal choice is important, but references are made to unfortunate family relations in the past. Will the past shape the present and the future? (What will one be—optimistic or pessimistic, creative or destructive?) The music of “Forget My Name” suggests both interior space and outer space in its beats and rhythms and expansive quality. “And Yet It Moves” is a brief interlude. For years Meshell Ndegeocello has been making music that comes out of thought and feeling as well as imagination—and a playful mixing of sounds; and her themes embody a determination to ask questions of self and culture. One perceives that frequently imagination and intellect are the keys to freedom.
Women have earned their freedom—they have had to earn it. The questions of women, often, have not been welcome or understood—but the fact is that many people’s questions have been rejected as irrelevant or invalid. In “Exploring the Sources of Western Thought,” the philosopher V.F. Cordova—a woman of color, part Apache, part Hispanic—wrote about the western intellectual tradition and its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, in which the world was understood as alive, not mere matter, and there were many gods, and learning occurred in conversation between generations, people with a cyclic sense of time, a perspective, an intellectual orientation; and all that was changed by the great influence of Augustine, a Christian thinker: established with intellectual authority was the belief in one god, and the superiority of men to other creatures, the fact of pervasive sinfulness, and heaven as reward for obedience, and those became the inherited, taught, and received assumptions (Women of Color and Philosophy, edited by Naomi Zack, published by Blackwell, year 2000). It is fascinating to be reminded of how thoroughly a stern Christian view still has power in common thought, even in a very scientific world. We can challenge taboos without always leaving them behind. One yearns for certainty in a world of chaos and conflict—and can sound confident about perceived certainties—but there is much less certainty than one would like, and resorting to clichés and prejudices and taboos becomes easy.
Artists such as Meshell Ndegeocello give us experience and its perception. In “Comet, Come to Me,” the title song of Meshell Ndegeocello’s album, produced by Smoke and Mirrors, the lyrics are about trying to make a relationship work, then recognizing what is wrong, being honest about disconnection, failure. The title phrase is repeated like an invocation; and the song has something of a reggae lilt but it cannot be categorized simply—some of its elements are trippy. “It is the end, then love wins. Fine,” are lines from “Continuous Performance,” which has references to film, and the interpretation of appearances and images. Elongated sung notes, supported by an acoustic guitar are featured in “Shopping for Jazz.” Recurrent disappointment is the theme in “Conviction,” a song performed with a tender voice to a clapping beat, a song in which someone—predictably, perversely—leaves a good relationship to return to a bad one. “I just don’t love you no more,” the singer declares in “Folie A Deux.” Slow, moody, yet delicate, “Choices” has the mysterious declaration “so many colors / I choose you.” The composition “Modern Time” and some of the other songs remind me a little of Nona Hendryx, another artist who creates thought-laden soundscapes, someone so distinct she can seem both outside of history and yet a commentary on it (Transformation: The Best of Nona Hendryx and Mutatis Mutandis). With voice, piano, and spacey effects the Ndegeocello album ends with the contemplative “American Rhapsody.”
Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com