Meshell Ndegeocello Sings Nina Simone
By Catherine Abrams
“To Be Young Gifted and Black” is a beloved song by Nina Simone. It is also a track on Meshell Ndegeocello’s latest recording, Pour une ame souveraine (For a sovereign soul) - A dedication to Nina Simone. With a career spanning almost 20 years, Ndegeocello is a singer, songwriter and musician revered for her skill as a bassist and her ability to mesmerize an audience. Young, gifted and Black is an apt description of Meshell Ndegeocello.
For her 10th recording, Ndegeocello chose to honor music trailblazer and icon Nina Simone. Listening to Ms. Simone’s music and honoring her at the Schomberg’s Women in Jazz series in Harlem inspired Ndegeocello to do this recording. Recorded in less than two weeks, she hopes that this record will encourage listeners to learn more about Simone. Regarding Simone’s unique gift as a song stylist, Ndegeocello notes, “She is just an exceptional singer and arranger. She uses her voice to shade the story, not to employ the styling of the day.”
As a collection of 14 songs famously recorded by Simone, Pour includes collaborations with Cody Chestnutt, Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor, Toshi Reagon and Valerie June. Ndegeocello has said about Simone, “She wanted success, was pressured to make hits, but her own sound was still irrepressible. She had things to say, she protested. She was a loud, proud, Black, female voice during a time when Black female voices were not encouraged to make themselves heard.” A strong argument could be made that neither Simone nor Ndegeocello bent to industry expectations, producing “radio-friendly music,” “Black music” or music meant for sale to the masses.
Raised in Washington, DC and schooled at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Ndegeocello honed her musical skills on the DC go-go circuit performing with bands like Rare Essence and Prophecy. She released her debut record, Plantation Lullabies, in 1993, featuring the hit, "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)." In 1996, Ndegeocello had a #1 dance hit covering Bill Withers’ “Who is He and What is He to You?” A critically acclaimed musician, many film soundtracks feature her music, like Love Jones and Soul Men, and she is frequently requested by her fellow musicians for collaborations. I asked Ndegeocello how she decides what projects to accept? “I try to be open to all things, but timing plays a big part. There are some things I simply want or don’t want to do and there are other projects that just fit or don’t fit. I like to be making music all the time.”
Currently on tour promoting Pour, the 10-time Grammy nominated artist recently performed at DC’s Howard Theater and shared her insights on several musical subjects that reflect her thoughtful nature. When she was growing up, the Howard was not well cared for, she says, and it means something to her that it has now been reclaimed and restored. When I asked who she would never miss in concert - - she replied Miles Davis. Recalling the “Bring Back the Funk” event on the National Mall in DC with George Clinton, she added, “I sure do not feel that he has been properly recognized. He is an incredible creator. Being onstage with him was a great honor and I wish he received more acclaim for his lyricism. I would not call myself a Funkateer, but I am one of the Children of Production.” And about the King of Pop, Michael Jackson - - “I met him once backstage at an awards show, but it was very brief. But even for just that second, he made me happy.”