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Meshell Ndegeocello talks about her album and ongoing inspiration from James Baldwin


Black Music Month has brought a parade of Black legends to the Tiny Desk here at NPR headquarters. Each artist plays a few songs for a video that gets posted to Well, when Grammy-winning jazz artist Meshell Ndegeocello showed up, her set played tribute to a legend from an earlier generation.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: James Baldwin said that you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read...


KENITA MILLER: Water, gold...


MILLER: ...Water, magic...

HICKS: Balance.

MILLER: ...Gold...

NDEGEOCELLO: (Inaudible).


SHAPIRO: She's been working on an album that comes out later this summer called "No More Water: The Gospel Of James Baldwin." After Meshell Ndegeocello finished her set, we sat down to talk about it.


HICKS: (Singing) I been flying naked, dying (ph)...

SHAPIRO: Welcome to the Tiny Desk, to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and back to your original hometown, Washington, D.C.

NDEGEOCELLO: Yes. Yes, yeah.


SHAPIRO: You have been making work inspired by the words of James Baldwin for about a decade now.

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah, eight years (inaudible) years.

SHAPIRO: Eight years. Why do you keep coming back to him?

NDEGEOCELLO: Why aren't we going back to it more? - is the real question, I think. For me, the book changed my life. It - I carried it around for about a year.

SHAPIRO: "The Fire Next Time."

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah, "The Fire Next Time." I was commissioned by the Harlem Stage to create a piece to celebrate him. And so we use the trope of the church service, and I make him the figurehead, the deity, so to speak. And once I read the book, I was experiencing both of my parents, you know, moving on into the next experience, and the book allowed me to really step back from my anger and lack of compassion towards them. It just helped me heal some parts of myself and the past. If you know from whence you came, there's really no telling where you can go - is something he says.


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) They're calling me back to the stars.

My parents were born in the '40s, and I could never in my wildest dreams imagine what they experienced being people of color. Just really opened up my heart to a different kind of love, a love that could transcend the sorrow, the pain, the difficulty.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about using Baldwin's words to resolve your past. He was writing about the experience of being a Black man in a certain time. Do his words also speak to your present?

NDEGEOCELLO: Yes, especially now, dealing with religion and how it's being used to manipulate people.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting though 'cause you're calling the album "The Gospel Of James Baldwin," incorporating religious ideas...


SHAPIRO: ...Rather than saying, religion is being misused, and I disavow it. You're saying, let's own it and make it...

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. Baldwin said, you know, he comes from the church, and it never left him. I mean, I too played in the church. I learned a lot about myself. It's something that will never leave me, but as a person of color in America, I'm very clear that that was used to enslave me. It's sort of a mind control, you know?


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Make peace with the pain. I'll wait for love to show her face.

SHAPIRO: So when you take these words that mean so much to you, and you put them to music, is it like a message from the ether coming to you or is it like an analytical active translation or - what is it?

NDEGEOCELLO: I'm always afraid to sound - actually, I'm learning not to be afraid to say what I truly feel. I wait for the transmissions. It does come from the ether, from somewhere I can't explain, and I just try to be open to it.


HICKS: (Singing) Woah when it starts gettin' hard, will you seek to solve yourself (ph)?

NDEGEOCELLO: Justin Hicks, who...

SHAPIRO: Incredible vocalist we just heard, yeah.

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. And also a writer - we all wrote the recording together. It's a collective experience.

SHAPIRO: It's a congregation.

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. No one does anything alone.


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Love takes off the mask that we feel we can't live without. And we know we can live within.

Baldwin says he was witness. He's there to bear witness to the things people don't really want to discuss. And I think I'm here to bear witness to him.

SHAPIRO: And not only to him. You did a song called "Thus Sayeth The Lorde."




SHAPIRO: A reference to Audre Lorde.


NDEGEOCELLO: Audre Lorde said there is no single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.

KENITA MILLER AND JUSTIN HICKS: (Singing) Thus sayeth the Lorde.

SHAPIRO: Tell us how she fits into this.

NDEGEOCELLO: Oh, there's a YouTube video of Baldwin with Nikki Giovanni. Watching that YouTube video, I could see that Baldwin had to work a little bit on his feminism.


NDEGEOCELLO: So within the project, we just wanted to add another voice. And I think Audre Lorde, it just fits within that continuum of information and knowledge.

SHAPIRO: How do you see yourself fitting into that continuum with James Baldwin and Audre Lorde?

NDEGEOCELLO: I'm just a soul on a planet.

SHAPIRO: Well, so are they, right?

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. And like I said, I'm just here to bear witness, to talk about the things that are sometimes uncomfortable.


MILLER AND HICKS: (Singing) Time, you and I in the mire - here in the shallows (ph).

SHAPIRO: You've been so immersed in these texts of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. Is there a line that still sends a jolt of electricity through you, even if you've heard it more times than you can count?

NDEGEOCELLO: One cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own. I think that really speaks to me. What you say about me says a lot more about you. And it's scary. I'm 56, and I feel for the first time in my life, the last two years, I'm really starting to create the life I want.


NDEGEOCELLO: And I'm starting to be the person I know I want to be.


NDEGEOCELLO: Jumping through Saturn's hoops to reveal the birth I gave to a supernova (ph).

I'm letting go of certain sort of expectations of me.


NDEGEOCELLO: I go any and everywhere, dots on my map creating precious (ph)...

SHAPIRO: I feel like because it is Pride Month, as we talk about James Baldwin's Blackness and his humanity...


SHAPIRO: ...We also have to recognize his queerness that he wrote so much about.

NDEGEOCELLO: Yes. It's a superpower, I tell people.


NDEGEOCELLO: And I also want to take it back for myself. I don't need a name or a label. I am a lover, and I've been blessed to know love by beautiful men and women. And I'm just like, let's talk less about our private lives and how we can help each other be better people.


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) To live in love is to bear the burden of so many who yearn to know my life matters.

SHAPIRO: It feels like in the last couple of years you have leveled up. Your last album won the inaugural Grammy for best alternative jazz album, and you have been producing more work and collaborating with more people than I can name. So if this is a season of harvest for you, what do you hope to do with that growth and that attention?


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Here I sit outside your door.

Help the people around me to make music and continue to do that - to age gracefully. I'm trying to teach myself how to teach. I'm just trying to really enjoy this moment 'cause it will come and go. I'm just along for the ride (laughter), personally.

SHAPIRO: Meshell Ndegeocello, it has been such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

NDEGEOCELLO: It's been such a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: The album, "No More Water: The Gospel Of James Baldwin," comes out August 2.


And you can listen to her full Tiny Desk concert at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tinbete Ermyas
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Mia Venkat
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Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.