Revolutionary Soul Singer
Meshell Ndegeocello fights AIDS and ignorance with song. On Monday, Nov. 11, Ndegeocello performs with and directs some of America's most talented musicians, including Cassandra Wilson, Stephanie Mills and Bilal, at Carnegie Hall. All proceeds go the 21 year old organization GMHC, whose clientele is now two-thirds people of color. By the year 2010, half of New York's AIDS cases are projected to be women.
The mix of music and message is called "You Rock My Soul." Here's what Meshell, who's been touring for her album "Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape," had to say:
What was the genesis of the event?
The crisis that we are in. We are on a verge of a pandemic, not to mention that there are still so many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS as being a gay disease or drug users disease. Everyday people of all economic strata, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations are getting sick and the fastest growing population is women. So if my little bit of time and my band's time and the other artists who have donated their time can help raise awareness and raise some dollars, then I'm thankful.
How did you become music director?
GMHC and the event producer asked me. I view it as a privilege to be invited to join with other people to address an issue, whether that's HIV/AIDS or peace or the prison industry. I've been involved with HIV/AIDS events and organizations for the last 10 years and will continue to be so engaged until this disease is wiped off the planet. Check out the Red Hot+ Riot album that's in stores now -- it's a tribute to Fela Kuti's music and a benefit specifically for HIV/AIDS efforts in Africa. It's also super funky. I live to create and to play, but also to do so in connection with the world, in connection with humanity. I have no real interest in living in my own musical fantasy land. The world is real, things people are living through are real.
How did the artists become involved?
They were hand-picked. Some were people who I've met through my musical travels and others I just wanted to get down with and this was an incredible opportunity to do that. We pulled together about 45 minutes of music that incorporates the many talented artists we have participating -- Jazz great Cassandra Wilson, R&B songstress Stephanie Mills, Afrobeat artist Femi Kuti, Afro-Cuban group Yerba Buena, and amazing vocalists Rahsaan Patterson, Bilal, and we just added Caron Wheeler.
It is wonderful that so many talented people have volunteered and have fit this into their busy schedules. It's not just showing up and playing -- they have to learn new tunes, rehearse, come to sound check the day off, etc, so I certainly appreciate them for their commitment. It's gonna be super funky. The folks we have in the house are going to shine, each and every one of them. Together we will bring African music, Gospel, Jazz, Rock and Funk to tell a story of perseverance and struggle and triumph in the face of adversity.
With AIDS rates in several major cities -- DC, Newark, Jersey city -- reaching 5 percent, what needs to be done to reach urban and black Americans? Do you believe existing messages haven't targeted or reached African-Americans in particular? What would you like to see done differently?
AIDS plagues the African and African American communities, mainly due to lack of access to sex education and health care and all the myths about AIDS being a "gay disease." I think that all HIV/AIDS organizations need to work hard to educate in communities of color and to partner with mainstream educational institutions to break down stereotypes. Unfortunately, lack of HIV/AIDS awareness in communities of color and homophobia are walking hand in hand -- at this point we have to stop the ignorance because all of our lives depend upon it. And if we can let our kids watch movies and play video games where people's heads are getting blown off, we should certainly be able to talk with them openly about sex. If the epidemic is going to be halted, it starts with kids. It starts with open and honest dialogues so that young people don't feel the need to be secretive and on their own.
How do you believe U.S. AIDS policy influences the international community? What would you like to see changed?
Well the U.S. influences the world because of its economic and military importance; meanwhile, healthcare around the world is far more humane and ethical than it is here. Of course I think it is reprehensible for any drug company to not make helpful HIV/AIDS treatments available in critical and impoverished nations. I think there is value in exploring the way that Cuba has isolated the disease and the way it has worked to keep its HIV/AIDS community connected to their families, but because of the political relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, this has been under-researched.
What I'd really like to see is an integrated international team of researches with the type of financial resources that the U.S. throws into fighting baldness and impotence. Then we might move further along in finding holistic, humane treatments.
Your music helps re-define black, female, urban. How hard is it to follow your own style versus be influenced by current trends? Or do you not see it as a challenge?
I don't set out trying to redefine the black, female, urban perspective. I've been called a revolutionary soul singer, although I've never called myself that. Revolution is a process of transforming oneself, of healing, of growing, of freeing one's mind and then being brave enough to encourage that growth in the society around you. There was a time when artists were engaged in that process, when their art was part of spreading that word, was part of creating a forum for discussions... Emerson's marketplace of ideas to a beat or on a canvas or on a stage. Now art is marginalized -- literally, limited to profit margins. You see this everywhere, from the government cutting funds to the National Endowment for the Arts to radio formats. To survive financially, so the economic order says now, an artist must build commercial value into his or her expression. My music critiques this idea, and by critique, I mean I participate in the very thing I critique.
I try to record the spirit of the times as I see it, be a voice that opens dialogue, that reflects my listening more than my own opinions. I just try to express myself and be funky, and if folks are feeling that, they'll come out to the show or pick up the record and have an experience. That's what its all about -- having your own experience, not something that's been dictated to you by some marketing strategy or demographic determination. Breaking free of the idea that we are all just here to accumulate products has everything to do with revolutionizing oneself, honoring your soul and singing the truth as you know it to the world.