Songs of Protest & Healing: Meshell Ndegeocello on the Gospel of James Baldwin

How the cultural and literary icon continues to deliver lessons of freedom, humanity and humility.

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Image: James Baldwin in New York in April of 1964, the year after The Fire Next Time was published. Credit: Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Getty.

For this installment of our Songs of Protest & Healing initiative, Angelika Beener spoke with the acclaimed musician, vocalist and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello on the legacy of James Baldwin. The perennially relevant civil-rights and literary icon, who would have turned 96 earlier this month, has been a continuing source of inspiration in Ndegeocello’s work, in an innovative musical-theatre piece that premiered in 2016 and in a forthcoming album detailed below. – Ed.

When I was commissioned by the arts organization Harlem Stage to create a musical tribute to Harlem’s favorite son, James Baldwin’s prophetic literature The Fire Next Time was at the forefront of my mind. I’d been reading it a lot, carrying it around in my pocket. It became like my religious text. Baldwin speaks about things that are very familiar within the human condition, and the most revolutionary music to me — the music that changed my life — is the songs about the inner struggle, the commonality of being human. This is the theme of my latest project, a forthcoming collaborative album inspired by this commission, titled No More Water: The Gospel of James Baldwin

In these times we’re living in, I feel called to create something that can be healing — healing through the energetic frequency of the music, through the sound waves. I feel called to create songs that give a kind of upliftment, and, sometimes, mirror the sadness. In this I find great inspiration in James Baldwin.

Through this work, I am also trying to get back to that radical imagination of my ancestors, where Black people were creating their own reality. Like Sun Ra and John Coltrane and Max Roach … there’s something more. Albums like Coltrane’s Sun Ship or Curtis Mayfield’s tune “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” connect to this spirit of there being something deeper. In Baldwin’s karmic text, he is very clear in “I don’t have an answer,” choosing instead to underscore what, with all certainty, is not the answer. To that end, I’m trying to get beyond right or wrong, beyond joy or sadness. I want to create a space for people for when there is nothing to say, or nothing to do.

When one thinks about the work of James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, there’s a freedom in letting go of the white gaze. When I truly let that go, it really affected me. I decided with this project that I was going to make the music I hear in my head, not rest on some laurels I didn’t define for myself.

Before Covid-19, a group of us — including Staceyann Chin, Justin Hicks, Chris Bruce, Jebin Bruni, Abe Rounds, Jake Sherman, Julius Rodriguez and Kenita Miller — spent 10 days together at Dreamland Studios near Woodstock, New York. We did our cooking and our sleeping there, and we all sang out in the room together, sort of like a choir. Baldwin was a child preacher, and I used the church as the foundation of the music because I also come from that.

Chin’s offerings on the album remind me of how I grew up with Gil Scott-Heron … that’s who she is to me. She is the griot telling you about this moment in time from a perspective that we also need to start to understand. Because the words and ideas of men have brought us here, maybe we need to change the narrative and start to look at some other thinkers, particularly of other genders. Chin’s is a voice that needs to be heard and challenged and used as a vessel to speak of things that very few people understand.

Meshell Ndegeocello performs in her project Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin at Harlem Stage in December 2016. Credit: Marc Millman.

“On the Mountain,” written with Justin Hicks and Abe Rounds, includes a portion of the eulogy Amiri Baraka delivered at Baldwin’s funeral, where he addresses Baldwin as “God’s Black revolutionary mouth,” and I believe we need to celebrate him like he needs to be celebrated if we are truly to be free. “The Price of the Ticket” is a Baldwin quote I meditated on when writing the song of the same name. I think James Baldwin would have been just heartbroken for Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. The song is basically saying that we are all trying to go home, and we all have fear — but that fear has driven us to commit heinous acts.

Reading Baldwin’s work helped me understand that I had to humble myself. Once you let go of certain dogma, and once you deal with your bigotry, or you disconnect your being from a party or a label or a slogan and you’re down to just yourself, that’s what becomes fascinating to me. It gets down to what kind of human being you want to be on this planet. That’s where things can be transformative.

The public tried to set James Baldwin aside. I’m glad that people are coming around on Baldwin now, but he told us; he predicted this. We’re at a precipice, and so many pillars of our so-called civilization and culture are coming into question, but we are a country obsessed with our past — we revel in it. Now the chickens have come home to roost. “America’s the Greatest” is not working so well — and it’s endangering lives. I’m here for when there are no answers, and the least I can do for my job in the tribe is give you a song for your pain. To make the sound waves to help bring some solace to the thoughts. To sing for those who can’t sing no more.

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