Singer-songwriter, musician, rapper and vocalist Me’Shell NdegéOcello, born Michelle Lynn Johnson, also known as Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur is the storyteller we all need to listen to. She was born on August 29, 1968 in Berlin, Germany and was raised in Washington, DC where she first took an interest to music. Growing up, she’d play at clubs in DC and made her way to New York City where she settled as an artist after studying music at Howard University. She took on the name NdegéOcello at age of 17, meaning “free like a bird” in Swahili. Whether you equate this freedom to the artist’s freshly shaved ‘do, sexual orientation, or her mesmerizing tunes, NdegéOcello’s music certainly exudes a sort of liberation that is first heard through her unique and powerful voice, and then understood through her unchained lyrics.
NdegéOcello uses music to find freedom within herself and a connection to like-minded artists. She individualizes her sound with her twenty-year bass career that incredibly informs her music. It is the rhythmic backbone of many of her songs. She creates stunning original music as well as gracing her strong voice on the tracks of iconic musicians like Prince, Nina Simone and other greats. She is no stranger to the idea of love, and uses the musical trope as a basis for her take on human relations, intimacy and affection. There is no one right way for this artist; she dabbles in funk, reggae, R&B, hip-hop and jazz (and dare I say, is a master at each one).
NdegéOcello also uses her acclaim to give back in various ways. She collaborated with Yerba Buena on a track in 2002 and proceeds from the album went to various AIDS charities. Years later, she worked on a project that helped fund efforts for the protection and empowerment of Congo women. She also spent some time as a contributing writer to an essay entitled “It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living.”
You may come across her music in a film, find it featured alongside a powerhouse artist, or simply pop in one of her celebrated albums and play it from start to finish, but in any circumstance, you won’t be disappointed. The effect of her unparalleled voice remains the same in whichever form she chooses to take on. The versatility in NdegéOcello’s music comes from varying functionalities within the industry. She is what I’d call all-encompassing. The everyday voice. The walking to work, transferring trains, writing a book, making love to her hook kind of voice. With her music, she invites the everyday freedom seeker to get just what he needs out of it. There is no right or wrong answer on how to listen to Me’Shell NdegéOcello, just as long as you listen.
NdegéOcello focuses on the unsaid, the challenging material, the need-to-knows. She considers the dynamics of politics, race, and sex. She answers to no one, yet provides her listeners with the responses they didn’t know they were looking for. She appreciates music that invites her inner badass to the scene and uses that to channel the melodic sounds of what we experience in her album Bitter. I am intrigued by NdegéOcello’s simultaneous tenderness and consciousness to what needs to be said. Much like her name, she is free as a bird. She says, “I’ve realized after my time on the planet that I have no control over what people feel about me or need from me, so I just have a more laid-back approach in my apologies.” What more can listeners ask for but an unapologetic artist willing to bare her vulnerability to the world.