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Ndegeocello, Meshell (b. 1968)  
 
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Singer, songwriter, and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello is a notably eclectic artist whose music frequently confronts social and sexual issues, including racial identity, same-sex attraction, and .

Born Michelle Lynn Johnson on August 29, 1968, in Berlin, Germany, where her father, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was stationed, Ndegeocello is also known by the name Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur, which she adopted several years ago after converting to Islam.

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Throughout her career, Ndegeocello has been open about her bisexuality. In interviews, she has spoken about her relationships with choreographer Winifred R. Harris and writer and activist Rebecca Walker, and she sports a "Rebecca" tattoo on her neck.

However, while she continues to sing and write about sexual identity and sexuality, since the break-up of her relationship with Walker, Ndegeocello has become more reticent with interviewers about details of her private relationships with lovers, friends, and family members.

"My personal life is my haven, my sanctuary," Ndegeocello told Michele Kort of The Advocate, "so I'm going to treat it as such."

As a teenager living in Washington, D. C., she chose the name "Ndegeocello," which is Swahili for "free like a bird." Ndegeocello attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and briefly studied music at Howard University.

One of her earliest musical influences was her father, Jacques Johnson, who plays saxophone. Go-go, a subgenre of funk, also strongly influenced Ndegeocello's early musical career, and she honed her skills on bass with several bands--including Prophecy, Little Bennie and the Masters, and Rare Essence--active in the Washington, D. C. go-go scene.

She was also influenced by jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, funk, folk, and soul, all of which can be detected in her music. As a result of this eclecticism, Ndegeocello's music is difficult to categorize according to genre. Commercial radio often neglects her music because it does not fit neatly into stations' mandated formats.

Ndegeocello has expressed her distaste for the commercial aspects of music. Her outspoken insistence upon artistic integrity and her refusal to record more commercially viable music has resulted in some listeners criticizing her for not recording music that appeals to a broader commercial base. However, her music continues to attract fans who become loyal supporters. FreeMyHeart.com, a web site that Ndegeocello has described as being the "definitive" authority on her career, was developed and is maintained entirely by volunteers without any corporate contributions.

In 1988, Ndegeocello gave birth to a son and moved from Washington, D. C. to New York, where she performed as a solo artist in clubs and attracted the attention of several record labels. She signed with Madonna's Maverick Records (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) and released Plantation Lullabies in 1993.

"If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," a track on Plantation Lullabies, received some critical attention, but Ndegeocello did not get widespread exposure until the following year, when she collaborated with John Mellencamp on "Wild Night," a song written by and originally performed by Van Morrison. Released on Mellencamp's Dance Naked (1994), "Wild Night" reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the video received a good amount of airplay on MTV.

The songs on Ndegeocello's second solo release, Peace Beyond Passion (1996), focus on the connection between the spiritual and the sexual, a motif that occurs throughout her work. Rather than envisioning a world of boundaries and binaries, the songs explore the intermingling of spirituality and sexuality. Several songs reference the Bible in their titles, as Ndegeocello interprets biblical texts through the lenses of racial and sexual identities.

"Leviticus: Faggot," for example, foregrounds religious sanctioning of homophobia by recalling Leviticus 20:13: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."

The song tells the story of a father who kicks his sixteen-year-old gay son out of the house while a complicit mother watches, praying that God will save her son from a sinful homosexual life. Notably, the son does not need saving from homosexuality; rather, he needs to be saved from the violence and intolerance of his family and religion.

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