Park West, September 16
Think about the most commercially successful African American female singers today. Who comes to mind? Janet Jackson? Whitney Houston? Maybe En Vogue? Is it significant that these are also the most thoroughly weaved and wigged sistas you've ever seen? (I know Janet is sporting long golden brown braids now, but whose hair is that?) My point is that there has always been pressure on black women to imitate white beauty standards, and the artists who respond to this pressure are also likely to produce music that mirrors their concern for crossover, white-bread appeal: watered-down sound, soulless singing, and cookie-cutter lyrics.
Now think about the African American women in music with natural hair. Nina Simone. Cassandra Wilson. Joan Armatrading. Sweet Honey in the Rock. Tracy Chapman. They all play musical hybrids, often with self-composed, political lyrics. They often have problems fitting neatly into music industry categories, and of course their commercial appeal doesn't come close to Jackson's or Houston's, though their overall talent surpasses both.
Theory: black women who challenge white beauty standards are also more likely to challenge musical boundaries. This occurred to me at Me'Shell NdegeOcello's recent show at the Park West. The audience was a great mix of people--black, white, straight, and gay--but what struck me most was the myriad of hairstyles, especially the clusters of bald, dreadlocked, and Afroed women. When NdegeOcello took the stage, her close-shaved head gleaming against a big backdrop showing a golliwog with a red slash through it, the hair connection was unmistakable.
NdegeOcello is an accomplished 25-year-old musician best known to mainstream audiences for the pumping bass and gritty accompanying vocal on the John Mellencamp cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night." Her own current single, "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," is a slammin', funky cut brimming with sexual attitude. But there's more to NdegeOcello than meets the mainstream eye. All but three of the 13 songs on her album Plantation Lullabies deal head-on with issues of race and identity.
"Shoot'n Up and Gett'n High," for example, is no paean to chemical good times; rather it's an indictment of the society in which drug addiction thrives. Over a bass line so funky it almost overshadows her message, NdegeOcello sings,
The capitalist hannd around my throat
shootin' up dope
in this dehumanizing society.
We both found God
when he OD'd. He found beauty in my black skin.
Amidst the cover giirls
and Clairolll ads
and makin' no mistake
what's white is right.
Livin' in a world that shouts
where you came from!
"Soul on Ice," the title borrowed from Eldridge Cleaver's memoir, is the most quoted of NdegeOcello's songs. The words criticize black men for dating white women, but the underlying theme attacks the consuming pervasiveness of white beauty standards:
We've been indoctrinaaated
by the white racist stannndard of beauty.
The overwhelming popularity of seein'
better off bein'
and lookin' white.
My brothas attempt to defy
the white man's law
and his system of values.
Defile his white women
but my my
Master's in the slave house again . . .
But you no longer burn for the motherland brown skin.
You want blond-haired
Snow white passion
without the hot comb.
Before chemical relaxers, African American women would heat a heavy metal comb over a fire and rake it through their embarrassing kinky hair, risking scalp burns and scorching in pursuit of the white-girl look and the privileges associated with it. NdegeOcello says "Soul on Ice" addresses the hatred that some black people feel when they look in the mirror. But her words don't fall easily on white ears. A New Musical Express writer has called her themes "unpalatable." A Rolling Stone writer complains that when she "sneers about the inferiority of "blond-haired, blue-eyed / Snow-white passion,' her scorn borders on racism."
At the end of her driving, funk-filled performance at Park West, in which she drifted from bass to piano and from singing to rapping, NdegeOcello acknowledged these criticisms. "Everybody calls me a racist," she said, tossing her stubbly head. "Well fuck 'em! Because I used to look in the mirror and wish my hair was straighter, my skin was lighter, and my eyes a nice shade of green. It's not black and white, it's all in your mind. Open up your mind, enjoy the differences."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kwame Amoaku, cortesy Freedom Rag Magazine.