Artist & Musician
Founder Laura Jane interviews musician and artist Meshell Ndegeocello about race, style and what it's like to be a performer.
Laura Jane: Can you tell me a bit about the history of your body image? What was it like growing up and in high school?
Meshell: I’ve always been conscious of how my clothing fits. I like how they cover me. I am very aware. I would describe my body that I had as a youth as sturdy.
In high school, I remember I didn’t really fit in. I was very androgynous and so it made me unpopular and made me feel isolated because of gender norms. I definitely stuck out. I was really small. I was 4’11’’ until 10th grade. Now I’m 5’1’’. So, high school was very difficult for me because I didn’t feel comfortable in my sturdy boyish body.
LJ: What are some other moments in your life that informed how you think about your body?
M: I think there are some pivotal moments, like when I came out to my parents. I had to move around a lot then. I went to live with beautiful women of color of various shapes and sizes who taught me most of the things I know about being a woman that my mother often neglected to tell me. My mother did not have a healthy relationship to her body so being around women of color who were positive about their size was a revelation.
My mother was severely depressed. When she had me, she had a hysterectomy. She had a severe emotional imbalance and weight gain. She really had a hard time in her vessel. When I met Toshi Reagon and her mother, they were the most profound people. They made music and they looked like me or I looked like them. They were incredible examples that taught me pride for my vessel.
I also met Michaela Angela Davis. She’s the editor of Essence and is a writer on African-American style, race, gender and hip-hop culture in the United States. She is also a fashion expert and an image activist. When I met her, she was a stylist. I lived with her and she was like my mother in art and in my socializing and in my understanding of the image. She taught me the difference between uniform and iconography. When I’m at home, I wear sweat clothes. But when I’m shooting my album cover, I can have this dream world and put on these different selves. There was something in me that was hyper feminine so I like the makeup and the dress clothes. There is also part of me that doesn’t want to be seen, so I put on my hoodies and sweat clothes.
Michaela did my very first record and Vibe photo shoot. I think she made it possible for me not to have to be a brand. I find it hysterical, people’s brand. I find it absurd what people do to maintain an image that makes them easily identifiable and desirable. I don’t subscribe to that. Once they take off the clothes, who are they?
LJ: How has your style and the way you relate to your body evolved?
M: I’ve been married for ten years. When my partner met me, I was in a weird part of my life. All I had was three sweat suits, black, grey and blue. And I wore LeBron James sneakers, that was it. I would buy a pack of tube socks and a bag of underwear. All of this was meaningless to me.
Before that time, I had had a religious experience and was going to find a husband. I was going to try live a life as a heterosexual. I got extensions—my hair was down to my back. I had changed my whole wardrobe—it was all modest dress. I wasn’t wearing a burka but it was close to it. And then after I went through all of that, I just got rid of everything.
After I married my wife Alison, I started getting back into my career and had to go to meetings. I didn’t want to be a brand or a persona, but I had read Roland Barth and knew the importance of the first appearances in work environments. I started collecting clothing. Alison would get me things. I recently read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and was really affected by it. I’m a year away from having ten outfits.
My body is different. I can’t just wear sweat clothes. I have to dress differently because I have a softer body. I’m dealing with aging so I’m trying to envision the next phase.
LJ: Tell me your thoughts on social media and how you engage with it?
M: It’s all costume and dress up to me. I really dislike photos. I’ll smile but I’ve never liked them. I’m not good at taking them spontaneously—I’m not naturally photogenic. I don’t really like selfies and taking photos with people. When I do, I take it from the chin up.
If we evolve as a specifies, I really hope we’re blind. I really feel like this particular sense causes us a lot of emotional, social and mental distress.
I’m a simple person. I understand there is a food chain. I understand that the life cycle starts and ends. I look at other species that don’t need the analytic framework that we’ve created in Western civilization. I wonder what it would be like if we relied on different senses—if I didn’t see you, if I felt you. What would it be like if we relied on being hyper emotionally intuitive instead of relying on our sight?
We judge people. Look at France’s response to the burka. It just seems that the eyes, they govern the soul. I don’t know how to change what people think, so perhaps everyone should just take out that organ.
LJ: You are a successful musician and have such a diverse range of performance experience. What is it like to be a musician and performing all the time?
M: I grew up playing in a band as the bass player and I would be in the back. I would sit on the stage when my dad played. I wasn’t afraid to be on stage. But being out front, there is a personality trait in people who are up there.
I think I had a need to be liked from age 19 to 34 so being on stage felt good. It was nice to be up there. The microphone was a sword and I was a knight. I finally had someone to listen to me.
I used to want to be a painter but didn’t want to sit in a room all day, by myself. I wanted to express myself through painting but it felt too lonely. My dad played music so it was something I always did. I had a realization that I could have the same form of artistic expression through music.
LJ: What is it like being a black women and a musician?
M: It’s really hard for me. You have to have a killer voice or be sexy enough to stand there so people want to look at you, but that’s just women in general. But being a women of color, there is this pressure—it could be self-generated—that you have to be a motherly figure and embrace the whole crowd in this womb like experience. I’ve seen people want that from Lauryn Hill and Aretha Franklin. I’m not going to expect to feel that at a Britney Spears concert. Beyonce, well, she’s suppose to embrace us and uplift our souls. Beyonce has to always appear to be fierce.
I think also, looking the way I look, I’m perceived as an angry black women. There is anger associated with my apparel. Really, I’m like a lamb.
I’ve really struggled with my persona in the last three or four years since I’ve decided to work on this new music. I don’t think I’m a very good entertainer any more. I’m not this ball of energy there to entertain you. I love Billy Joel and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I just want to sing my song and hopefully the words connect with you.
I want to get rid of the eyes too because people don’t listen to music, they look at music. I’m trying to create a different aesthetic. It’s still scary because when I go up there or out there, my insecurities rise to the surface.
LJ: What advice would you give to women about having a more positive body image?
M: There is a thing that has been put out into the world that I would love to change, the idea that beauty fades. I don’t think it fades, it doesn’t fade or lessen, it just changes. You embrace the evolution of your body’s time on the earth. It’s fun. I’m this age now, I look like this. What is my next phase going to be? I think women become much more attractive as time moves on and those lines become softer. I would tell everyone, don’t look to others to define that for you. It’s such a shame that as a gender, we have to do that. Be careful what you’re taking in. I don’t read magazines. I don’t watch porn. Your mind is a garden, be careful what you plant. I’m trying to make more friends who are older. You have to be around different generations so you can have a healthy understanding. Sometimes you’re the teacher and sometimes you’re the student.
And also, go to the Korean spa, or the Russian baths. It’s always great to see these women you don’t know from these different place that you don’t know. Get out of your own shit. Go to the baths and sit with other people. Be less self conscious.
This interview has been edited and condensed.