Meshell Ndgeocello on Gil Scott-Heron
I spoke over the phone briefly with Meshell Ndgeocello about the passing of Gil Scott-Heron recently, and here are some of the things we touched upon. On her immediate reaction to his passing:
Well, my immediate reaction to all death is I hope they had a good transition, and hopefully happened in a way that was good in their mind. That was my first reaction. But then I was quite saddened. I'd only gotten to meet him briefly, and not spend any time with him, so I wish I could have that. And then, after reading the New Yorker article, and the interview with him, that was really interesting, and conflicting.... I think he was an incredible man of contradiction, and it just makes me ask questions about political music in these times, and what happens to someone who's so-called “trying to uplift the people,” and yet within themselves they have an addiction, or an interesting mind, so.... All those things went through my mind, if that makes any sense.
On the first Gil Scott-Heron music she heard:
In D.C., and he also lived in D.C. at the time, I'd seen him play as a kid, about ten times. And plus, “What's the Word Johannesburg,” during all that period, was just something that I'd never heard before. And his poetics... It was just like, to me, one of the main reasons I kind of have the style I think I have, definitely from listening to him. The projection of his voice, the topics. I'm definitely, totally influenced by him. I mean, it was just amazing, I'd never heard anything like that. Bordering on R&B, but had improvisational elements, and you could dance to it, and still be informed. It was like a rare thing.
On the first live performances of his she saw:
I saw him when he was really at the height of his so-called, uh, I guess stamina and greatness. And also a couple shows where he had to just be helped off the stage, or he just seemed sort of out of it. But being one who performs myself, I have off-nights, good nights and nights where you're just in different headspaces, I would always forgive him, because there was always something that came through that was, either just an amazing story.... And also just being in his presence, watching flights of fancy and … you just knew that you were seeing something that, if you hadn't seen it, you probably never would. You were watching an individual, which is a rare thing.
On drawing inspiration from him early on:
If you listen to my first album and just the subject matter, speaking the words, you know. I just think his voice is super-enchanting, and I wanted to somehow recreate that. He wasn't trying to be like a doo-wop super-crooning singer, it was more soulful and earthy. I was definitely influenced by that.
On the inspiration to start performing his work again:
I heard the new recording, and I was just like, this is amazing! And his birthday is April 1st, and it's also my wedding anniversary. [laughs] There was just an uber-connection there. Honestly, people ask me why I don't do my old music. And I can't explain it to them. But it sparked the idea of saying, let me play all the music that inspires me. Inspired me as a youth, inspired my very first recording. So I did a tribute to him, and I just finished doing a tribute to Prince. And I'm gonna pick another artist that as a child was very influential. And that's my way of drawing from the past, and at the same time staying fresh and modern.
On the process of making his work her own:
I just try to take in music, and then I synthesize it, out of my hand and mind, and I can't explain how I do that, I think I'm just lucky [laughs] but I can't explain it. It's more like you're taking his spirit of information, of telling his story, having an assertive vibe, making music that crosses bridges between improv and ... it's soulful. Trying to be a creative-thinking person. He was also a novelist, he just had a great grasp of the human language and could speak his pain or your pain, and he was insightful, and I just try to humbly, respectfully, carry that on. Not to be too preachy, and just emit a vibe of change. If that makes any sense, haha.
On her recent live covers of Prince's work:
I deconstructed it, did all these covers of his songs. Songs that sort of inspired me, a lot of obscure ones, so I'm doing that in Paris. And then I'm gonna pick the next artist, but it might be something like a jazz artist. But yeah, just been doing Prince shows. Used to be very popular, got asked to do it a lot. But it's in a way that's completely different. I don't try to recreate or be a cover band, I try to pay a tribute to a living icon.
Interview conducted Sunday, June 19th by telephone. Minimally edited for clarity and relevance.