At the time of release, Me’Shell NdegéOcello was not a complete unknown, but she wasn’t known outside of her Washington, DC circle. She had played bass for years and was known for being a young powerhouse, but she hadn’t yet established herself as a major artist. Considering the work she did, one might argue that she didn’t want to be a major artist but eventually she found herself on Madonna’s then-new Maverick record label. Maverick was partly created to showcase some of Madonna’s interests but primarily to show her as a record label CEO with ten successful years in the music industry. If The Beatles had Apple, Elton John had The Rocket Record Company, The Rolling Stoned had Rolling Stones, and Prince had Paisley Park, then Madonna was ready to show that she had hers. NdegéOcello was one of her early signees.
With Madonna’s name attached to hers, people were not sure what to expect from a female bassist, born Michelle Johnson. Immediately, a female musician might have lead people to wondering if she played jazz. Yes, she did. By the time one finished listening to her debut album, one couldn’t help realize she was so much more, a singer/songwriter/musician who could arguably outshine the co-owner of her label.
“Now brothers be base-in
Running from the beat-down cops that be chasin’
Running out of time, running out of patience
In this war of the conscious mind”
These Lullabies were not going to be about Little Jack Horner putting his thumb in a pie to find a plum.
“And damn I thought I was shootin’up Africa in my veins
White man voodoo slow my brain the while man fights wars and enslaves
All in God’s name
What ya trying to achieve with your suntan lotion
You wanna keep me down keep me down
Revolution against this racist institution
The white man shall forever sleep with one eye open
Criticize, set aside
Livin’ in the midst of genocide I hear voices voices are what I hear
Uprise would you die for your right”
If Curtis Mayfield recorded an album about a man named John Shaft who was trying to make his community better by getting rid of the pusher man, NdegéOcello showed that 20 years later, people are still struggling and “trying to get over”, and the pain still hurts. The track marks were becoming more difficult to hide.
Soul On Ice is a book written by Eldridge Cleaver and published in 1968, the year of NdegéOcello’s birth. In this song, she explores what some might do to try to fit in with another culture just to get by or simply pass, and sometimes that also touches on what some within their own culture will do to validate what it means to be what they feel it means to be what they are. At the time, a number of hip-hop artists were doing songs about “dirt road, white girl”, a way to say “why do you want to look, speak, and dress this way when it’s all cosmetic to you? You can remove the clothing and make-up when you’re home, wipe the dirt away before you go to sleep.” At this point, NdegéOcello throws out boomerangs and she knows exactly who, or perhaps what, her intended target is:
“Creams sad passion deferred dreams
I am a reflection of you
Black and blue pure as the tears of coal-colored children crying for acceptance
You can’t run from yourself
She’s just an illusion
Black love anthems play behind white-skinned affection
New Birth stereophonic Spanish fly let her cry
But you no longer burn for the motherland brown skin
You want blond-haired, blue-eyed soul, Snow White passion without the hot comb”
One can equate that as a lullaby of the plantation, or parallel to what Cleaver was dealing with when he wrote Soul On Ice while in prison, or simply NdegéOcello dealing with what she knew, what she saw, what she experienced, and putting that into something that could have fit in perfectly on the Super Fly soundtrack.
“Dial the 7 digits, It’s quite simple
I’ll be there in a hurry, Jack be quick Jack be nimble
Call me up when you feel the need to talk
When words aren’t of the essence I’ll soothe you with my presence
A kiss here and there from head to toe
Just call me up when you want more
You can be king for a day
I’ll be your queen, let me treat you that way”
“I’d be content to just sit here and talk to you
In my dreams you love me and me only
The way you kiss and hold me
Love is what I search and search to find
But until then I’ll just dream for the meantime”
The song is done as an incredible, soulful and jazzy slow jam, going back and forth between spoken word and vocals, as she sensually caresses her own mind in the hopes that other things may be catered to when that time comes.
“In my script there’s a love scene, picture it
Candles with warm apple cider
Sly Stone on the radio
Oh, caress your funky dreads in the candle’s glow
Whisper in my ear
“‘Cause I’m in the mood for love”
I’m just a hopeless romantic
Hopelessly in love with you
“Cry my tears by candlelight, I’m just another lonely heart
Here on a lonely night, screams of passions
I call out your name making love to another
Just to ease my pain, will this ever change?
Will you ever feel the same way about me?”
The melody that fades-out the song almost hints at child-like innocence, as if someone is doing hopscotch and discovering what it means to have a first crush, and always feeling that way when a desire is wanted but cannot be fulfilled at this time.
“We could read some Ntozake Shange
and I loose myself in the book
I escape to my heavenly tomb
Or we could read the voice
It’s your choice, I just want to get to know you
Your lovely black face
Accompanied by some strictly roots
As we venture, it’s just nice to be near you”
Words expressed, but not heard? Emotions felt, but not spoken externally? As the song gently fades and the instrumental backing moves towards hearing nothing but NdegéOcello playing a slightly mournful-yet-optimistic goodbye, you realize that this was not the lullaby you expected to hear, but are comforted in knowing that as one fades into slumber, there is always that metaphorical promise of a new day, and whatever we’re able to make of it.
If NdegéOcello herself felt as if she didn’t know how to fit herself in with the rest of the world, what to make of an album that for some may have felt like a confusing array of sounds unsure of how to unite? I always felt the mixture of soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, and spoken word fit perfectly, and that one didn’t have to limit themselves to a constraint, if they allowed themselves to be free.
One of the most notable things about the album was the liner notes, which featured some of her own writings. It also featured a few statements, including one that hit me and I still remember to this day:
“the alternative to hip-hop is silence”
Hip-hop was slowly dividing itself to where one didn’t, couldn’t, or refused to recognize the other, so it seemed to become one group of those who wanted the attention, and the other who simply wanted to be. Could hip-hop welcome in someone like NdegéOcello who could not only rap, but sing and play an instrument? Forget the fact that people like Shock G. and Kwame Holland were already playing instruments in their own music and productions, but the scope of what hip-hop was meant to represent in 1993 was very different than it would be at the dawn of the internet’s first hip-hop communities. Technically, NdegéOcello was an outsider even though hip-hop felt as if it was without rules. Technically, Beck’s “Loser” is a twisted hip-hop song but he could be considered someone who rapped. Or maybe it was a credibility issue, that he could “rap” but no one care call him a rapper.
Regardless, Plantation Lullaby showed what could happen if one chose to go beyond the boundaries of what was established so you could create your own territory, even if that territory made you feel alone and isolated. One means of isolation will eventually lead you to find the promised land, be it within the plantation or not. However, part of the album’s beauty is listening to her struggle through the ways of the plantation and coming to the conclusion that we can make it exist or not, especially when you reach the epiphany of what you really want. It’s the eternal search for a lonely heart so that it’s possible for them to beat as one. That’s a lullaby worth singing about, or in this case, 13 Plantation Lullabies worth singing and remembering.