For its Music Talks program, the MCA pairs genre-defying musicians with prolific artists, activists, writers, and thinkers to take on big ideas in art and culture. Audiences are invited to join an array of emerging and established musicians for intimate evenings of performance and conversation that reveal their inspirations, creative processes, and projects.
This event featured singer-songwriter and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who has performed with Prince, Madonna, Missy Elliott, The Rolling Stones, and many others. Ndegeocello performs a musical palette that ranges from funk and soul to reggae, hip-hop, and rock. She is joined by spoken-word artist, LBGTQ activist, author, and long-time collaborator Staceyann Chin for an evening of conversation and musical exploration.
“Every day I get better at knowing that it is not a choice to be an activist; rather, it is the only way to hold on to the better parts of my human self. It is the only way I can live and laugh without guilt.” —Staceyann Chin, "The Other Side of Paradise," 2010
“I don’t think I believe in politics anymore. I understand how it works. I have to participate, but I want to prepare people. It’s not an easy fix. Let me address the things that people see as ephemeral instead. [My work is] just a vehicle for people to come together and talk. It just allows people to create space—not ranting and raving, but we can sit with each other and use ritual to deal with these questions and discomfort.” —Meshell Ndegeocello reflecting on her work in an interview with WNYC News, 2019
Expandable Text of Transcript
Good evening, everyone. How are you doing tonight?
[Applause and cheers]
Thank you for coming. Wow. This is such a beautiful room. I'm so excited. I had been getting text messages from all of you – from many of you – about how beautiful the room is tonight so, thank you for being here.
My name is Tara Aisha Willis. I'm associate curator in Performance and Public Practice here at the MCA.
[Someone starts to clap]
No. All right.
Thank you, but no. I am really excited to welcome Meshell Ndegeocello and Staceyann Chin here tonight.
[Applause and cheers]
I have a few housekeeping announcements so, please, stay with me. We would love it if you would use your social media tonight but please, turn off your ringer and please, use the hashtag #MCAChicago when you do it. So, take a moment now to do that while I talk to you for a while. Also, right after the show, Staceyann will do a brief book signing in the lobby right outside these doors where her book table was. So, if you got your book already or need to get it, get in that line fast because it will be brief, all right?
And I just want to share a few things coming up on this stage and also, elsewhere in the building in our Performance and Public Programming this next couple months. Next week, we have a continuation of our dialogue series, which is on inheritance this spring in the public sphere. We'll be chatting with comedian and director Kiran Deol and artist Jordan Nassar and Kenyatta Hinkle on migration across generations. That's December 10th. Tickets are free, all right?
Related to our exhibition on the fourth floor – if you haven't been yet, please go – Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago – we're having an evening of celebration, performance, and dialogue inspired by the connections between Lagos, Nigeria and Chicago. And that will be on April 14th. All right. Next, in the theater, we have Naomi Rincón Gallardo, who's created a video art punk operetta – The Formaldehyde Trip. This is like, a really relevant list of programming for this group. I love it. [Laughs]
So, that takes you on a psychedelic underworld journey with martyred indigenous feminist activist “Bety” Cariño, full of mythological creatures and surreal imagery. That's April 2 through 4. Earlier that week, at a talk happening on Cesar Chavez day, we'll address how artists use fiction and fabulation to re-imagine our colonized world. So, a few other notes – a few "Thanks yous" in particular. Thank you to our ASL interpreters.
[Applause and cheers]
Yes. Julika Lashay and Veramarie Baldoza. They're amazing. They're with us often.
Also, shout out to our Enact members. Enact is a group of MCA donors and supporters dedicated to supporting performances and public programs here. It really happens because of them. And also, our programs and performances here are all about gathering together and having an experience together. So, most, and last of all, thank you for being here tonight.
Please, give a warm welcome to Christopher Bruce, Staceyann Chin, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Enjoy.
[Applause and cheers]
[Inaudible female due to music]
Thanks for coming out. Let me give you a Corona bump. Thank you for coming out. Give me the Corona bump.
[Applause and cheers]
I'm very grateful. I appreciate you coming. I'm so grateful.
Thank you for coming out. Mad, mad, love.
I appreciate you coming. I met an amazing young person last night named Anthony and he said something about the summertime in Chicago. It's like, the people come out because they've made it through winter.
And James Baldwin said that he's trying to prepare us all for the winter of life – the long winter of life. So, again, I thank you so much for coming.
Hey. So, we got this show. We made up this show like, what? 2016.
Do you remember what happened in 2016?
Oh, Jaelynn take it down. Here we go.
2016, it was just after, you know, the shithead just happened. And we were all like – you know, just before that, we were like, all, like, "Oh my God, Obama – he not that radical, but we love that motherfucker."
He's so fly. We love – like, you know, black people in the white house with two black children in the white house. We were just like, on like, some like, black people shit. And then, 2000 – we were gonna get a woman. It was gonna be like, not the perfect woman but it was gonna be a woman.
And then, that shit happened, and we were all just like, reeling. And we didn't know what to do. And we were like, mad. Sorrowful and yearning for like, our not-so-radical black president. And we didn't know what to do. Didn't know where to go.
And Meshell called us all together and said, "We should fellowship. When we do know where to go and we don't know what to do, we should meet and gather like they did in churches and protests." And we came up with this idea that we would meet – kind of like church but we would use James Baldwin kind of like the bible. And we would use like, radical poets as preachers. And we would just meet and hold space for each other and try to see if we could like, survive this orange Corona together.
So, this is what we made.
You can take that light down for me if that's okay. Yeah. This is what we made.
What's another world for "trouble"? 'Cause that's what we're in. What's another word for "trouble"? 'Cause that's what we're in. What's another word for "trouble"? 'Cause that's what we're in. What's another word for "trouble"? 'Cause that's what we're in.
Brother, be right here right now – we can't lose our way. The struggle starts now right here today. We talk around the truth. It's time to make a change. Put our aching hearts to use.
What's another word for "trouble"? 'Cause that's what we're in. Everyone's down for the struggle until it begins. Pain makes you humble and hurt is hard to sing. What's another word for "trouble"?
What's another word for "trouble"? 'Cause that's what we're in. Everyone's down for the struggle until it begins. Pain makes you humble and hurt is hard to sing. What's another word for "trouble"?
[Stops singing, begins to play bass]
White supremacy must be in the water – the water being ingested by the prosecutor, the police, and the politicians who remain silent while a steady staccato of black bodies, falling like leaves in Ferguson, in Cleveland. It is Autumn in America. And the world has lost its fucking mind. White cops killing on camera, forcing us to relive the constant death of our kin. A new story cracks our consciousness every day.
Every day, we watch viral videos, become more and more numb, more and more struck dumb by the sheer gall of these cops, steady snuffing out black lives in their made-in-America home movies. I'm consuming these murders on repeat. The helpless bile rising angry in my chest. Public shootings documented by onlookers – images passed around after the event. This phenomenon is black lynching 2.0.
Except this time, we are spectators in our own genocide, consuming the flesh of these murdered women and men who were never willing martyrs in any movement. Dead children of parents who now mourn them without closure, without a day in court. We are moving backwards through history – back to the time when black mothers who lost children to white arrogance had not recourse – that shameful time that supposedly ended with Emmett Till, with Herbert Lee, with Medgar Evers, with Harriet Moore, with Malcom X. Back then, there was no hypocrisy about the system being stacked against anyone with a smidgen of melanin staining the history of their skin. Five decades after the Black Civil Rights Movement and we are still not protected by the law.
This is not what we voted for when we voted in our first black president. This is not what Freedom Fighters hoped for when they marched against segregation in Selma and Chicago and Birmingham and Montgomery. This is not the dream that Doctor Martin Luther King died for in Memphis, Tennessee. 50 years later and race relations in America is still a fucking cauldron bubbling angry under the ugly swirl of black despair, held in place by the lack of white accountability parading as penal system in which 40 percent of those incarcerated come from a group which only consists of 12 percent of the entire fucking population. With numbers like that, what good does it do me to comply with those in uniform?
Body riddled by 41 bullets for raising your hands while holding a candy bar; shot dead at 12 for holding a toy guy in a fucking park; strangled by an illegal choke hold for selling loose cigarettes; arrested without cause for walking and talking while black – all this while we steady paying taxes and voting for white presidents presiding over these United States as if black death did not matter. This country continues to default on the promise of citizenship for black people. A system sworn to protect us owes us something when it fails. A system sworn to protect us owes us something when it fails. In this roll call for protection, we have to call for all black bodies.
We all must be accounted for. Straight, queer, transgender, lesbian, feminist, Muslim, man, woman, immigrant, dark skin, non-binary, tall, fat, skinny, light skin – in the face of any killing or sorrow – must be one. The rage we express must be one. And though we speak with 1,000 voices, we must only rise with one sound. We must call all the names of the dead.
We have to say, "Trayvon Martin". We have to say, "Tamir Rice". You have to say, "Yvette Smith". You have to say, "Michael Brown". You have to say, "Kiwi Herring".
You have to say, "Sean Bell". You have to say, "Tarika Wilson". You have to say "Sandra Bland". Could have been any one of us. You have got to find the fortitude to keep this fight for ourselves, for our children, for our children's children.
It is time. You put your fucking body where you say your fucking politics lie. This is not a moment to invoke the sweet by and by. This is a moment for civil fucking disobedience. No matter what you do to our flesh or how long you wage war against this black spirit, our bodies will always remain a force of resistance to the proliferation of white supremacy, no matter where we come from, no matter how we got here.
Inside these brutal walls of the United States of America, white power must always meet fire when it meets us. If there's any humanity left in you, get up. Stand up. Sit in. Join a fucking protest.
Pick up a fucking pen. You have to write and scream and wail and march. You have to pull down this fucking racist flag. You have to plan. You have to scheme.
You have to plot your way forward. Fucking strategize. It's time to raise the roof on these motherfuckers. It's time for Americans to come to terms with the permanent fact of black bodies. You have to get used to us, white people. Make a decision to do right by us.
Do it willingly or unwillingly. We don't even fucking care.
As for you progressive white liberals who are always among us, you have got to find those words to speak to your racist white relatives you keep disowning. All of you better get with the fucking program because black bodies are here to stay. Because black bodies are never, ever, ever, ever, going away.
I'm just walking trying to get home. I ain't doing nothing, Just leave me alone. Lord, give me wings to fly before they shoot me down and I die. Don't let them shoot me down and I die.
Woah-oh-oh. Put down your gun and take your hands off me. Woah, woah, woah-oh-oh, put down your guns and take your hands off me. Officer. Officer, Officer, I know you're afraid like me, but look at my hands – please, don't shoot me.
Woah, woah, woah-oh-oh, put down your guns and take your hands off me. Woah, woah, woah-oh-oh, put down your gun and take your hands off me.
[End of song]
In the balance of human biology, all bodies are created equal. Everybody's about 70 percent water, regardless of race, religion, gender, sex, sexual orientation. We all die after about seven days without drink. But the idiots obsessed with category have decided that a double X chromosome designates me subordinate to those with an X and a Y. Intersect those with two Xs with a fact of my blackness and my existence is now coded as dangerous, hostile; a direct threat to the endurance of a white patriarchy – and everybody knows that white men have spent centuries appropriating what they wanted.
The gold they found in Africa wasn't enough so, they packed human bodies head to toe, submerged in a swamp of our own urine and feces. They dragged us across violent waters. Many of us drowned our young rather than let them survive at the mercy of white men and their sons. Just to keep breathing, some of us became one dimensional. In the public imagination, in real life, in books, we had to become one thing or the other – spinster or a mother, virgin or victim, damsel or whore.
Some of us went underground. Some of us let go – slipping into that sunken place. Others revolted, took up arms, crawled through sewage, defied geography to build new lives in new cities. And that's how I find myself in fucking Brooklyn.
Reading tales of Nubians bathing naked in the Nile, Kush-eyed queens equal to kings – all of them praying to a black woman named Isis, the most powerful God among goddesses. I imagine if I were her. If I were Isis, I would use my mite to smite every motherfucker who ever looked at a little girl with lust in his flesh. I would exact vengeance on behalf of every black woman who has disproportionately born the weight of racial and sexual violence while everybody in the Suffragette Movement and the Black Civil Rights Movement and the LGBT movement turned a blind eye to her swollen lips mouthing, "Me too". For centuries, black women have endured a culture of rape and racism combined.
For centuries, the world stood silent while black men and girls – black women and girls – were bullied by black men and white men and white women alike. For centuries, "rape" was a word black mothers never said aloud but every black daughter knew what that meant. It meant, "Lie still". It meant, "It will pass." It meant, "Keep quiet."
It meant, "Don't you dare shame this good black family." And then, one day, something brilliant happened. A woman named Tarana Burke inspired wealthy white women to say, "Me too" too.
[Laughter and applause]
And herein – herein wriggles the strange rubric of America's particular strain of racism. Ironically, the viral mobility of the "Me Too" hashtag was only possible because a white woman with power re-tweeted a black woman's words. Two words which unleashed a wildfire of public testimony pulling the shroud of sexual violation from the shadows, shoving it onto prime-time TV and yet, 12 years after Tarana Burke's "Me Too" moment, black women are still largely missing from the public dialogue about sexual assault. Inside of this one-sided fucking sisterhood, we are so tired of being disregarded. And if you white women ever gave us the room to speak candidly, this is the motherfucker letter we might pen to you white feminists – you who's crying consistently drowns out the sound of our suffering.
[Audience vocally responds]
Dear weeping white women, –
[Audience voices encouragements]
even as we cannot find safe space to show you when or where or how we were torn open, we are only holding this sorrow to keep our very hearts from exploding. We are unable to process this centuries of pain with you because we are exhausted from the hundreds of years of holding you and your fucking children. We are so unable to trust you because you have never been able to stand by us and we are so tired of explaining this rage. We are so tired of explaining this fury. And if you wish to know anything more about a genesis of our anger, you go and fucking Google us.
Or you can read some Brittney Cooper or some Bell Hooks or any other blogs of the bevy of black women writers your white publishers are too afraid to publish. For centuries, black women have been carrying the weight of your fucking white fragility year after year, marching for everybody else's freedom, protecting everybody else's privilege but ours. Well, the time has come, and we are so fucking tired we, this crazy mad gaggle of global witches and fucking hags, we are done braiding your beads of silent acceptance. Simply put, in this fucking century, we intend to take up more space. Black women are crafting a collective response to centuries of being under everybody's water.
We have become a rising tsunami of fury, come back to take back what was carried away without consent. And while we're here being candid, I might as well confess to you that I don't give a fuck if you don't like my big mouth – black, like my lover's ass, it has never endeared me to the gatekeepers of white civility. My proclivity to speak the unspeakable is essentially the only defense I have against your indefensible violence of your man-made history. Inside my house – inside my Brooklyn house – there is no shallow talk of birds and bees. We trade indecipherable metaphors for concrete words that do not confuse my daughter.
I tell her, "Your mouth, your elbow, your hair, your arms, your legs, your vagina, your whole God-damn body belongs to nobody but you. And if you ever feel even a tiny bit unsafe, you open your mouth. You scream. I will always believe you if you tell me."
In a world that's already demonstrated how much it hates black women, this is what it means for us to be assigned the label of "black" and "girl" and yet – yet – black women continue to survive, to thrive, to arrive into adulthood – to – with the fucking ability to laugh and love – and wear hoop earrings and tight skirts and found social movements to liberate other motherfuckers from bondage. If any of this sounds like I am speaking your truth, this poem be for you, my love. If you've ever had to argue that you are no less deserving than your white counterpart, I am speaking to you, my love. If you have ever been inspired by the magic of a black woman with thighs and asses that move mountains in their stride, if you have ever been told you speak to fiercely from the thick lip of your own truth, if you have ever been called, 'Girl' like it was a fucking insult, if you've ever been called 'Bitch' you step forward now. If you are itching to light a fucking bonfire in the house of the white patriarchy, you come and stand with black women now if you want to be free like Harriet Tubman, weapon in hand, wading through unfriendly waters, her power compelling the freedom of even those who did not want to be motherfucking free.
If you desire to be confrontational like Sojourner, if you wish to be audacious like Audre, antagonistic like Angela, gangsta like Winnie Mandela, angry like Assata Shakur, come roar with us at our rallies. Sit beside us in schools. Sing with us in church. Stand with us where it matters. Vote with us. Motherfucking vote for us.
Travel with us in the virtual, in the flesh, over these waters they continue to use against us as weapons. Across the lands of this rock, we are all knowing it is home. Let us fire open a crack. Crack the ground wide open with an uprising that will never again die down. Let us come together and light a fire.
Let us use water – no more water; we gonna use fire. Next time, what we say? No more water; we gonna use fire. Next time, what we say? No more water – fire next time.
No more water – fire next time. No more water – fire next time. No more water – fire next time.
[Applause and cheers]
I love you.
Oh, Staceyann Chin. Yeah.
How you all doing?
[Cheers and applause]
You feel good?
Now, what we were about to talk about?
Oh, what we gonna talk about?
What are we gonna talk about? You know, I'm not much of a talker. I only agreed to do this 'cause you were gonna be here. [Laughs]
So, they kicking us both out.
Yeah. I don't know. My mind has been on South Carolina. I don't know. What's your mind been on?
I'm just questioning. I don't know. What? Sometimes, I wonder, do we, as a people – so-called "people" – poor people's what I connect with – vote against our own interests? I wonder. But that's just where I am. Where are you?
I mean, I just feel like, you know, the choices are so limited in terms of what we have to do. We always have to choose, you know? It's like, when I was young, I felt like I had to choose between gay and being black [Meshell Ndegeocello laughs] all the time, and I feel like now, they're presenting us with, you know, either we're gonna choose like, you know, a woman or gonna choose – I don't know. I mean, it's kind of wild, you know? What we need is less white men and less old white men, you know what I'm saying?
Yeah. But it reminds me of what you've been teaching me. We're not a single issue. [Laughs] It's not a single-issue experience in life.
For sure. I mean –
And you gotta remember, even white men gave black men the ability to vote before the gave white women. Misogyny just is beyond your understanding. And sometimes, I have to tell white women that. You gotta understand like, they even let black men vote before you.
Yeah. I think it's the penis thing.
You're always, "No."
Yeah. I don't know. I think it's a power thing.
Yeah. But, I mean, that's where they – they've infused the penis with all this power.
I don't know. Yeah. I don't know.
I want to ask you –
Yeah. You – you know how I feel about that. I'm like, "It's not gender. It's what's between here, not here."
I think it begins with that but I think it's – I think gender is the weapon that they use to wield power. I mean, little girls – or female bodies – aren't categorized in a place of like, subjugation because of their gender expression. It's because of the sex. And I think when you cross the sexual boundaries, the pre-assigned boundaries of sexual and sex behavior, I think that's when gender starts to become a problem, because you know – we having an inside conversation here.
I know. Yeah. They told us to just – yeah. I know.
Yeah. I guess I'm – you know, I think that's why we make a good balance. I just believe there's this essence within the human being –
You believe your work has always been –
–that transcends – when I play music, it's the only time I feel raceless and genderless. It's the only time I feel like I found my place in this realm, you know? So – and also, again from what you taught me – it's funny, we made this work on James Baldwin and then, I had to look at his flaws 'cause over time, everyone's flaws come to the surface. And you led me to Audre Lord and I guess with this election process, I'm realizing you cannot use the master's tools to tear down the master's house.
So, back to the gender thing. I don't – I meet women who abuse power. I have – I raise sons so, I've been trying to be really careful about saying certain things about the male gender because I've been lucky in my life to meet some beautiful, amazing men. And as I work through life – and trust me, it was hard. It was hard.
I had horrible things done to me and experienced as a child, and that's what's brought me to like, your mind is extraordinary and your heart and your spirit transcends any of those things that are your body, in my limited opinion.
I want to push back a little bit and say –
You always do.
And say that, you know, it becomes dangerous when you're critiquing a systemic behavior and then, you – when I talk about whiteness, I'm not talking about my good white friend who I love, who treat me well, and understand that, you know, if some shit happened in the street, she must come out and use her whiteness to stand between me and the cops.
That's a good white person, you know what I mean?
Your white witness. Yes.
Yes. So, when I talk about the patriarchal shit, when I talk about the systemic patriarchy, I talk about the way in which maleness and manhood and the white patriarchy pushes back against the rest of us who don't confirm to its idea of value. I'm not saying men are bed. I mean, all the men I've had sex with have been wonderful men.
[Laughter and applause]
It's years ago. Don't be shame. Come on.
I'm not. I –
You're so cute.
Oh my God.
We all know that there are good men in the world.
You know, so, I don't have to say that. Just like I don't have to keep saying, "There are good white people" every time I talk about race.
And any man who feel like I'm coming to get him because I'm talking about the patriarchy, you need to fucking go to therapy and do some work.
Just like all the white people who feel like I'm coming to get you because I'm talking about like, some white shit. Like, you need to go – you need to come get your people and like, come to the side of a white group and talk about like, your fragility. Like, I – so, all of that to say that I think the patriarchy is alive and well. I think racism is alive and well and I think that – just like there are fucked up black people – I have – may have sex with some terrible black women.
No, just – woo, okay.
You know, I mean, you try to make light of it, but you see the point I'm making?
That people are people, you know what I mean? But then, there are systems set up to privilege other people and there are systems set up to oppress other people and we can't ignore that, you know? But I want to ask you a question. Like, were you always political? Like, or –
Oh, no, no, no, no, no.
You know, how – yes.
No. Not at all.
Were you always like a good – come on. Tell it.
A good what? Finish that sentence.
Finish that. A good what?
Were you always a good human? Let's leave it there.
Oh, no. Oh, no. Remember we did – we celebrated –
–Indesaki Shangay and I had to say how I came in contact with her work is I was involved with someone and –
–I grabbed them in a certain way. I definitely had a certain sort of energy. I consider myself sort of like a two-spirit person. I've never really thought of it. Like I said, my works in a specific way. But I definitely was raised by men. I was raised by mostly men. My mother was absent. Both you and I are –
We share that. Yeah.
We share that – the abandonmentship.
Yeah. And so, I definitely had taken on some things from the patriarchy I had to check in myself and so, no, I don't think I was. It was until – I mean, the amazing women that have come into my life gave me books and movies and sort of opened my mind up. But I don't think I was political. I was one of those people – I just wanted to get, day to day, to see how I could live my life differently from my parents.
I was just telling my son – he was like, "Did you want to be famous?" And I was like, "Not really. I just wanted to know – like, I grew up in D.C. – if I was shot in the street, that someone would know it was me." And that was the extent of how my mind worked. If I could just play well enough in the local scene, then if something happened to me, that's how it was.
But my politicism didn't come till much later. I still struggle with voting and the electoral college. I still struggle with believing it and participating in the system.
This piece of Baldwin work is interesting because, you know, we're kind of like, taking on political work head to head here, you know?
And everybody knows my work and I'm just like, you know, I don't take no prisoners. I shoot everybody.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – ah – yeah.
And you're more like a peace flower kind of human being.
You know, I think the struggle for me, in this process, making this Baldwin work with you, is to strike the balance between like, telling the hard truths and like, starting the bonfire in the house of white patriarchy, and also kind of like, giving room to humanity. And I think it's one of the things that maybe we all struggling with right now, because every time you turn on the TV, you want to kill somebody, you know what I mean? Every time you watch what's happening – every article is like, you about to bust a fucking vein in your neck. And I think it's made us all a little edgier, a little harsher with each other. Like, I mean, American families now can't go sit at – we used to at least be able to pretend that we like each other at Thanksgiving.
I mean, now, it's like, "I ain't sitting with you 'cause I think you're the vote for Trump" you know what I mean? And so, there's this kind of like, dark, deep, bitterness going through with us now. And that maybe – I'm saying, one of the things I struggle with is to try and remember that – and I'm raising a kid. She's eight and the child is just all like, love. It's like, she just want to love everybody.
I mean, she's like, "Yeah, you know, when Amelia's getting cranky, all I know she's hungry, so, I give her a cookie. You know, when Alana's being like, you know, mean, I know that she is losing too much so then, we change the game." So, and I'm like, "No. You should play the game and win."
And she's like, "Why? Then, we won't have any fun because one person is like, not having any fun." And I'm like, "Jesus Christ."
And so, I can't bring that like, you know, "blow up everything" energy in my everyday life, you know? While I could do it with the women and then, I would leave, you can't really do it with your kid 'cause, you know, your kid can't leave and so, you're just really fucking up the kid forever. If you can't find any joy or sweetness – I mean, I see Roger over there in that corner. We were young poets in New York City together and lighting fires every day and now, we're like, raising these girl children that we have to like, find joy and sweetness and we have to give them hope in the world. And maybe I want to open it up to the audience now –
–and ask them – maybe you all could tell me how to like, not kill everybody.
So, I now invite you to like, you know, ask questions. And we don't have a lot of time, so, let's ask the questions economically or else –
I just really want to make a statement. On that last little thing – it's about you being happy with you. And the only thing you can do is accept people as they are, you know? Because if you try to actually adjust yourself to everybody else's situation, you'd be batshit.
Everybody don't answer that question.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Please know, you can't ask us anything. [Laughs] Just don't feel shy.
They gonna ask you shit, then you're gonna be blushing.
On that note... Hi, Meshell and hi Miss Staceyann. [Inaudible] –
Why you say "Meshell" and then "Miss" to me?
[Applause and laughter]
My brain just froze. I'm sorry.
I'm fucking with you. Go ahead.
My bad. Hello. I hope I wasn't disrespectful. I'm sorry.
I did have a question to both of you just about your creativity in general. I consider myself a writer as well and a song writer and I'm just trying to explore that part of myself so, one of the things I struggle with is just trying to create that space to allow myself to be free to create and to embrace like, whether it's beauty or whether it's pain, whether it's drama or whether it's just light, I want to be able to kind of channel that energy. So, my question to both of you is – how do you foster that mental, emotional, and spiritual space to allow yourself to embrace your own self-expression and your own creativity?
Meshell, take it.
How do I foster that is what you said – foster it, as if it's something I have to do. I – like I said, I never was much of a talker and music is my solace. If I worked at the museum, I still would go home every night and try to make something. I had a child when I was 19. I just had no – there's no excuse for why you're not writing or why you're not doing. That's all within yourself.
And I don't mean to be harsh but there is no fostering. You just have to do it. There's no – you're not gonna have a cheerleader. You're not gonna have somebody patting you on your back telling you you're doing great. You must find that within yourself.
And I've just been teaching lately and I really struggle with that with a lot of young people. I know you get the thumbs up and little hearts and this instantaneous gratification in the world, but when it comes to your craft, study all you can, learn as much as you can, and then, when you don't need it – yeah, throw it away. Read. If you're on – read. To be a great writer and to master language, you have to read and just do. Just no excuse not to do.
Yeah. Please, feel free. That's – the reason I wanted to have people sit is because that's the other thing – the audience versus the person on stage. Your energy affects the room just as much as me standing up here with this microphone, you know? This is a lot of power, yeah, right? But you have that, too.
I have a question.
Yes, please. Who has a question?
How do you motivate yourself –
Wave, Stephanie, I'm old. I can't see.
Wave. Yeah. Wave. Oh, hi, Stephanie.
How do you motivate yourself when you don't feel motivated and –
See, these are –
–and you're feeling down and you have talent. You have talent. So, how do you do that?
Hey, Christopher, would you come back? Would you come back, Christopher? How do you motivate when you feel down? Down. What is this down we speak of?
What is this direction? What is this down? I would like to play a song, 'cause I can't explain it.
[Cheers and applause]
What is this down you speak of? I'd like to play "Good day/Bad". Huh? Yeah. What is this down you speak of?
I don't mean to dismiss it. All you have control of is how you respond to it. I think the down is good. We're the only culture that – like, it's good to be down. That's where you find stuff.
It's weeding. You weed out your shit, you know? It's good to be down. I mean, it's the sad songs that bring us together. It's the ones that make you feel not alone.
When you're not motivated, go outside. Do something else. Make love. Eat something. I mean, I could on.
I kind of think of it as self-editing in a way. If you're not supposed to make something, move on. Do something else. I find myself – I've been painting. I find other things to do.
I'm like – there's this waiting for inspiration. I'm sure there are many memes and quick ideas, you know, to say about that, but don't make a good day bad, you know? Don't make a good day bad. You ready?
And music and words are powerful. Like, the sadness is powerful.
[Begins to sing]
I'm surprised every sunrise the earth would have me back. Surprised my knees hold me up and that's not all gone black. And I'm sure by nightfall I will burn up all I have so, don't go out your way to make a good day bad. [Speaks] 'Cause I used to. Had to grow up from that.
So, don't go out your way to make a good day bad.
This is amazing Christopher Bruce.
[Applause and cheers]
He's from Chicago – Chicago's own.
[Applause and cheers continues]
That makes me want to do this _____.
Yeah. All right. So, do we have any more questions or anything? But yeah, don't – they – you know, mind – this is all brain activity. Control your brain activity. You the only one that can, you know?
Before you speak, I'll just add to it and say – you know, we are the generation – we like to get to the fucking like, mountain top without the climb, you know? You want to have the perfect relationship without having the year of like, shit, you know? Things get good when you work through bad shit. So, we have to get passed this idea that perfection is this final resting place. Perfection is but a moment – a door we pass through to somewhere else.
When one moment is perfect, you take it and you roll. When I teach – I hear you talk about teaching – and I tell young people, "Live. You can't write without living. You can't write about heartbreak without getting your heart broken. You can't know what loss feels like unless you've lost. You can't lose anybody until you love somebody."
So, I would say, "Don't sit in your room on your expensive ass phone, you know? I promise you that like, sex is better than texting."
[Applause and laughter]
You know, after this Corona passes, you should just get yourself –
[Cheers and applause]
–you should get yourself some prophylactics, some saran wrap –
–and just – and just go. You know, that's –
Oh my God. Oy vey.
You know, but the sex is only metaphor for being present for your life, you know? Sex makes people like, squirmy and laugh and gets them to get open enough to hear the fact that I'm saying – go and live your life. Be present with somebody. Make a mistake.
Make a mistake. Yeah.
And when you're young – youth is for like, falling and breaking shit. That's why you heal faster. Go out there and like, live and do and I mean, you know, with this – just get busy living, man. I was – I remember being like, 22 years old and on a train from like, Munich to Copenhagen and somewhere around Düsseldorf, I was drinking wine out of a woman I had just – her navel. I was just drinking. Like, that's living.
[Cheers and applause]
Yes. That's living the life.
Get busy and be alive. Like, take a chance. Live in the world. Like, just fucking get out of your room, man.
[Applause and laughter]
I suddenly feel compelled to leave and go do something else right now.
I'll hang out here. It is such an honor to be in fellowship with you all. My question is about choosing James Baldwin. Why James Baldwin rather than an Audre Lord or Nina Simone or a June Jordan? What spoke to you particularly about him and his work and what resonates to this day for you?
It's a letter to his nephew, The Fire Next Time, to prepare him. And this is – how to explain it. My mother is mixed race and was born in like, 1940 and my father was in the military. I'm one of three children, two that survived. And, like I said, I had a very difficult childhood.
I'm very grateful for it. It's made me who I am. But when I picked up The Fire Next Time, having not been brought up in a political household, it really helped me understand and have compassion for my parents. Because as we sit here and talk about our like, "Oh, what motivates us to write?" it's very funny – you have to literally stop yourself and remind yourself that civil rights is only as old as I am and that before that, my mother – my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my grandfather, and all my cousins, are all domestics. I come from – my family's from the plantation of Phillip Morris. That's why I don't smoke anymore, you know?
You have to understand like, we have all this. But before that, life was not that easy to meander in your thoughts and make art. And so, in the book, he says – what James Baldwin struggles with is the inability for American to acknowledge the crime. And so, when I read that, it just really helped me. And also, the fact that – I grew up in a religious household and he – it was so many similar things in that book that mirrored my life.
And it's just a great treatise to explain to young people of color when I tell them about the systems that are in place that make it very difficult for people of color to rise above their situation. And that's why I chose him. And it leads you into other things. It lead me into Audre Lord. Nina Simone and him were very good friends – Lorraine Hansberry.
He's a lover of women. He raised children. It's just he really speaks to me. And I do also find that I meet a lot of people – and his gayness keeps him out of the repertoire. Keeps him out of the cannon.
People don't talk about him or Bayard Rustin. And so, that's why it speaks to me – because he's dealing with like – James Baldwin was quite brilliant. I wonder why he doesn't have more accolades, why he's not at the pinnacle in all conversations having to do with race and politics and how we're dealing with each other. And that's why I choose him. I deify him.
He allowed me to not flog myself about not doing better, 'cause I realized there are systems in place against women, people of color, and poor people. And that's why I choose him.
Now, I what I love about James Baldwin, too, is how his work – I mean, there's an energy in the theater in the church that had – like, it – that energy transcends geographical location in communities of color for sure. Like, I can be in South Africa at like a Sangoma Obeah women – like a witchcrafty – I don't know what the word here for you to translate, you know, but I can be there – I can be in Pocomania circles in Jamaica, I can be in a Baptist church, I can be in a theater in Pantomime in Jamaica and I can feel the same energy and James Baldwin writes about that. When he writes about black people, I – you know, the way we take up space, the way we sit, the way we lean forward, the way we speak with our hands, the way we have our emotions all over what we're doing and what we're feeling – you know, the way – I don't know. There's something about the way James writes about black people that I can recognize those people no matter where I go in the world – the same kind of movement, the same kind of dance, the same kind of shuffle, the same kind of loud talking, the same kind of – you know, kind of like sexual swag. I mean, it's very, very –
He talks about that in the book, too.
About the sensuality of life, you know? It's not – it's just being sensual about – and tactile about life.
And when you watch videos about him – with him – he's very like, "I'm always moving in body" kind of like, there's a way that he feels very black to me and he also feels very gay.
No party. No slogan. Yeah. No party, no slogan, no religion is gonna set you free. He also says that. I just found his work profound and I beg you to revisit it.
And he also illustrates his work – I mean, his body of work illustrates, too, how brilliant can be, a writer can be, a man can be, and how completely devoid of like, a woman's voice or a woman's perspective. So, it's important in highlighting that as well. And, you know, there are conversations with him talking with women – particularly one with him and Audre Lord –
I love that one.
–where he was, you know, trying to make, you know, "Oh, you know, this is applied to the black man." He goes out there and like, the white world beats him down and Audre's like, "Well, you know, what do you think is fucking happening with the black woman?"
Like, you know? And she still gotta deal with this man on her – you know, beating her down as well. So, I think there's a – I think James Baldwin is a very good pallet, a very good canvas, from which we can have conversation and we can paint things that are missing. We can pull things in – you know –
It's datum. It's datum. It's a starting off point that could lead you to anywhere.
Which is why the piece that we're writing can't be just James Baldwin, even though we started with that – that we have to find Audre's words and pull it in and we have to get a little Angela Davis and a little Assata Shakur and we have to like, pull in this and that because James Baldwin, even as forward thinking as he was, he was living in a world where maleness ruled supreme over femaleness and he was victim to whatever the limitations of ideological thought was at the time.
And if you come to the piece as well, what we do is we use the sermon as a way to get out information. We use urban farmers. We use artists who deal with water crisis. We try to use –
Children – we have children and notice children aren't anywhere in metropolises?
Yes. And he talked about that. People don't make things for children. You have to be really – you gotta really search for things to bring your children to. So, when The Gospel of James Baldwin comes to your neighborhood, make sure you come and you bring your children and you bring your old folks. You bring everybody.
And this – and it's a less sit down. I mean, it's best done when it's kind of in a church setting. People are mingling in and out and talking. You know, we're trying to recreate the – 'cause the church – the Civil Rights movement could not have happened without the church. I mean, the church was integral as a gathering place or intergenerational gathering place, a physical location for people to meet and pass through and messages to pass from place to place for gatherings to – and this metropolis, with gentrification, these 18 to 35 white people are pushing us out of everywhere and we're just being pushed into spaces where we have to travel an hour or two to get to work in the morning.
We have no time to spend with our children and, by the time Sunday comes around, you've spent so much of your life doing work that you can't navigate a weekend. You can't have dinner with your people. You have to be doing laundry, you know? Space, real estate, I think, is a big part of how we need to find space again for black people to gather and to find our power and to be with each other. And when I say "real estate" I don't just mean a place to gather but like, the churches that we own – like, buildings that we have our names attached to that they can't just expel us just because the landlord is raising the rent – but this is a longer conversation, but we have to figure out how to –
Go ahead. We had a question.
–sit with each other.
Yes. I just want to thank you. I love your truth. I love how you speak the truth and how you present it. My daughter's upset that she didn't get to come tonight but I learned of you, Staceyann, from my niece who went to school with you a while back in Jamaica, and I just wanted to find out – have you presented these type of – to these type of audiences in Jamaica?
And what is the feedback or –
Roger, when we went to Calabash the first time, how scared I was? That was the first time I was performing in Jamaica. I thought they were gonna kill me.
But I couldn't be internationally talking about this thing without going home to Jamaica. But, you know, I had been convinced of my own people's barbarism by this American notion. I had been attacked in Jamaica and then, I fled to the US to find safety as a lesbian, but I had made up the narrative that, you know, these Jamaican people were homophobic and ready to kill you without the context. There are people in American who are homophobic and are ready to kill you, too. And when I went home, we performed for an audience – a standing ovation that first night.
And then, I've also gone home and like, had to – you know, had to be shuffled out of this space and like, you know, then fool the crowd into thinking I was in car and they were chasing that car and put me in a different car. But I'm saying that the – you know, this kind of work, when you're doing it, you can't be like, you know, getting applause in Chicago without going to the places where it really matters. I mean, I'm not saying, you know, put yourself in danger all the time, but you can't just be speaking from a place of distance. You know, as much as James Baldwin fled and went to Paris and wrote, you know, he still was traveling. One of his last trips across the US, he actually went from like, the southern towns and talked about things, did town halls.
We can't become these people who talk about our people like they're these people. And so, we have to find a way – I mean, one of my aunts who is severely Pentecostal Christian, you know –
–you know, I heard her arguing with my mother on the phone. My mother is like, you know, "Have you met her friend?" And my aunt is like, "What do you mean 'her friend'?" And my mother is like, "You know, her friend. You know, the one that's kind of – you know, her friend."
And my aunt is like, "It's not 'friend'. You have to say 'partner'. It is a partner. Because they think you disrespect them when you don't say 'partner' so, you have to say 'partner'. You can't just say 'friend'."
So, I'm – you know, I'm saying that sometimes you can't assume that we are – you know, this is an almost entirely black audience and here I am talking about vagina and sex – and you know I'm talking about sex with a woman and everybody's still like, giggling and laughing and treating me normal. That's – you have to dispense with this idea that we are monolith. We are not. We have homophobic motherfuckers that we really need to take on and then, we also have people who are like, "Listen, I don't care what ya eat."
[Laughter and applause]
I think we have time for one more question.
There's a mic over there.
Wow. First off, hey, Staceyann. Hello Miss Ndegeocello.
Like, I flicked that.
I see what you did there.
Now, you see what I did there. First and foremost, thank you for blessing us here and creating this moment of dialogue. I truly appreciate you for it. Being a proud father of a young black, intelligent, artistic, and extremely amazing young lesbian woman, I would want to know – if you given the opportunity to tell your father or the significant men in your life how they can better support, understand, and be a part of your life, what would you have said?
I think, again, that is one of those things that it's not a destination so much as it's a journey. So, I would invite you to walk with me and I would maybe ask us to map out, you know, a path of grace where we agree beforehand to forgive each other for the shit we fuck up on. And that you should see me as a person with autonomy and I want you to dispense with the idea that you're gonna protect me because I'm a girl. I want you to just protect me and expect me to protect you as well. There's an equity in the conversation around equality that is often missing.
When I talk to like, some good men who are like, "Yeah, man, I protect you." "No, I'm showing you respect just to – I gotta hold the door for you and –" you know, hold the door for me but hold the door for the boy who follows me. Kindness cannot be gendered, you know? Just like discipline can't be gendered. You have to like, walk with an understanding of me as a complete being who is able to move with agency and you have to trust that sometimes, I know what I want regardless of what you want for me as my parent.
And so, we can be in conversation about what you want for me. One of the things that I'm learning with a kid here who's eight – I cannot make her me. Nor can I move as if her journey is mine. You know, she – and you know, I talk a good talk up here but we fuck up. We have the big arguments, screaming in the house at the top – she, "You have all the power but you don't have to use all the power all the time."
So, I'm not saying she won't be up here like, talking about her shit and like, saying shit about me 20 years from now. All I'm saying is that you have to be, as a parent, ready to understand that you ain't God. And I was not put here to serve you. That we just on a journey together that we walking and that you – I have lessons to teach you just like you have lessons to teach me. That's a practice.
That takes time. It's not gonna be like, "Okay. I tell you and then it's gonna be that." We have to like, agree to set a way forward and keep moving that way. We often feel like children are – they're not children, they're just small people.
I would like to say – oh no – just 'cause you say that – we would have an interesting child.
She's – you see me with my children.
All I would say is I'm more like a gardener. Some parents are like furniture makers and they're like, "You're gonna be a chair."
And they try to make a chair and they really work on the chair and then, they wonder why it's wonky and –
'Cause it was a stool.
It's probably a stool. And I'm more like – I'm just there to water and feed you and weed you out a little bit, maybe put a stick up so you don't fall over.
Yeah. And then, I'd also say – it's one thing you said really sparked something. I'm like, my mother worried about more what – how I looked and what kind of woman I'd be instead of what kind of a person I am. And I'd just say like, you know, "Just be kind to your children and have boundaries."
When you don't – when you disagree, don't sugarcoat it, you know? Just be kind and thoughtful and honest. Don't lie. Don't cheat. You know, that's what I'm learning as I get older. Just don't like, don't cheat, you know?
I love you.
Oh, yeah, girl. Yeah. I love you, too.
You better. 'Cause unrequited love is a motherfucker.
Yes. All right. So, everyone feel they got – you good?
Yeah. Stand up for yourself.
[Applause and cheers]
I thank you.
[End of Audio]