In the early 90s, when Meshell Ndegeocello released Plantation Lullabies, her first album, she helped to usher in the era of neo-soul. Her debut inspired a slew of artists such as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Lauryn Hill. On later albums, Ndegeocello went on to experiment with silky jazz ballads, staccato rapping, quiet meditations—all of it led by the fat, undeniable groove of her bass playing. But even as she began to work with the energy of rock and the introspection of folk, her sound remained steeped in soul.
This week, we hear about Ndegeocello’s most recent project, a theatrical work called Can I Get a Witness: The Gospel of James Baldwin. In the last few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Baldwin, who died in 1987. Baldwin has emerged as an icon for a new generation of literary essayists—figures like Jesmyn Ward, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah—whose writing carries forward the power and precision in Baldwin’s work, addressing the African-American experience in a range of registers, moving from journalism to memoir to sermon to polemic to fine-grained, fiercely argued sociological and psychological analysis.
Meshell Ndegeocello’s adoration of Baldwin is secular, despite its many religious trappings. Ndegeocello has sanctified James Baldwin for his intellectual curiosity, for the way his work leads its listeners and readers to enlightenment through argument, information, and analysis, rather than faith and mysticism. It’s an immersive performance, somewhere between an improvisational concert, a dynamic church service, a rowdy, communal literary reading, and an exuberant celebration of a masterful writer.
This week you’ll also hear fiction from Ben Greenman. Ben has collaborated on books with Questlove and George Clinton and is the author most recently of Don Quixotic, a darkly comic investigation of the internal workings on the mind of our forty-fifth president. His story is performed here by actor Hank Harris, who has recently appeared on Twin Peaks and The Man in the High Castle.