Meshell Ndegeocello on Scoring Ava DuVernay's New OWN Series 'Queen Sugar' & Reviving Her Past

Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images
Meshell Ndegeocello performs on stage during Festival Blues i Ritmes at Teatre Zorrilla on April 20, 2013 in Badalona, Spain.

Before Meshell Ndegeocello signed on to score Queen Sugar, the new Ava DuVernay-created drama on OWN about three Louisiana siblings who reunite to run their father’s sugarcane farm, she and the Selma director had a heart-to-heart talk.

“I was very hesitant, and then I had a quick phone conversation with Ava that gave me such clarity,” Ndegeocello said. “She asked me, how did I feel about doing things over? Did I take things personally? She made it clear that if I do this, she was going to be as honest with [me] as possible.”

The deliberation on both sides was understandable: As a pioneering neo-soul artist -- who is known for such songs as “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last NIght)” and her duet with John Mellencamp on Van Morrison’s “Wild Nights” -- Ndegeocello is revered for her uncompromising artistic integrity, musical experimentation and innovation, which aren’t necessarily attributes that complement scoring someone else’s vision.

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Plus, one of Ndegeocello’s last scoring jobs -- George Wolfe’s 2005 HBO adaptation of Lackawanna Blues -- wasn’t particularly fulfilling. “George was mystical to me,” she recalled. “George didn’t have an idea of what he wanted to hear sonically and I was at a place where if it didn’t come in musical language, I couldn’t translate his vision into a sonic landscape.”

More than a decade later, Ndegeocello is in a different place with Queen Sugar. “The music became effortless. I enjoyed it so much,” she said of scoring the first season. “I wanted to do my best to please [Ava] and to give her sonically what she needed.”  The series debuts Tuesday night (Sept. 6).

For DuVernay, a longtime Ndegeocello fan, landing Ndegeocello was a dream come true.  “I knew I wanted a black woman composer, and I can count them on two hands. I’ve worked with Jason Moran, who did the music for Selma, and a sister named Kathryn Bostic on my two earlier films,” said DuVernay, at a Q&A following a Queen Sugar screening in New York on Thursday. She thought of noted songwriter/composers like Patrice Rushen and Valerie Simpson. Then, she recalls, Moran asked her, “‘Who do you love? What music do you love?’ and he [suggested Meshell]. I said, 'Meshell will never do that. She’s an enigma. She’s a goddess. She’s the soundtrack of my life.'” It turns out that Moran and Ndegeocello were New York neighbors. He made the introduction, and the rest is history.  “She was fantastic,” DuVernay said. “She loves film and just wants to know more.”

After she said yes, Ndegeocello read the Natalie Baszile novel upon which the series is based and waited to receive the first episode. “I told myself to do nothing and wait until I was in a room with all the people involved.” The temp music gave her a sense of direction and tone, and then, inspired by the way Miles Davis scored films, she and her band -- Jebin Bruni, Bruce Christopher, and Abraham John Rounds -- went into a studio, put up a big screen to watch the episode, and began improvising. She deliberately wanted to work with other musicians. “I find scores by a person who’s a recording artist somewhat one-dimensional,” she says. “This is sort of a collective. I’m a figurehead, but there’s a team.”

While there are some larger flourishes, especially during an emotional funeral scene in an early episode, much of the score features subtle, spare accompaniment. “It’s not real beat-oriented,” the bassist says. “There’s a ton of acoustic guitar, piano and percussion. These people transcended time, so I wanted to use music in the same way. There’s a natural sound that also has groove in some places, but you won’t notice me.”

Queen Sugar has also made liberal use of Ndegeocello’s catalog: The first episode opens with“Faithful” from her 1999 album Bitter and ends with “Oysters” from 2011’s Weather. She has also written new songs throughout the season, which DuVernay predicts will result in some new music coming from Ndegeocello, whose last album was 2014’s Comet Come to Me.

Along with a female composer and music supervisor, Morgan Rhodes, DuVernay has also hired all female directors on Queen Sugar. “It’s meaningful to me that it’s all women,” Ndegeocello says, “but I’m the person focused on what’s best for this project.” She admits that she feels pride telling her son about the series “and showing him the picture with all these female directors. I feel extremely excited and humbled that I’m in the amazing company of these women.” 

OWN has already renewed Queen Sugar for season 2, and Ndegeocello is waiting to hear if she’s coming back. She adds she’d welcome a return “because I feel like I’m getting really good at it and it will be interesting now that I have a feel for the characters.” 

Ndegeocello, who is composing the music for a film DuVernay created for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History, hopes her work on Queen Sugar opens the door for more scoring jobs. “I’m hoping to get a sappy love story or a sci-fi film or I’m really hoping a Parisian filmmaker will find some interest in my work,” she says with a laugh. She is represented by Christine Russell at Evolution Music Partners. 

One thing she is not interested in is reviving her past. “I did a few tours where I revisited the old music and I didn’t enjoy it very much,” she says. “It was like being a cover band of myself. As an artist, you have to have the purist honesty. I was 19 when I wrote ‘If That’s Your Boyfriend,’ and I’m a very different person. Trying to get up and rap at 48 is very strange. I enjoy being in the current time.”