Ndegeocello was born Michelle Lynn Johnson in Berlin, Germany, to army Sergeant Major and saxophonist father Jacques Johnson and health care worker mother Helen. She was raised in Washington, D.C. where she attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Oxon Hill High School. In early press releases from Maverick Records her birth year was erroneously listed as 1969. The 1968 birth date has been confirmed through a previous manager and lifelong friend.
Named Michelle Lynn Johnson at birth, Ndegeocello adopted her surname at the age of 17, which she says means "free like a bird" in Swahili. Meshell Ndegeocello is pronounced Mee-shell N-deh-gay-o-chel-o. Early pressings of Plantation Lullabies were stickered with the instructions. The spelling has changed in the hands of record labels a few times during her career; however, the correct spelling of her stage name is now Meshell Ndegeocello.
Ndegeocello honed her skills on the D.C. go-go circuit in the late 1980s with the bands Prophecy, Little Bennie and the Masters, and Rare Essence She unsuccessfully tried out forLiving Colour's bassist position, vacated in 1992 by Muzz Skillings. Going solo, she was one of the first artists to sign with Maverick Records, where she released her debut album, Plantation Lullabies. This recording presented a distinctly androgynous persona.
Her biggest hit is a duet with John Mellencamp, a cover version of Van Morrison's "Wild Night", which reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Her only other Billboard Hot 100 hit besides "Wild Night" has been her self-penned "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)", which peaked at No. 73 in 1994. Also in 1994, Ndegeocello collaborated with Herbie Hancock on "Nocturnal Sunshine," a track for the Red Hot Organization's compilation album, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album, meant to raise awareness and funds in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African American community, was heralded as "Album of the Year" by Time magazine.
She had a No. 1 Dance hit in 1996 with a Bill Withers cover song called "Who Is He (and What Is He To You?)" (briefly featured in the film Jerry Maguire) as well as Dance Top 20 hits with "Earth", "Leviticus: Faggot", "Stay" and the aforementioned "If That's Your Boyfriend.. Last Night)". Ndegeocello played bass on the song "I'd Rather be Your Lover" for Madonna on her albumBedtime Stories. Ndegeocello was also tapped, at the last minute, to perform a rap on the same song. This came after Madonna and producers decided to remove Tupac Shakur's rap (which he did while he and Madonna were dating in 1994), after he had criminal charges filed against him.
Her music has been featured in a number of film soundtracks including How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Lost & Delirious, Batman & Robin, Love Jones, Love & Basketball, Talk To Me, Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls,The Best Man, Higher Learning, Down in the Delta, The Hurricane,Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom, and Soul Men.
She has appeared on recordings by Basement Jaxx, Indigo Girls, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. On The Rolling Stones' 1997 album Bridges to Babylon she plays bass on the song "Saint of Me". On Alanis Morissette's 2002 album Under Rug Swept, she plays bass on the songs "So Unsexy" and "You Owe Me Nothing in Return". On Zap Mama's album ReCreation (2009), she plays bass on the song "African Diamond".
She can also be seen in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, singing The Miracles' "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and The Temptations' "Cloud Nine". In the late 1990s, she toured with Lilith Fair. She also did a remake of the song, "Two Doors Down" on the 2003 release, Just Because I'm A Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton.
Ndegeocello was also a judge for the 2nd annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers.
Her song "Tie One On" was chosen as the Starbucks iTunes Pick of the Week on February 23, 2010.