What you hear in her voice is ancient and inexplicable. She channels grandmothers and griots to bring audiences to the precipice of tears as easily as she incites eruption. Erykah Badu takes stage as both installation art and high wire act. While she has not made a career of being boastful, it is very clear that the queen bee knows who she is. A combination of Abbey Lincoln, Billie Holiday, Chaka Khan, Parliament’s mother ship, and a Hendrix solo, Erykah Badu is the direct byproduct of a lineage preserved and most effectively expressed through song. A sociologist with a rolodex of great producers and an equally impressive catalog of hits, Badu sings a world based very closely upon the one she inhabits, but clearly thinks and aspires to a plane none of us will reach in this life. A voice as joyful as it is pained, her sound does less to rely on the ridiculous range that carries most vocalists, leaning instead on an awesome amount of versatility, unpredictability, and depth.
As the great voices of jazz and soul music are silenced, Erykah Badu – arguably the first successful mutation of both movements — could very well be the last of a dying breed. In an interview with music superstore, Amoeba, trumpeter Christian Scott may have said it best, “I always applaud her for her conviction because she’s such a great artist and really on a lot of levels I feel like she could be the last great jazz singer, which is kind of disheartening a little bit. But just her sensibilities – her ideas about music, how she approaches her music, the notes that she sings, her inflections; I think she’s really a huge light for us right now. Hopefully there will be someone that’ll come and grab the torch from her, but I don’t really hear it yet, so she’s the one right now.”
Born in Dallas in 1972, Erykah Badu spent her youth studying dance and acting under the tutelage of her mother, Kolleen Wright, who had been acting and working in community theater. As a teen, Erykah Badu attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts before moving on to Grambling State University. Abandoning her studies before graduation, Badu left school to concentrate on music. As one-half of the duo Erykah and Free, formed with cousin Robert “Free” Bradford, Badu recorded a 19-song demon called Country Cousins. That demo made its way to Kedar Massenburg and became the catalyst for Badu’s exodus from Dallas to Brooklyn after signing to Kedar Entertainment in 1995. There she was teamed with D’Angelo to record “Your Precious Love,” a cover of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit, written by Ashford and Simpson for the High School High Soundtrack in 1996. Given the strata that Badu and D’Angelo would later occupy as a continuation of the black musical tradition, their recording of that song seems like an unofficial but very clear case of passing the baton. Badu’s unique sound eventually found her on a train to Philadelphia to begin recording a debut album with producer, James Poyser and The Roots.
From that series of events came Baduizm, a release that immediately drew comparisons between Badu and Billie Holiday once her first single began to make the rounds on major urban radio in 1997. The album debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts, packed with songs that almost all became singles, and sold 2 million copies within 2 months of its release – eventually tapping out at a cool 3 million. Hers was a multiplicity of voices – one that spoke to black nostalgia and awareness, enlivened jazz purists, suggested a possible rebirth for funk, and enlightened a generation of youth who heard her music for the first time and suddenly realized how thirsty they had been for something different after much of the same from r&b charts populated with artists trying to replicate the hip-hop soul of Mary J. Blige and her peers who ruled the airwaves during hip-hop’s golden era.
Baduizm ushered in a new period in mainstream music, later dubbed Neo-Soul. The ensuing rise of the Soulquarian collective, spearheaded by James “J Dilla” Yancey, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, and Questlove of The Roots, essentially cemented Badu’s place amongst a handful of change agents revolutionizing the sound of black music by championing individuality, live instrumentation, sonic experimentation, and an overall interest in breaking industry rules in order to raise the bar. Badu’s most important contribution to this point, in a clear continuation of the tradition established by the Native Tongues, was that she made it okay to be a major recording artist and still be yourself.
That era brought with it the Black Lily performance series and the first sightings of performers like Ledisi, Bilal, and Jill Scott, who would later share a Grammy with Badu and The Roots for “You Got Me” from 1999’s Things Fall Apart. A 2004 reunion with Jill Scott at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in Brooklyn served to break rumors of competitive animosity between the two singers, Scott who wrote the tune and Badu who sang the recording, but also served as visible evidence of Badu’s legacy in action as the singers sang and embraced; Erykah Badu standing as the obvious trailblazer for the careers of Scott and other performers like her, who at the time of her emergence were very much the antithesis of what black radio had come to expect or even deign to support prior to Baduizm and the solo debut of Lauryn Hill. Badu has since managed to stuff a total of six solo albums under her belt, including (Erykah Badu) Live, Mama’s Gun, Worldwide Underground, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), and New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) – the latest albums are rumored to be two of a marathon recording session that yielded at least three, and have subsequently left fans clamoring for release dates.
Her early presence signified by a larger than life head wrap and the lingering scent of incense, Erykah Badu came to be seen as an all-knowing earth mother to whom some assigned a divine and subsequently infallible presence, likely in response to lyrical content alluding to her own quest to live a more righteous life. Reluctantly beatified in the same way that Bob Marley’s fans have exalted him, Badu’s assertions about herself have remained the same; she is a human being, the same as everyone else. Her writing, peppered with references to various religious philosophies including those of the Nation of Gods and Earths, may have contributed to the air of mysticism that has typified her public persona. Shedding the bolt of fabric in favor of everything from an afro wig to a top hat has at least forced most of her fan base to accept that her life is subject to change and ultimately defies categorization.
While her message and the visible indicators of her lifestyle point to the core values of faith, personal enlightenment, wellness, empowerment, and community, it is interesting that media and fan focus on Erykah Badu’s career is apt to devolve into a conversation almost explicitly concerned with her decision to shirk the traditional nuclear family for a more communal alternative. One that includes famous rappers as co-parents and somehow imparts the idea that having three children over the course of three separate relationships is enough to negate, if not altogether nullify her effectiveness as an artist, parent, and human being. While blind judgment and gossip rags will never cease to exist, it remains interesting that an artist who usually lives well below the plane of scandal could somehow manage to provoke a chorus of dedicated detractors quelled only by whispers of album releases and tour dates. A phenomenon Badu may arguably have deepened, at least with respect to the puritanical American psyche, upon the release of the controversial video for 2010’s “Window Seat” – a production that saw Badu stripped naked and lying cold at the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination by the ending credits.
As agent provocateur, Badu seems less concerned with making a scene for the sake of making a scene as much as she is interested in making a scene in order to make people think. In an era characterized by willful ignorance and the media’s encouragement of it, her dissent is an indicator of a larger societal shift toward uncovering truths, both personal and political. Her understanding of life is one that may be no more complex than anyone else’s, but the suggestions she makes are bold because they encourage difference; something that humankind still has not quite managed to accept or celebrate with any sincerity. In continuing to work and live against the grain, she may have set the bar high enough that in moments of unsteadiness, even she may not be able to reach. The question is whether she should care one way or another. While she does not seem the type to rest on her laurels, she can at least rest assured that regardless of what the future holds for music, there will only ever be one Erykah Badu.
Words by Karas Lamb