It’s impossible to put a price on what Erykah Badu has done for contemporary incarnations of soul, funk and hip-hop. Emerging out of the underground Dallas scene in the mid 90s, her sultry vocals, astute musicality and lateral, cerebral lyrical craft established her as one modern music’s most crucial and innovative protagonists. Over her extended recording career – which has included albums Baduizm (1997), Mama’s Gun (2000), Worldwide Underground (2003), New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008) and New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) (2010) – she has proven one of the few artists able to skirt both mainstream pop success (including multiple Grammy Awards) and genuine experimental rigour.
But perhaps the most crucial effect of Badu’s oeuvre is her music’s ability to bring bodies and minds together. As magnetic as she is enigmatic, Badu’s melting, Billie Holliday-esque lilt is tool for unearthing new lines of thought. We spoke with Badu about importance expression, the role of visual identity and why we have to protect art with everything we’ve got.
DR: Something that you’ve seemed aware of is music’s ability to transcend – that music is much bigger than tracks on a record or words in a song. When did you become aware of that and in what context did you come to realise that music was more than what it seemed?
EB: I always knew it was a major part of my life, a part of my evolving, a part of my DNA if you will. Musical vibration kind of helps me to stabilise when needed and, I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. But I’ve always understood it to help us to evolve, to move through life and events and circumstances.
We remember events through music a lot of times; when you hear a song you can remember an event and the smell and what you were wearing and where you were and who you were talking to. You know, music carries many, many memories, especially when it’s imbedded in your mind. It all comes right back up immediately.
Completely. I love that line in The Healer, from New Amerykah Part One, where you pose hip-hop to be “bigger than religion”, “bigger than the government” and so on. I’d love you to expand on that.
Yeah, well, all over the world people pray to what they feel and know is ‘God’ or whatever created all of us. And it has different names and different ways, but when a beat come on that we all like, we all nod our heads in agreement to that same beat. Everyone, no matter where you are in the world, it’s a language that we all understand, you know? We all react the same way, we all nod our head at the same time, you know?
People often talk about artists like yourself and D’angelo, in the mid 90s, the late 90s, being at the forefront of what has since been termed the neo-soul movement. How does it feel, 10 or 15 years on, to have a younger generation of artists like Georgia Anne Muldrow carrying on that flame?
I feel good. I feel good about it. I mean, I spoke to her for today for three hours on the phone, you know. If you’re from the same tribe, you’re just from the same tribe. I came along first, but she has the funk imbedded in her. That’s who she is. We’re both connected to the same source, you know, and I can’t say that for everybody, but I can certainly say that for Georgia Anne. She’s Ms One, you know, she feels it in her soul. We don’t even talk about music. That’s how connected we are musically.
Throughout your career, your visual identity has played a lead role in defining who you are as an artist. You seem very aware of the power of the video, of hair, of clothing, of style and of generating a different set of contexts or artistic meanings through that style.
The visual is a very big part of what my vision needs. My vision needs the visual aspect – colour as well as sound and frequency and movement. I’ve had the chance to direct every video I’ve done and it’s been a great experience for me and great therapy for me, as well, to get all those ideas out in the way that I envisioned them. I’ve got a great team around me who believe in that vision and also help me see it through.
I read a quote – I think it was in Wax Poetics – where you mentioned the record cover being a real influence on you as a young girl, pre-video; the idea that a record cover had to embody so much about an artist with one picture.
You seem to touch on that in the clip for Honey somewhat. You embody Nas, you embody De La, Grace Jones…
Yeah, I’m an analogue girl, so I’m from that era and it’s really all I know. I know that the visual makes a statement and I know that it’s important for people to see how it looks and what it’s about and the story to be told, because sometimes my lyrics are a little abstract and the visuals really help to make a difference. It’s like if you listen to Earth Wind and Fire and you looks at the album cover, you can feel what they’re on and what they’re focussed on. Usually it’s some kind of light, like a pyramid or some kind of sacred imagery and when you see that you can understand their music a lot better because you can understand where they’re coming from vibrationally.
It’s like with Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full cover, I know where they’re coming from because I can see what the cover’s about. It’s important that people know where I’m coming from so they can get a really good impression and take a vision in making whatever they want to, but at least know the initial intention…
Which made Window Seat such an interesting clip. I heard the record before I saw the clip and it gave me a completely different impression. I was kind of just drifting away in that hook, only for there to be this very confronting assassination iconography where you’re gunned down, naked on Elm Street, Dallas, precisely where John F. Kennedy was killed…
I mean, you know what it’s about and that’s what it is. My topic was ‘groupthink’, which is a term coined by Irving Janis in 1972 and he described people who were afraid to go outside of group-thinking for fear that they would be ostracised or assassinated by the group; mentally, spiritually, or even worse, physically. And it happens everyday – in politics, in religion, in science, in art, in relationships, tribes, families we deal with it. But it’s actually one of the greatest crimes we could commit on humanity, not being honest about something and allowing everything to grow without proper perspective.
So in the tradition of performance art – artists like Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and Yoko Ono – it’s necessary to do a shocking thing to bring attention to the topic at hand, because the basic agenda is to create dialogue about a subject. And the beauty about that is that you don’t have to agree or disagree; you just have to say how you feel about it. You might like it, but if you don’t like it, you don’t have to remain quiet about it. You can do your own video, but that’s where your rights stop.
Creativity should breed more creativity.
No one has a right to censor art in any way. Art will live on forever and it’s unfortunate that the woman’s naked body is greatly misunderstood when it’s not packed for the consumption of male entertainment. Further than that, I don’t really have an explanation for that, because I choose to remain silent about my personal experience – which is liberating – but I hope to inspire and encourage human beings to be more free and not be afraid of what the outcome might be.
Erykah Badu plays to a sold-out Palais Theatre this Wednesday February 22.