The neo-soul star has sold millions, raised three kids and embodied wokeness before the word was even coined. But can her reputation survive January’s ‘I saw something good in Hitler’ comment?
Everyone should call Erykah Badu at least once, if only to hear her answerphone message. You dial her number, the phone rings through and an extravagant list of options greets you. “If you’re calling to wish Erykah happy MLK day, Kwanzaa or Juneteenth, press one,” it begins. “If you’re asking for tickets to a show, but know I don’t really fuck with you like that, press six.” And on it goes, ending with: “You should probably send me a text. I don’t really do voicemail.” It’s part practical joke, part album skit, part self-deprecating indulgence. After a couple more attempts to get through and a few texts, the phone does get picked up. “Peace,” says a voice on the other end. “It’s Badu.”
It makes a fitting start to a conversation with one of pop’s most eccentric and influential figures. Name a hugely successful R&B star of the past decade and it’s more than likely there is a touch of Badu in their work. Amy Winehouse, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe and even Grimes have all, at some point, referenced or collaborated with her; Barack Obama included her on one of his summer 2015 Spotify playlists; Givenchy chose her as the face of its spring-summer 2014 campaign. In the same way that Tupac holds a saintly place in the nave of hip-hop, Badu has become a kind of R&B deity who, despite releasing her last album – the critically adored New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) – more than a decade ago, can still be seen at the top of lineups at festivals such as London’s Field Day, which she headlines next weekend.
Is Badu comfortable with this role of “godmother of soul”? The New Yorker wrote in 2016 that, for younger fans and artists, she was the “cool big sister they always wanted, as well as a self-empowered sex symbol”. “Yeah, I think it’s accurate!” she says, laughing. “We can start with that.
“I can see the evidence of that when I listen to music or hear young artists talk and they’re not shy at all about telling me thank you for the things I’ve contributed to them,” she adds. One of those artists is Drake, who wrote about turning up at Badu’s house for advice in his song Days in the East: “Remember one night, I went to Erykah Badu, she made tea for me/ We talked about love and what life could really be for me.”
Did that really happen? “Yes. Definitely,” she says.
Badu first emerged in the late 90s as part of the “neo-soul” scene, along with D’Angelo, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott and India.Arie, who collectively rethought and revived the spirit of early 70s acts such as Sly and the Family Stone, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and Curtis Mayfield. Unlike Rihanna or Beyoncé, who took years to shake off pop-industry expectations to make more out-there work, Badu seemed to appear in the public glare a fully formed iconoclast. “Music is kind of sick,” she said, during an appearance on Black Entertainment Television (BET) talkshow Planet Groove, shortly after the release of her first single On and On. “It’s going through a rebirthing process, and I found myself being one of the midwives.”
“I don’t know what I was talking about back in 1997,” says Badu, when I ask her what she meant by that. “But I was committed to it, whatever it was, and I’ve continued to evolve.”
Born and raised in Dallas, Badu, 47, (real name Erica Abi Wright) was surrounded by maternal figures. She was brought up by her mother, godmother and grandparents. “Music was a big part of my life,” she says. “We had a radio in the bathroom of my maternal grandmother’s house that never went off.” She still lives in Dallas when not on tour. “My paternal grandfather bought me a piano when I was seven years old. No music lessons. Just: ‘Here’s a piano.’ And I was able to get up on it and write songs. I think I wrote 20 songs in the first week.”
She says she was given some “home-made supplements”, by which she means the cultural nourishment she found in the house; this encouraged her to get on stage for her first performance aged just four. She went to performing arts college, became enamoured with New York hip-hop and, after her demo came to the attention of Motown records, she turned to music full-time. In 1997, Badu had a baby boy, Seven, with André Benjamin, AKA André 3000 of OutKast. She also has two daughters: Puma, whose father is some-time NWA collaborator DOC, and Mars, whom she had with enigmatic rapper Jay Electronica. This expanding family unit meant that she had to get inventive while touring.
“I don’t know life [on the road] without children,” she says. “Baduizm [her debut album] came out in February 1997, I got pregnant in March 1997. So I’ve been pregnant or breast-feeding or with a new baby since the very beginning, and I was determined to use my energy to build something and I just take it one moment at a time.”
That has also meant home-schooling her three children. So what does the Badu curriculum look like? “It’s changed over the years,” she says. “With my first baby, I was trying to do everything right and put everything in his brain that I thought should be in there. He was the three-year-old walking around knowing how many planets there were and how many moons they each had.
“We were dealing with quantum physics and he even tried photography,” she says. “It was just me and him. All I had was time to mould this beautiful little lump of flesh with whatever I could get my hands on.”
Badu has honed her teaching over the years. That omnivorous approach has now been replaced with something more measured. All the basics are covered but the quantum physics has been dialled back and there’s only really one essential add-on. “Languages are very important,” says Badu. “They’re very important in social evolution. Puma speaks French and Mandarin; Mars is speaking Spanish and starts French in the summer, and Seven is a Latin scholar.
“My mum and grandmother were focused more on working and providing the basic needs. Where I have the advantage [is that] my job is to create, my whole mindset is creation whether it’s food or fashion or education or art.”
On its release, Baduizm became an instant classic, selling more than 3m copies and winning two Grammys. The album melded those 70s jazz, funk and R&B influences with an aesthetic that referenced everything from The Color Purple to the teachings of Nation of Islam splinter group the Five Percent Nation. Badu became a totem for what Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker called “black bohemian culture: politically aware, spiritually minded, middle class”. She and her neo-soul cohort were the epitome of “wokeness” before there was ever a word to describe it. (Badu is credited by many for inspiring the term in the first place, using the lyric “I stay woke” in 2008’s Master Teacher.)
However, recently her woke credentials have been called into question. In 2014, Badu was heavily criticised for performing at the 46th birthday celebration of Swaziland’s King Mswati III, an absolute monarch who has banned political parties in his country and whose regime has been accused of imprisoning and torturing activists. Human rights groups called out Badu, who said she was not aware of the reality in the country. “I went into a situation not completely knowing [Swaziland’s] political climate,” Badu told the Dallas Morning News. “[But] I can’t be held responsible for the situation in the kingdom, because I signed up as an artist, not as a political activist. I don’t belong to anyone or to anything.”
Then, in 2016, Badu became embroiled in a debate over whether or not a New Zealand school was right to ask female pupils to wear longer skirts. “Males should be taught to be responsible for their actions from childhood,” she tweeted. “It’s not ok to ‘prey’ on young women. But do I think it is unnatural for a heterosexual male to be attracted to a young woman in a revealing skirt? No. I think it is his nature.”
But those two incidents pale in comparison with the interview she conducted with New York magazine’s website Vulture in January 2018, when the conversation touched on the idea of having empathy for people, regardless of their crimes or alleged offences. First Badu discussed Bill Cosby, who at that point hadn’t been found guilty of drugging and molesting an acquaintance in 2004. “I love Bill Cosby, and I love what he’s done for the world,” she said. “But if he’s sick, why would I be angry with him?” Then things went nuclear. “I’m a humanist. I see good in everybody. I saw something good in Hitler.” Hitler? Surely she didn’t mean that, interviewer David Marchese asked. “I did. Hitler was a wonderful painter.” When Marchese countered by saying he wasn’t a good painter and even if he was, Badu might be turning “the idea of empathy into an empty abstraction”, she doubled down. “I don’t care if the whole group says something,” she said. “I’m going to be honest. I know I don’t have the most popular opinion sometimes.” The interview immediately entered pop-culture folklore, considered by some a potential career-capsizing moment.
So, does Badu regret saying what she did? “No,” she says bluntly. “I don’t regret anything. I don’t like to make people feel uncomfortable or bad. But people are very sensitive in this climate. It’s very understandable. I totally understand. I get mad with them. I get it.
“But no. I would never take back a message of love,” she adds. “I’m sorry that it was misunderstood. But not sorry for saying it because it was from a place of love. And sometimes that happens.”
Shouldn’t she have considered her words more carefully? “I guarantee you: if you read the article completely, there’s no way a third-grader wouldn’t understand what I meant. But if you did not continue to read then you won’t. I would say read it again.”
Badu is more than aware that she exists in a bubble. “I don’t watch a lot of television,” she says. “I have my own world, I’m always creating something. If I hear about something or read about something, it’s from a third party.” And that could be the problem. The frustration for some critics is that she seems oblivious to the fact that, for example, expressing empathy with Hitler at a time when neo-Nazi groups endorse the president and antisemitism is on the rise, could be problematic, however well intentioned. But to Badu, it is simply the way great artists operate.
“There will never be another Muhammad Ali, there will never be another Fela Kuti, there will never be another Isley Brothers,” she says. “Great artists don’t necessarily have some positive message or a moral message. I just think they’re very honest. If they’re very honest, you can see it come through no matter what they’re talking about.
“I learned that with me, everything I do is a political statement. Everything I say is a political statement for some reason in the world.”
Badu seems genuinely surprised that anyone would be interested in her politics. “Maybe it’s because as an African-American woman, when our image was looked upon as second class, I embraced it,” she suggests. “It’s a really big thing that’s been instilled in the people in the bible belt in this country. We were taught to hate ourselves, and if you were a person who rebels against self-hatred, that’s pretty political. I went against something that they had planned for us. If there is a ‘they’. I’m not a big conspiracy theorist either, but maybe that’s why.”
In 2008, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones went to see Badu in concert in New York. “Badu will throw up a Black Power salute, sit in a chair when everyone else is dancing, or just let things fall apart and fade to silence,” he wrote. “She is on her own clock, and true to it, no matter what your watch says.” That still rings true.
“I don’t feel like I’m in any certain camp,” says Badu. “I’m for anything that feels right and is in harmony in the universe.”
Erykah Badu headlines Field Day on Friday 1 June at Brockwell Park, SE24
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