Voice of Amerykah
Dallas native Erykah Badu is burning up the charts with a soulful blend of jazz, blues, and hip-hop and a positive message for her inner-city fans.
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TWO DAYS AFTER HER DEBUT ALBUM, Baduizm, began shipping to distributors, Erykah Badu got up at six in the morning to ride a white stretch limousine to a personal appearance at a Burger King in North Dallas. The 26-year-old was in a good mood, and why not? She was back in her hometown for only the third time since moving to Brooklyn early last year. Her first single, “On and On,” had hit number one in only three weeks—Badu, who has an acute business sense, pays close attention to such numbers—and although she didn’t know it yet, the news was about to get better: Over the next week, Baduizm would sell 159,000 copies, enter the rhythm and blues charts at number one, and cross over to enter the pop charts at number two, topped only by teen sensation (and fellow Texan) LeAnn Rimes’s Unchained Melody/The Early Years, which debuted at the top of both the country and the pop charts.
“Good mornin’, y’all. What’s goin’ on?” she said as she greeted an adoring crowd at the fast-food restaurant. She was wearing a long African-style skirt, a sweatshirt adorned with the phrase “All That,” a vintage synthetic fur coat, a head wrap (she never appears without one), rings on most of her fingers, and jewelry up both arms. She sat across from K104-FM deejay Skip Murphy, who was doing a remote broadcast of his drive-time show. Murphy introduced the South Dallas native as “the jazz hip-hop soulstress that’s just killing the East Coast,” and the phone lines lit up. Dipping hash browns into ketchup and sipping orange juice, Badu reminisced with one caller who had been her classmate at Vacation Bible School, then explained to another that her song “Appletree” was inspired by her grandmother Ganny: “She’s always putting proverbs on me. One of ’em is you pick your friends like you pick your fruit, ’cause you don’t want no rotten fruit.”
Badu was about to leave for a two-week European tour and was anxious to visit with her family, so time was tight, her manager, Tim Grace, said with a grimace. It didn’t help that she stopped to sign autographs: Unlike most stars, she doesn’t quickly scribble her signature for fans; she talks to them and makes it personal. “Do good in school. Keep yo’ balance,” she wrote on her publicity photo for a child. “Thanks for the energy. Keep the family strong—grow together,” she advised a woman. “Understand one another,” she told a couple. Returning in the limo to her downtown hotel through a hard rain, Badu told me, “I’m trying to give a positive image to young black brothers and sisters. I want them to know that they have a choice, and they can represent their culture and still be fly, right, and exact and be beautiful and feel closer to who they are.”
They’re listening. The night before, Badu had hosted a CD release party at the Dallas World Aquarium for hundreds of friends, relatives, and music-business insiders, who grazed on quality food as some of the weirdest-looking fish in the world swam around their tanks indifferent to the occasion. It was the kind of high-dollar promotion that’s intended to create a buzz, and though she went onstage a couple of hours late, Badu did her part. As her band vamped on Miles Davis’ “So What,” she took the stage wearing that synthetic fur over a long green-and-yellow dress that matched her yellow head wrap. Looking like a hip-hop Nefertiti, she lit candles and incense and stood before a microphone next to a large, brightly painted wooden figure she later said was “the key of life, from Kemet, the original name for Egypt.” She rarely left the mike as she performed, and every move she made was considered and deliberate. If she merely pointed her finger, it became high drama.
Badu recasts the hazy, sultry, sensuous flow of Southern traditions. There’s a lot less to her music than it seems; she gets a full sound with little more than bass, drums, and keyboard. Her voice is the aural equivalent of dry ice: hot and cold, smooth but thin, with a brittle edge. Yet her lyrics—a sassy mix of down-home blues wisdom, beat poetry imagery, Afrocentric thought, and soul sermonizing—are the exact opposite of the music; there’s more than first meets the ear. Her sound is so agreeable on the surface that it takes a while for her songs to reveal themselves. If “On and On” is a feel-good message, “Other Side of the Game” delineates an ambivalent love for a drug dealer. In “Next Lifetime” she rejects a man she’s clearly attracted to because she already has a lover. “Certainly,” in which she informs a man that she doesn’t want his love or his attempts to change her, has been interpreted as an allegory for O.J.-era race relations.
Badu pulls off these messagey gems because she obviously walks it like she talks it. She grew up as Erica Wright in a South Dallas extended family whose core included her mother, Kolleen Gipson-Wright, grandmothers Thelma Gipson and Viola “Ganny” Wilson, brothers Julian Brooks and Eevin E., and sister Koryan. She began singing and acting at age four at the Martin Luther King Recreational Center, which was run by her godmother, Gwen Hargrove. “I had my plan even then,” Badu says. “I always believe my plans will work, and they always do. It’s not in the plan; it’s in the belief.”
Erica attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the arts magnet that produced singer Edie Brickell and jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove. She began with theater, switched to dance, and then studied dance and music. “I was very much in my own environment, surrounded by creativity and art and no boundaries,” she recalls. At Grambling State University in Louisiana, she concentrated on theater and sang on weekends, but in 1993 she dropped out and returned to Dallas, where she formed a duo called Erykah Free with her cousin Robert Bradford, who had graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago two years before. “I was disappointed she left school,” says Gwen Hargrove, “but she gave herself a time limit of a year or so and said if she didn’t get anywhere, she would go back. She beat her time limit, but I still believe she’ll eventually finish college.”
The Free duo was an immediate hit on Dallas’ hip-hop circuit, opening for touring acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Arrested Development; they even cut a nineteen-song demo tape that Badu says sounds very much like her current release. “Hip-hop is the foundation of my music, but there’s jazz, soul, R&B, classical, African drumming,” she says. “My mother had good taste—she liked Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan—so that’s what I grew up with, and they’re still my old faithfuls. I don’t know where the jazz came from. I just remember it from someplace.” During this period, she also taught singing and drama at the South Dallas Cultural Center, taught dance at the King recreation center, and worked as a waitress at a coffee shop. All the while, she was developing her personal philosophy from her studies of African history and spirituality. (She dubbed it baduizm, taking the word from a jazz scat-singing phrase.)
Things clicked after Tim Grace featured Erica in the trailer for The Boulevard, a movie he directed and produced. He liked her so much that he became her manager, and soon after persuaded her to drop theater and dance to concentrate on singing. Using the Free tape to promote Erica as a solo act, Grace ignited a mini bidding war won by Kedar Massenburg, who was at the time the manager of soul singer D’Angelo and about to launch his own label, Kedar. It was then that Erica became Erykah Badu. Later, her father, who was in and out of her life when she was growing up, wrote her from prison that “badu” is an Arabic word meaning to manifest life, righteousness, and truth. The last time she saw him was when he watched her in a play at Grambling, and she’s not sure where he’s locked up today. “I don’t know what he’s in for. What does it matter?” she says tersely. “He’s in there along with half the people I grew up with.”
After signing with Kedar, Badu moved to Brooklyn to learn the music business, settling into the bohemian African American neighborhood of Fort Greene. Massenburg got her early exposure by having her sing “Your Precious Love” with D’Angelo for the soundtrack to the film High School High. For her debut album, Badu and her brain trust recruited hip-hop luminaries like producers the Roots and jazz stalwarts like bassist Ron Carter and Badu’s childhood friend Hargrove; though cousin Bradford was cut out of the Kedar deal so all the emphasis would be on Badu’s voice, he also worked on Baduizm. Massenburg built word of mouth by distributing hundreds of Badu cassettes at last year’s Soul Train Music Awards; he annointed her a “hip-hop Billie Holiday,” overkill that would doubtless have backfired if she weren’t so talented. Then, just before Baduizm was released, she played four stunning nights at the Soul Cafe, a trendy Manhattan soul food restaurant co-owned by Malik Yoba, one of the stars of TV’s New York Undercover.
Critics jumped on the CD as quickly as fans, hailing Badu as a cornerstone of a “neo-soul” movement that includes D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Me’Shell NdegéOcello. “What does that word ‘neo’ mean?” Badu asks. She sees herself as part of a diverse movement of successful iconoclasts such as the Fugees, Jungle Brothers, Brand Nubians, and A Tribe Called Quest. “I sing about the things rappers talk about,” she says. “Rap is something you do; hip-hop is something you live. But I didn’t know I had a style until I got a record deal. I didn’t know I had an image until I got a record deal.”
No matter, so long as her plan continues to take hold. “I said back then I’m gonna do music first, and after it takes off, then I will venture into film and take over and maybe direct and write. Then I said I’m gonna start my dance school in Dallas once I’ve built up enough income: ballet, modern, jazz, tap, everything. Eventually I’ll start a whole school in fine arts. That was my plan, and I’m in phase one. But that was before I got into the music business and realized how important my position was here. I don’t know what I’m gonna do from here. But I know I’m here now, and I’m staying as long as it takes in music to prove that real art sells. Then I’ll move on.”
Coming from most people, that would sound like pure hyperbole. Somehow, coming from Erykah Badu, it sounds more like manifest destiny.