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