texasmonthly.com: How did you decide to write about Erykah Badu?
Michael Hall: I had been wanting to write about her for a while. I lived in Los Angeles ten years ago and saw her on her first tour and was intrigued. While I wasn’t a big fan, I heard her on the radio and followed her career in the decade since. I knew that she lived in Dallas, which is unusual for a superstar musician, and had read that she was quite good at living an alternative lifestyle (again, unusual for someone in Dallas), and thought that, even apart from her music, she was probably a really good story.
texasmonthly.com: Celebrity access on this scale—as in spending an entire day with Badu—is rare. Was it difficult to get such access? How’d you do it?
MH: It’s funny, but I’m always amazed at the process of breaching the walls around celebrities, whether they’re stars of sports, music, or politics. Usually I’m amazed and disgusted, but sometimes I’m amazed and heartened. That was the case here, especially once Erykah (and her executive assistant, Denise Harper, to whom I placed a call first) realized that the kind of story we wanted to do was a “day in the life” feature that would be about her whole life and not just her music. I think that, as proud as she is of her music, she’s prouder of the life she lives. At one point in our drive around Dallas, she said, “If you were from Vibe magazine, we wouldn’t be here,” which I took to mean, “If this were just a typical music-magazine profile, it wouldn’t be happening.”
texasmonthly.com: You mention briefly that André Benjamin is her son’s father. How is his relationship to Badu right now?
MH: It seems to be good. He had been in town the day before, hanging out with Seven, their son, and from what I can tell, he makes every effort to spend time with him. I regretted missing him, if only because my wife is a huge fan of his.
texasmonthly.com: Calling Badu an unwilling celebrity would be a misnomer, but she certainly seems to be an unusual one. What was the most interesting or enlightening moment during your time with her?
MH: I think I have a pretty good BS detector—I can tell when the “Oh I really don’t want to be a celebrity” routine is phony because the speaker is either dropping names like leaflets or is in some sense always looking over my shoulder to see if there isn’t someone else in the room who could possibly notice her. These things didn’t happen with Erykah. She genuinely likes the oomph she has as a well-known music star (she can, for example, go on tour whenever she wants), but she also genuinely likes to do regular Citizen Mommy things like shop for milk, pick up her son from school, or spend time digging in the dirt of her herb garden.
One of the more revealing moments for me was at Erykah’s old high school, where I saw, from the look on her face while running the dance routines with her old teacher Mrs. Weiss, that Erykah, like everyone else when they are transported physically back to the past (and specifically to high school), reverts back mentally too. Erykah was just like anybody else who would have found him or herself in her shoes: seventeen again, vulnerable, human. It didn’t matter how many albums she has sold or Grammys she has won—she was a young woman in tights, trying her best to please her teacher.
texasmonthly.com: The visit to her old high school appears to be no big deal. Does she stop by often?
MH: She told me she has been there fifteen times or so, either to speak officially or just to visit. This was a big deal because it was the first time she had ever danced with the kids.
texasmonthly.com: Badu seems to be a regular member of the South Dallas community, odd for a celebrity of her stature. Have you ever seen such a low-key superstar?
MH: I’ve seen superstars who would go out into their communities and try to help, but they usually make a fuss—they’re usually so self-conscious about themselves that they can’t be natural. Erykah is pretty relaxed about everything.