“I have no conception of time,” Erykah Badu said, after Jill Scott pointed out that they’d been on Instagram Live for two hours on Saturday night, trading songs back and forth. “I don’t know what that means.”
I laughed, but Badu had a point. Somehow, I hadn’t noticed several hours fly by either. I was one of about 700,000 viewers who spent the Saturday night before Mother’s Day glued to Instagram, watching as Badu, a Dallas native, faced off with Scott (a.k.a. Jilly from Philly) in the first Verzuz battle featuring women. In late March, producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland had kicked off the musical series with an impromptu competition in which participants went round for round playing songs they’ve produced, while Instagram viewers tuned in. Since then, the battles have become a fixture of the growing digital live-music space during the pandemic; the series has since included matches featuring Ne-Yo versus Johntá Austin, T-Pain versus Lil Jon, and Teddy Riley versus Babyface.
“It’s a curation, really. It’s a celebration,” Timbaland told Rolling Stone about Verzuz. “It’s like musical chess.” With tours canceled and festivals postponed indefinitely, the Verzuz battles build community at a time when COVID-19 has forced us to keep our distance from one another. They allow us to communally celebrate the rich musical discographies of some our most talented black creators through a digital medium—and, at times, the experience can feel even more intimate than a traditional live show.
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I’d missed the first Verzuz battles because I was taking some time away from Instagram during the onset of social distancing. But I always managed to check Twitter just in time to see friends talking about their experience of watching the battles, such as when the first attempt at a Verzuz match between Teddy Riley and Babyface turned into a hilarious and meme-able disaster. But when the competition between Badu and Scott was announced on May 1, I quickly put it in my calendar. People soon tweeted about how we would need to light incense and drink tea to get into the right headspace for this pairing of two musical polyglots whose work reflects a distinct confidence and spirituality deeply informed by their blackness and womanhood.
i’ve waited my whole life for this https://t.co/eoICqUcnKD
— JAY VERSACE (@JAYVERSACE) May 1, 2020
That Saturday night, as Scott waited for Badu to join her on Instagram Live, she played a recording of Nikki Giovanni poetry and wandered away from her seat. For a few minutes I sat alone in my room, together with 400,000 other viewers who had already tuned in; we were content to stare at an empty chair as we waited, texting and tweeting through the preshow excitement. When the two artists connected at 6:20 p.m., they greeted each other warmly, asking each other how they were doing with social distancing and home-schooling their children. (It felt like a timely conversation for the day before Mother’s Day, although Scott said she didn’t recognize “manmade holidays.”)
Badu kicked off the battle at 6:30 p.m., with the Roots’ “You Got Me.” Both she and Scott were involved in the song’s creation: Scott wrote the verses for the chorus, and Badu sang it on the album. Scott followed up with her live performance of the same song and an anecdote about how when the band approached her with the opportunity to write the song, she’d never written one before but decided to go for it anyway. Scott also reminisced about the twist of fate that happened during the Roots performance at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom in June 1999, when Badu had been stuck in traffic and unable to make it in time to sing the song at the show. That night, Scott, her voice trembling with terror, sang the chorus live, a moment that she said changed everything for her and her career.
That first round set the tone for the next three hours, becoming less a battle and more a warm, encouraging place for two legendary artists to trade stories, memories, and sounds. Despite the fact that Badu had Bruce Lee fight scenes projected behind her the entire time, Badu and Scott rained compliments on each other, talked about how they missed touring, discussed their early inspirations, and promised to exchange poetry. Their comments reminded me of the messages that I often exchange with my sisters and female friends: the personification of heart-eyed emojis of encouragement. Most poignant were the moments when I could see how their love for each other expanded to their families: At one point Scott’s son, Jett, leaned into the video frame and waved. Badu leapt off her stool, joyfully pointed at the camera, and said, “I love you, brother!” Behind the gentle teasing and jokes lay a palpable respect and appreciation the two have for each other: “I smell different when I leave,” Scott said about the effect Badu’s shows have on her.
Because I’m more familiar with her discography, I’m decidedly biased toward Badu. She didn’t disappoint, playing hits like “On & On,” “Window Seat,” and “Bag Lady.” The night also gave me a deeper appreciation of Scott, who focused more on her deep cuts, but also played crowd favorites such as “A Long Walk” and “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat).” After finally playing “Crown Royal,” which Instagram viewers had been begging for all night, Scott proudly said that she hadn’t uttered a “single vulgar thing” in the lyrics (even though the first verse alone is aggressively NSFW). Badu, of course, shouted out her hometown of Dallas before playing “Danger,” and Scott also showed love to Houston when she played “Calls” by Robert Glasper Experiment. “So many talented people in Houston,” she said. Badu then mused that she needed to make more music with Glasper (fingers crossed).
In their songs, Badu and Scott tell stories of feelings deeply felt and lives fully lived; it’s difficult to ignore your own emotions when you listen to them. In their battle, they demonstrated how nourishing music can be, and that creativity and artistry are still necessary in difficult times such as these. Scott took a moment to tell musicians struggling to figure out what to do with themselves now that they couldn’t tour and perform to “just create.” She later expanded the message to writers of all kinds, saying: “There are a lot of writers watching right now who are holding on to stuff because they don’t know how people will accept it. And it doesn’t matter. You have to get it out. You’re just holding on to something that really doesn’t belong to you anymore.”
Near the end of the night, the event had its first and only technical glitch. Just as Badu was queueing up her seminal song “Tyrone,” she suddenly disconnected from the livestream—her iPad battery had died at the worst moment. Distressed that a song she’d wanted to hear was just cut off, Scott took up the mantle and streamed “Tyrone” until Badu triumphantly returned. “That’s what real women do,” Badu said, thanking Scott for continuing to play her song. It wasn’t surprising to me, especially after they’d earlier shared a mutual stank face of appreciation, something Erykah dubbed as the “biggest compliment an artist can pay to another artist.” Badu and Scott had intentionally created a space of supportive sisterhood: there was no competition here, just love.
For the last song of the night, Scott played “Cross My Mind,” as a tribute to Andre Harrell, the music executive and producer who’d died earlier last week, on May 7. Scott had received word that Harrell had been looking forward to watching their Verzuz battle and that “Cross My Mind” was the song he’d wanted to hear the most. Outside of the safe cocoon of this Instagram livestream, there was still much hurt, especially for the black community: in addition to the loss of a musical icon and the grim reality that COVID-19 is affecting black and brown people at disproportionate rates, we had recently learned the details involved in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in Georgia who’d been shot and killed in February by two white men while he was jogging. That Friday, which would have been Arbery’s twenty-sixth birthday, many people around the nation had participated in runs honoring him. I’d also taken part, walking alone and wrestling with the anger and helplessness that I always feel when faced with such injustices.
As the night wrapped up, Badu asked if Scott had any parting words for the audience. In answer, Scott sang, “When you’ll need someone / I will be by your side / There is a light that shines / Special for you and me,” Badu’s hook on Common’s song “The Light.” The livestream ended, and I sat still for a moment with myself, thankful for the battle. The news of Arbery’s death had confirmed my worst fears as a black runner, and I was facing the reality of missing a family event because of social distancing after nearly two months of no physical contact with my loved ones. I’d been bottling up my emotions, finding them too overwhelming and unwieldy to face—but after becoming a part of the welcoming space that Badu and Scott had created, it felt good to let it out, and I began to cry. When my tears stopped, I felt a little bit lighter. As Scott had put it, I smelled different.
Correction, May 13: This article previously stated that one billion viewers watched the Verzuz battle. It has been amended to reflect that roughly 700,000 viewers watched the battle; it had one billion impressions.