Visionary pop-culture icon Erykah Badu has been breaking barriers since her debut neo-soul album, Baduizm, became a phenomenon in 1997. Here, she reflects on music, motherhood, and living at a higher vibration.
Erykah Badu proclaimed “I stay woke” in her song “Master Teacher” a decade before #staywoke became one of the movement mantras of Black Lives Matter, and later, the Trump-era resistance movement. As one of the most influential vocalists of the past 20 years, this 47-year-old iconoclast is also a producer/songwriter/actor/DJ/doula/activist who resides in the spaces between, outside, and beyond the limitations of any single musical or political movement.
Ever since the Dallas native wowed hometown audiences by opening for D’Angelo in 1994 and released her triple-platinum debut album, Baduizm, three years later, her unique sound, retro-modern style, and overall je ne sais quoi have made her something of a musical superhero. Her fans see her as a kind of down-to-earth oracle, grooving to her own beat while defying time, space, and the confines of genre. Through her lilting crooning, indomitable presence, and heartfelt performances, the trendsetter is well known as a founding mother of the neo-soul movement and as an afrofuturist icon.
From her early influence on the natural hair movement, to her mellow-but-searing feminist anthem “Bag Lady” in 2000, to her commentary about police violence in her 2008 song “Soldier,” Badu has consistently been one step ahead of the public discourse, igniting conversations that continue to reverberate today.
Following a five-year hiatus in which she spent time in Africa, Badu released the eclectic mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone in 2015. And last year, she was an honoree at Essence’s Black Women in Music event, where Solange introduced Badu as an R&B icon, telling the assembled crowd, “She is mother, she is sister, she is friend, she is auntie, she is chief, she is warrior of many tribes. She is a beautiful reminder that you cannot put us in a box.”
These days, however, Badu spends most of her time at home in Dallas raising her three kids—Seven, 20; Puma, 13; and Mars, 9. And she’s also a devoted caregiver outside her home, looking after her elderly grandmother and assisting with home births as a certified doula. I caught up with her by phone, and spent time chatting with her about evolution, Rick and Morty, parenting, Wakanda, and how her fans can be a part of her next therapy session.
How do you feel about this moment in history? Are you feeling hopeful or are you feeling concern and despair?
I feel everything is what it is. Evolution is present due to elimination. The world is eliminating the things that no longer serve it in order to evolve. I don’t think that’s just in America, I think that’s all over the world. Everything continues to move and to evolve at a pace that’s conducive for survival. That’s how I see things. I don’t really see things as so black and white.
Your son Seven is 20 now, and he was born when your critically-acclaimed debut album, Baduizm, came out. What has parenting taught you about life as a creator of several humans now?
[laughs] Ah, parenting! Parenting has taught me so much. It’s still teaching me so much. I have two girls, also, who are 13 and 9, so we’re all in different periods in our lives.
Mars, my youngest, is leaving this magical phase where she was so willing to believe in anything that was good—fairies, Santa, Easter, or the Tooth Fairy. She’s just leaving that phase and beginning to ask so many questions and needing some proof. And then I have a 13-year-old girl who is going through her phase of understanding who she is as an individual and a woman and a creator. And as you mentioned, Seven is 20 and embarking on his own independence and figuring out where he fits into society, and how he will share his gifts with the world. And now that I’m 47, I’m moving into a different phase as well. A phase of acceptance that my bones have been used and my body is different and my mind is settled and my breath is even.
So, we’re all in these different phases. I have to continue to teach, guide, and listen to these beings. It’s an ever-moving circle. With Seven, I’m hearing my lessons repeated back to me when he gives me advice on different things. With my 13-year-old, I see my reflection completely, and it helps me to love myself even more. And with my nine-year-old, I am able to be really creative in my explanations and my explorations. We’re exploring together. They’re continuing to teach me how to be a human being and how to put them in order. I’ve discovered at this point that I’m a spiritual being first; a human being second; then man or woman third; then black or white or red or green, fourth; then an artist, or a caregiver, or a pet groomer fifth; and sixth is, you’re ugly, tall, skinny…you know. [laughs] I’m so very honored to be their parent.
What led you to express yourself so fearlessly and freely throughout your life? What advice do you have for people who are struggling to be who they really are?
I accepted somewhere along the line that I didn’t have the most popular opinions. After accepting that, I made a pact with myself that I would always be honest, I would always use my brain, and I would never rely on fear or what the group thought I should think in order to survive.
After I figured that out and was tired of being bullied out of my ideas, I held tight to what I felt—to what my mind would bring me to. It’s not easy in a world where people find safety in numbers, where people have hive mentalities. When you’re outnumbered. Generally, you don’t survive. So, I just had to take a chance, continue to use my own brain, and think while it’s still legal. It sometimes seems that if you’re not going along with everything else, you’ll be shamed or assassinated.
Watching my kids experiencing friend groups and popularity and bullying, I’m telling them to make sure that they know it’s OK to believe and think the way that they want. It’s OK to look the way you want, to feel the way you want—it quietly gives others permission to do the same thing.
“I want the world to receive what it needs to receive to evolve.”
Let’s talk about representation. It feels like you gave many women like me permission to be who we are. There weren’t many diverse reflections of women of color in popular culture when you emerged in 1997. You came before the time when conversations about black women being multidimensional were emerging in entertainment. Do you consider your music a form of activism?
Almost everything you do as a black person in America when you have a platform is a political statement. Either you’re for or against something, which is a very linear thing. There’s no in-between. For example, there was this school debate about girls wearing short skirts. And simultaneously, there was this conversation going on about rape culture and slut-shaming. These two conversations can’t happen in the same world without you being asked to choose one side or the other. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s difficult to be objective and to watch from the observation deck and say, “OK, they’re doing this and this other group is doing that.” People want to know, “What side are you on?” I’m not on any side; I’m just watching. I don’t relate to either side.
That reminds me of a meme I saw circulating online of you saying, “I’m an artist and I’m highly sensitive about my shit.”
Do you think you’re more tapped into the nuances of things rather than the polarity you were just speaking about?
I definitely feel that. It’s like a pair of goggles that I can’t take off. I’ve learned that people who don’t see things that way are not going to see things from more than one point of view.
What is your daily life like when you’re not touring or performing?
I get up at 6:30 a.m. and I help my daughters get ready for school. I take them to school. Then, I’m also a caregiver for my grandmother. My foot is injured right now. But before it was injured, I would go to the gym for an hour and do my little cardio and boxing. Then I get my grandma’s lunch and go be with her, and then by 3:00 I would pick up my daughter from school and make sure she’s all set with her tutors. From 3:00 to 6:00 I might have a moment to do some art or create a bit. I don’t have a nanny or a personal assistant. I’m choosing this because my daughters are in that phase and age where they are changing and growing. I want to be there to help them make healthy decisions every day. That is my choice. That is what my life is like right now.
When I do perform, I consider it my vacation, when I get to go sing. It’s my therapy, and I have four to eight thousand therapists in the audience. That’s where I get it all out, and then I go back to work.
How do you manage your superpowers? You do so many things: you’re a creator, a caretaker, a doula, a parent, and a producer. How do you do all those things in a society that expects us to focus on one thing at a time?
Oh, one breath at a time. You made it sound super overwhelming. And it can be. If I got up and I thought “Oh, God I have to do twelve things this week,” it would make me tired. So I just do it moment by moment. I get up and say, “I’ve got to do it and then complete it.” If I’m living in the moment, I get to experience every rewarding feeling the moment provides.
For instance, I can really enjoy my grandmother and her sense of humor as someone who’s 91 and both growing and losing certain abilities. She’s a woman. This is her home. These are her things. This is her body. Her lungs are different now, and I can experience that alongside her because I’m not thinking about the next thing I have to do. So, in that way, I’m living in the moment as much as I can. You have to exercise and practice it.
When I think about the past or future too much, I can find myself again by measuring my breath. If my breath gets shallow in the chest, or if I’m holding my breath and clenching my teeth while driving, I’ll notice that—if I’m really paying attention—and I’ll go ahead and just start breathing as if everything’s OK. It changes everything. There’s a connection you can make with this stillness that lies up under everything.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I am for the right things. If that means being a feminist, then yes, I am a feminist. If the definition fits the definition of people who want things to be as they should be, if it’s a person who wants the minds of people to evolve, who wants everyone to be treated fairly. I want people to get all of the things they are supposed to get in order to grow. I want the world to receive what it needs to receive to evolve.
I guess being a doula helps with that point of view. There’s no wrong way to have a baby. You can squat, or you can have a home birth, or you can have a birth in a birthing center, or in a hospital with a cesarean. The goal is for the baby to be healthy and the parents to be healthy.
"I am for the right things. If that means being a feminist, then yes, I am a feminist."
Let’s talk more about your doula work. I’ve read that you started out by helping your friend through her home birth two years after you delivered Seven at home. And then you became a certified doula in 2011 and have delivered over 40 babies. What is that experience like?
Sometimes it’s very, very painful—sometimes not. Sometimes people experience only minor pain and I can be the welcoming committee for this new baby coming in. I keep the room peaceful and in order so everyone can be served. I don’t really interfere too much.
In the aftermath of the March for Our Lives, do you have a lot of hope for the future? What do you think about the next generation of activists coming up right now?
Like I said in the beginning, it is what it is. Things, people, beings, places evolve. We’re dealing with seeing our evolution right in front of us. People are marching and protesting, and all of this is coming up out of the need for change. Through careful observation, we’ve learned what works and what does not work, and it’s embedded in our DNA.
When these children are born, they are in a whole different climate, a whole different world. They live at a different frequency. The only way I can describe it is to compare [the cartoon] Rick and Morty to The Flintstones. When I show my kids The Flintstones, the writing is wonderful, the animation is endearing, the comedy is great, and the timing is great—but the frequency is too slow, the vibration is too slow. The vibration. When people were writing that, they were animating that from their brains, which were on a different frequency. It was slower. Now that everything is sped up, we can’t keep up with what the next generation is doing. That’s why we don’t like the music. I do, but a lot of people don’t, because they don’t relate to it. They feel like, “this is mumbling, and this ain’t nothing.” Well, it’s how they communicate. They are on a different frequency. I learned that when I went to a concert with my son.
Let’s discuss Afrofuturism. Long before the roaring success of Black Panther and Wakanda mania, you were capturing imaginations and envisioning a future that was bigger than the present.
Afrofuturism, can you tell me the definition of that? I know I embodied funk and space at the same time, like Sun Ra….
Yes, Sun Ra is another person many people consider to be an Afrofuturist.
Afrofuturism has always been here. What we can visualize and imagine is what we can manifest. It’s so very, very important that we lay eyes and ears on something that empowers us. For centuries in this country, and forever, it was not allowed because they know who we are. And, I’ll stop there.
By Jamia Wilson • Photos by Nadya Wasylko
Hair by Yasmin Amira Davis • Makeup by Jah Q.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
Top photo: Suit: Tigre Tigre; Jewelry: Artists Own
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