My Prerogative (Vibe)
She does as she wishes—in art and in love. Erykah Badu talks about everything from homeschooling her kids to Andre 3000 to her dreams—and her new music. All this while the sandalwood incense slowly burns.
Sometimes it’s hard to move you see
When you’re growing publicly
But if I have to choose between
I choose me — “Me,” from 2008’s New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
When Erykah Badu appears at the door of her hotel suite, she’s so unfettered that she's rocking something she might have slept in as an undergrad at Grambling State. In cutoff sweat shorts and a black T, she’s barelegged, barefoot, barefaced. Her hair’s in short twists, not the titanic shock of Afro-wig that stared out this morning from the front page of ThisDayone of Nigeria’s largest dailies.
Badu is in Lagos, Nigeria’s business capital and the world’s sixth-largest city, to perform at the THISDAY Awards, an annual confab of global leaders in government and industry to recognize companies for “good governance”—capitalism that actually benefits Africans. Later on this February day, she’s slated to sing before an audience packed with VIPs, including the former prime ministers of Australia and France.
Last night, however, Badu skipped out on a dinner with Prime Ministers John Howard and Dominique de Villepin to catch Femi Kuti jam at the Shrine, the performance venue built by his father, the late Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti. Typically the show starts at 2:00 a.m. Western visitors are warned that Lagos’ roads are rife with armed thieves and kidnappers—bodyguards and bullet-proof SUV’s are a common sight—but Badu seemed not to mind. She hung out with Femi, then spent the next afternoon on the streets of Lagos, handing out T-shirts (which she designed herself) to kids.
Back at the hotel, she’s carving out her space. On the wall of her suite, she’s pinned tassels of Chinese astrological signs. She’s got a candle going on a sill overlooking Lagos’ ochre and cement sprawl. It’s not the scent so much as the color that signifies. “Blue is a throat chakra,” she says. While she talks, she jabs five sticks of incense into the side of a plantain. Soon the room is engulfed in the scent of sandalwood. She’s set the stage for an exchange of confidences.
Badu’s trip to Nigeria takes place on the eve of two milestones: her 37th birthday and the release of New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War), her fifth album (and her final under contract with Universal Motown). Though it has been five years since her last disc, Badu says she never stopped writing. Touring has eaten up her time, in addition to what she calls her “first job”: mothering.
Badu is the mother of two—Seven, the son she had with OutKast’s Andre Benjamin in 1997, the year of her debut, Baduizm, and its ensuing triple-platinum sales, two Grammys, and her crowning as the queen of neo-soul; and Puma, the daughter whom she had with former N.W.A. affiliate The D.O.C. in 2004.
For Badu, the necessities of childrearing and touring mothered a different kind of musical invention. She credits Seven with teaching her to use the Apple program GarageBand, which freed her from having to book a studio and coordinate producers and musicians: “It was such a quick turnover, to hear the music and the layers. I was adding different things to them. Before I knew it, I had over 50 songs.” From those sessions came New Amerykah, her most adventurous material to date, and the album which makes it clear she’s shaken off the residue of old in favor of the aggressively new.
For his first seven years, Badu homeschooled Seven. Now 10, he attends a private Christian school in the Dallas, Texas, area where Badu says she teaches when she’s not touring (an ironic twist, perhaps, for someone who used to pepper her lyrics with references to the Five Percent Nation). “He’s president of the student council for his grade,” she says, beaming like the lacrosse-mom she is. And the apple has not fallen far: “He plays upright bass in the orchestra.”
Badu is now homeschooling Puma. She says their day starts at noon. “Seven and Puma,” she says, “both keep rock stars’ kids’ hours.” After breakfast and Sesame Street, Badu takes Puma through a 12-chart system covering colors and shapes, but also phonics, sign language, the alphabet, multiplication, the solar system, and the days of the week. “She’s pretty much mastered it,” Badu says. “She’s gonna move to the second session, where there’s astronomy, sound waves, DNA.”
Puma, Erykah says, “loves her father,” The D.O.C., with whom Badu remains friends. But when Erykah reflects on the two-year romance she shared with Benjamin, her eyes widen, as if a panorama of memories flash before her. But there’s no trace of bitterness. “We were very young when we had Seven. Andre was 21, I was 25,” she says. “It was quick. We were so much in love. We just knew that we were gonna be together forever and ever. But things happen. His career swept him one way, mine swept me another. Seven, our common bond, our invisible umbilical chord, kept us tight.” Outkast's "Miss Jackson," the group's pop breakthrough, is widely believed to be the story of André and Erykah's lost love.
Badu’s next dream is to build a school. Before her recording career, she taught theater, dance, mathematics, and science to kids from 3 to 17 at the South Dallas Cultural Center. She laughs at the memory of school officials paying impromptu visits to her classes—her unorthodox methods centered on feelings and improvisation rather than rote learning. “We’d be lying on our backs on the floor, doing something that had nothing to do with the lesson plan!” she cracks. Badu says her curriculum will include “basic studies, quantum physics, spiritual studies. But we will study all of the religions, all of the philosophies.” She hopes to build the school in three years.
It’s bigger than religion, hip hop
It’s bigger than my nigga, hip hop
It’s bigger than the government—“The Healer”
The polite Nigerian spectators at the THISDAY Awards are frankly stunned when Badu’s opening number closes on these lyrics. It takes a moment for them to applaud, and it’s not just because of the “bigger than the government” and “bigger than religion” bits, potential clunkers in a country still reeling from military rule, and in which the Islamic sharia code—no body parts showing, no women in temples—still holds in many areas.
Even more so, though, there’s an audience disconnect between the smooth-jazz Erykah of her hits “On and On” (from 1997’s Baduizm) and “Didn’t Cha Know,” (from 2000’s Mama’s Gun) and Erykah now: gritty, mind-expanding, apocalyptic. On New Amerykah, there's a monologue in Kemetic (the phonetic version of hieroglyphic Egyptian, which Badu studied in Brooklyn, NY, where she maintains an apartment). There are entire songs made up of mantras, without recognizable choruses or hooks. Badu offers neither apologies nor explanations. "I do what makes me fee really good. And I don't try to do musically anything on purpose, 'cause that's not fun."
Onstage, Erykah and her band are scorching, even as the audience, nodding its collective head, isn’t quite connecting with the newer tracks. “All right, Nigeria,” she concedes, before launching into “On and On,” at which point a few brave souls break with decorum, abandon their dinners, and form a little mosh pit at Badu’s feet. Badu nails “The OtherSide of the Game” with some blistering high notes. By the time she’s kicking “Apple Tree” to the percussion of “Planet Rock,” the mosh pit is overflowing. For “Bag Lady,” Badu descends from the stage. She’s touching palms, sharing the mic.
Mike Knight, Badu’s road manager, signals from offstage that she has minutes to catch a midnight flight. Badu thanks Nigeria for sharing its love. “I hope I hit the right notes today,” she says reverently. “But it’s okay. My shit ain’t based on notes anyway.” (Return to Samples of My Writing)