Originally published Jan. 2010
One of the greatest marvels of life is that we as human beings have the choice to be who we want to be. The person I’m introducing to you has chosen to be an inspiration to millions. “I am fire, dance, sex and music” is how she introduces herself on stage, but it is clear that multiple Grammy-winning soul singer and songwriter, Erykah Badu, deserves one more title- limitless. Since the beginning of her career, Badu has continued to blaze trails in the realms of visual art, acting, directing, theater, comedic writing, and music production. It is no wonder why legions of fans continue to follow her, as she represents an unwavering dedication to individuality and bravery through creativity.
I had the chance to connect with Ms. Badu to talk about music, directing, her new baby and much more. This is what was said:
Ferrari Sheppard: Congratulations on the birth of your new baby girl. I read that she was delivered at home with the help a midwife. What inspired you to have a home birth?
Erykah Badu: I guess it goes along with the lifestyle that I chose for myself and my family. All three of my children were born at home- my son, Seven, who was born in 1997; my daughter, Puma, who is now four; and now, Mars. All are home births, all natural, no medication. It goes along with my [vegan] diet and way of thinking- just being conscience and present at all times. I try not to numb the pain in this life, but to be part of the present experience in every way that I can.
I’m sure you haven’t always made music for a living. What was the worst job you ever had?
EB: I would say working at a bank as an expediter. I did a lot of copying and filing–clerical work. I had to punch the clock and be on time to a job that I didn’t like. It wasn’t where I wanted to be. Other than that, my jobs have been things that I’ve enjoyed. My first job was when I was 14, I was a junior counselor at the YMCA, then went on to be a teacher. I worked a coffee shop. I worked with Steve Harvey, at his comedy house. I started as a waitress, and in a week’s time, I moved up to being a hostess. In the next couple of weeks, I was working in the ticket booth, and the next couple of months, I was his personal assistant. Later, I went on to be the stage manager of the club and I booked comedians. After that, I had the pleasure of writing some material for him. I think I wore about every hat in that club.
I understand you directed the video for your song “Honey”- was this your first time directing or was it something you had done before?
EB: I’m so glad you asked that because I’ve directed all of my videos.
EB: And I’ve written all of the concepts for them too; I’ve written every treatment.
Was this something you went school for?
EB: Actually, no. I still don’t know a lot of the technical terms, but I have a knack for it. I’m an artist. I was a theater major, which is totally different from film, but since the age of one, I’ve been very interested in entertainment and any kind of art. I would say that my religion is art. It comes very natural to me. It’s definitely a gift. Anything artistic or in the art world- from music to theater, to DJing, to acting, to film- those things are very interesting and when I dabble in them, it’s like therapy for me, more than work.
Out of all of the videos you’ve directed, which one is your favorite?
EB: The last one, “Honey.” My second favorite is “Other Side of the Game,” where I just used one shot- one camera, one shot all the way through. My third favorite was “Love of my Life.”
I imagine you had to do rehearsals for “Other Side of the Game.”
EB: Yes, absolutely. We rehearsed many times because we had to be dead on at certain spots in order for the one shot to work. The lighting had to be right and the timing had to be correct. It was pretty cool. Andre 3000 was the leading man, and he and I were the only actors in the video besides the two policemen who come in at the end. He was very easy to direct. It was fun. It was the least expensive one. We did about ten takes of it, and I chose the best one.
I assume there is a public Erykah Badu and a private one- but we never see you in the tabloids or US Weekly, holding an alien. How important is your privacy to you? Do you feel that stars who end up in tabloids want to be in them?
EB: Um. I think it’s because I choose to live in Dallas, Texas; it makes a big difference. If you live in big cities like Los Angeles or New York, you’re an easier target. I have two things working for me- I’m not a big celebrity and there’s nothing interesting that people want to report. The second is that I live in Dallas. I’m not out a lot. I’m not a socialite; I’m a mother, a parent. My job just happens to be a recording artist. My outings consist of the PTA, going to school, going to dance classes or going to do research at the library. Those are things I do. I work in the yard. I’m a regular mom, but I also put my all into my music.
Looking back, how would you describe the energy propelling your debut album Baduizm? What was life like for you then?
EB: I was hungry. I was excited. I thought I was the baddest mothafucka in the world. I listened to everything, and I knew what was going on. I was the weather girl; I could predict the weather. It was an amazingly electric time because there were no preconceived notions of who I was as a character. There were no expectations from fans or critics, I had my whole life to do my first album. There was no space and time, there was just freedom. It’s like being in a relationship for the first time with no hurt attached. The only thing I had to do was be my best, and I did not know the rules, therefore I broke every one of them. It was a wonderful time.
I remember Kedar [Massenburg] the president of my label [Kedar Entertainment]- he was managing D’ Angelo at the time; he had the knack for choosing underground talent, undiscovered- that’s what he did with the both of us. He called the sound, Neo-Soul- that’s where the term came from- it came from Kedar Massenburg, who went on to be the president of Motown [Records] for most of my stay there. He called my music and D’angelo’s music, Neo-Soul, which means new- and soul, which is something that is everlasting. So, when people talk about me, and they say that I’m the reigning queen of Neo-Soul, I say, no, the term was made up for me, for the music I was making. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of one man’s mind upon hearing the music of myself and D’ Angelo. So, what should be said is, “She’s not the queen…she’s the goddess of [Neo-Soul].” My music doesn’t sound like anything else- no other thing called Neo-Soul. After that name took on a life of its own, I went on to do something else; those things are not defined and I hope they never will be, but for the sake of categorizing, that’s where Neo-Soul came from.
You mentioned your son, Seven, earlier- being that he is 11 now, I’m sure he’s aware that both of his parents are popular, with you being his mother and Andre 3000 his father. How do you keep your children grounded?
EB: [Pause] I don’t know. I guess just by allowing them to experience life fully. They know that I’m an entertainer. They know that I can be a celebrity at times, but first and foremost, they know that I’m an artist and I love my art. And it’s their mother’s privilege to be able to share her art. It’s the same thing with Seven’s father, he’s very humble. Before Barack Obama, he was the most humble man I had ever met- filled with humility, and Seven was born with that. Seven doesn’t want to be in the limelight, nor does he wish to follow in his parent’s footsteps; but he does manifest a great deal of talent and humility at the same time- in Seven’s words, that’s a dangerous combination. He says, “I could be Martin Luther King or I could be Hitler.” He has so much influence- he’s a leader, definitely. This is his 11th year, which is a master year for him. I am beginning to see mine and Andre’s teachings unfold. The things Seven says are worth listening to because he doesn’t talk very much; but when he does [talk] he has actually thought about what he is saying. He’s a child but he’s also a very wise old man. His sisters also have fathers who are legends- not just entertainers, but legends. D.O.C. is a legend in our tribe of Hip-Hop. Puma is four years old and she just knows him as daddy, but when she finds out he is a legend, by that time, she will have been grounded to the same point as Seven.
The title of your 2008 EP is New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). What did you mean by 4th World War?
EB: “4th World War” actually came from a documentary that I saw while I was working on the album. I wanted [the album] to be called New Amerykah, but I didn’t have a subtitle at that time. 4th World War was a documentary starring one of my friends, Suheir Hammad, who is a poet. The film is about people’s resistance to occupation all over the world. Occupation is when the government comes in and takes your land from you, and there is nothing the people can do about it. It showed people all over the world- South America, Asia, Africa and different parts of Europe. It really touched me, especially the part in Mexico with the Zabatistas. The soldiers and the people look exactly alike- the soldiers were the people. They were standing face to face, separated by a barbed wire fence. Women stared right at their mothers and fathers- children and friends. One soldier even had tears coming down his face. The people kept singing a song in Spanish; I don’t speak Spanish , but I didn’t need to, to know that they were saying, we won’t leave until we get our land back. Our mothers died here, our fathers bled here, we bore children here. One of the soldiers said fall back, and the soldiers began to fall back- and people began to walk peacefully back onto their land. It touched me so much that I said, I’m not going to call my album “New Amerykah,” I’m going to call it “4th World War.” I figure we’re already in the 3rd World War. 4th World War is the people against the powers.
Leave us with a poem?
I’m a recovering, undercover, over-lover, recovering from a love I can’t get over.
I’m a 20-foot-tall phoenix on the edge of a ten-foot cliff.
In this world of covered wagons, I’m a UFO.
I’m a bumble bee, with airplane wings with a hollow body and a million reasons to soar.
I’m the master of molecules and matter—manipulator of that which is not yet manifested, whether it matters or not.
I’m a warm puddle on concrete.
I’m a cold front happening to your surprise.
I am the deal.