The Truth is out there

Erykah Badu profits from her role as soul music's last, best prophet

At first, you can hear the weariness in her voice--even over a long-distance connection from New York, where she's performing at Radio City Music Hall, even over the gurgles and cries of her baby son, Seven, who sounds as though he's trying to swallow the phone receiver. "We're always together," she says of the child's pleas for attention. The tired drips from her voice--she all but moans her words, like someone awakened from a sleep-chamber slumber. "It's been a long couple of years," she says, understating the obvious.

But stardom was not accidental for Erykah Badu; the overnight package came well-insured. Two years ago, Badu sat in Grinders on Lower Greenville--the same coffeehouse she'd been working in just months before, when the record labels came bearing enormous contracts for this unknown diva--and spoke openly, easily, of the fame she expected and desired: "Before you knew it, I was a singer, and labels were saying, 'Sign with us.'"

Even then, long before Baduizm--the album that made her a "quote-unquote superstar," as she says now--was completed, Badu carried the baggage of a star, and she didn't find it too heavy. With her body poured into a fluorescent shirt and bell-bottom jeans, her hair wrapped in a bright scarf, her feet bare, her every limb covered in silver jewelry, Badu looked as though she had just stepped out of a video someone was secretly filming from behind the espresso machine. Even now, it seems hard to remember a recent time when people didn't recognize her, mob her, worship her.

Two years ago, her manager at the time, Tim Grace, called to arrange the interview; his then-26-year-old anonymous up-and-comer needed the press. Grace, whose credentials to that point included landing some unknown band on the Mo' Money soundtrack, and Badu wanted to warn the hometown crowd that at any moment, the waitress formerly known as Erica Wright was gonna blow up bigger than an atom bomb, and that there were still a few seats left on the bandwagon. All they had to show for it was a handful of songs on an unmarked demo cassette--songs that only hinted at what was to come, music that now feels full of potential and promise but not quite reality. They're like beautiful sketches, but they pale in comparison to the radiant wall-sized oil painting that would become Baduizm.

It all seemed a little suspect at the time: Dallas ain't exactly known for its hip-hop and soul scenes, having dropped bombs (and not da bombs, neither) Mad Flava and bass-in-your-face Nemesis. Yet Badu had big money behind her (the burgeoning Universal Records), a big man on her side (D'Angelo's guru Kedar Massenburg), and big ambitions in her head. She was a quote-unquote superstar even before the world knew her name.

A year later, Badu--a graduate of the same Booker T. Washington arts magnet high school that produced Edie Brickell and Badu's close friend Roy Hargrove--did indeed find herself atop the pops with Baduizm, which debuted at number two on the SoundScan charts and was dipped in platinum repeatedly soon after. She went on to win two Grammys, for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Album; became the most striking visage on MTV's playlist; graced numerous glossy magazine covers; appeared in Blues Brothers 2000; and released an unprecedented live record as the quick follow-up.

Badu became, in what seems like an instant, the very thing she wanted to be.
"It was a very quick transition," she says of her rise from anonymity to fame. "I don't know if I was surprised by it. I was surprised it happened so fast. I actually thought I would be respected and have my little core audience and people would, like, dig what I was doing. But I didn't think that everybody would participate in celebrating my music, because it wasn't happening in the mainstream. Then again, I wanted to change what was happening.

"I'm just now getting the opportunity to see what I've accomplished. All along, I've been feeling the energy back from the people, the audience, and I guess that's the biggest accomplishment. But as far as the big blow-up of success, it feels different from what I thought it would be. From the seat I was in a couple of years ago, it kinda looked more like a limo ride and a standing ovation, but from where I am right now, it's a lot of hard work. I don't belong to me anymore. I belong to the world, and that's kind of the sacrifice you have to make when you become a recording artist who wants to be an inspiration to the world."

From any other artist, such statements--I don't belong to me anymore; I belong to the world--might seem like the stuff of pretentious arrogance, utterances of David Lee Rothian proportions; who in the hell does she think she is? But from the get-go, Badu has always seemed sincere about her desire to be about more than music. The woman who once spent her summers teaching dance and theater at the South Dallas Cultural Center, who became a disciple of Clarence X's Five Percent Nation teachings during her days at Grambling State University, likes to think of herself as both performer and prophet, student and teacher. She says these things with such deadpan seriousness, one dare not smirk at the remarks. (This is a woman who listed her occupation in a recent Dallas Morning News High Profile as "healer" and who scored a hit single, "On & On," that contained the lyrics: "Most intellects do not believe in God/But they fear us just the same.") Badu has even been known to stop her live shows and lecture audiences about the origins of African words, bringing the slow jams to dead stops in order to enlighten as she entertains.

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