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.

"I want people to understand what I am saying," she offers, "because I am not only a singer, I am a messenger, and I have a message."

She has been hailed as an "Afrocentric hip-hop princess" (The New York Times), "Soul Sister Number One" (Vibe), a woman whose "Afrocentric trappings [are] often mistakenly tagged as hippie" (Newsweek); writers have documented how she "speaks with conviction of black alienation from the American belief system" (Request), and how "the gears of her groove are fueled by pragmatism" (Essence). She has used the myriad forums to espouse her views on race and religion ("I use Christian proverbs and texts, Islamic proverbs and texts, and Buddhist proverbs and texts"), to utter deep aphorisms that might seem silly coming from the mouths of most musicians ("I know the weight of physical things, and I understand the weight of the celestial plane as well"), but seem genuine when coming from her lips.

"I have to maintain the truth," she says. "In everything I do. I write the truth, and people appreciate that."

In so little time, that Grinders waitress has become something far bigger than just a Pop Star. She's now the soul-sister spokeswoman for the uplift-the-race movement--a hip-hop role model who offers "peace after the revolution," as she says, an Afrocentric icon wrapped in braids and beads, the chocolate Madonna who inspires the faithful to cop the look and ride the vibe. No less than Dr. Dre--the man whose languid Jeep-beats and siren-screams inspired a legion of would-be gangstas and thug-lifers to cock their Glocks--points to Badu as one of the principal revolutionaries in the "back to the positive" movement.

The former and future actress whose get-up is no costume at all offers up the entire package--old-school soul and old-fashioned jazz wrapped inside lustrous scarves and a thousand shiny rings, burning incense while she sets the pop-music world ablaze.

"I guess one thing I did not do was underestimate the audience's ability to understand and want what I had to offer," she says. "Usually, they're treated like cattle. They're led into a certain arena or a certain field, and once they're there, they're just there, and where they go next depends upon who throws the whip. I wanted people to understand where I was coming from--putting the culture into them in order to bring it back out of them. It was there for them all along. It just has to be brought out, and I guess I was chosen to bring it out.

"It really doesn't matter what people's opinions are of me, because I'm gonna do my job anyway. It's not a burden at all. It motivates me just to know that my efforts are appreciated. It makes me want to do a lot more. Whether they were appreciated or not, I would still be doing it. I'm an artist, but I'm also an artist whose job is being a recording artist. I chose to be in this position, and I planned my success, and my audience is a part of it."

Just as importantly, Baduizm erased the red line that separates black and white radio by fusing hip-hop beats and soul melodies and jazz vocals; she's one of those rare artists who became famous by creating a trend rather than riding one into the bank vault. Those critics who compared her to Maxwell or Tony Rich or Dionne Farris (whose rising sun long ago disappeared from the horizon) or D'Angelo (another Massenburg discovery) got only one leg in the boat: Baduizm transcends the retro-soul genre by embracing the whole of modern black-music history--from Charlie Parker to Gil-Scott Heron, Sarah Vaughan to Joan Armatrading, Sly Stone to Dr. Dre, Stevie Wonder to Terence Trent D'Arby.

Baduizm was indeed a surprise conquest in some ways: Badu's voice, at once ethereal and earthy, is like that of a jazz singer performing urban blues. She's the product of hip-hop but the result of history--more so even than the Fugees' Lauryn Hill or Maxwell. Baduizm flows from track to track like one continuous groove--the hit single "On & On" drifting into "Appletree" spilling into "Other Side of the Game" and on and on.

Two years ago, Badu referred to Stevie Wonder as "my husband, brother, daddy, lover, my music, and my soul," and Wonder is a good enough point of reference: Behind a backbeat trimmed of excess fat--for Baduizm, she rounded up pros (including the Roots and Hargrove) and close friends (including Ty Macklin of Shabazz 3)--and armed with a phrasing more akin to jazz than R&B singers, Badu is certainly a nugget of gold in the barren black-pop coffers. Massenburg signed her and hyped her as a "jazz-soulstress," a term that implies so much but really means so little, and there has been a mad rush to tag her as the next Billie Holiday, but it demeans Holiday's legend and loads Badu down with too much mythology to live up to. Even she's tired of the comparisons, weary enough to offer a rare complaint.

"People compare me to Billie Holiday all the time," she says, exasperated. "That's the main thing: 'She's Billie Holiday.' Especially in Dallas. Like, there's one writer who always has some real critical things to say, because he's a critic, of course. But maybe it's drifting away a little bit further, because it's our thing, and hopefully, the more they listen to the album, they would see this is just who Erykah is and what she does.

"I'm influenced by so many things and so many people. I can never take all the credit. There are millions and millions of atoms that go into what I do. I'm honored by the comparisons, but I can't see why they pigeonhole me like they do. But it is an honor. I remember feeling that I wasn't a very good singer at one time. I knew I loved to do it, and I could feel it and everything, but it wasn't award-worthy. But as I grew into a young woman, I grew into a better person and a better artist. It's in the believing and the feeling and not what anyone else thinks or says. I don't even worry about critics, because they aren't the reason why I am."

For a 28-year-old, Badu also carries herself with elegant grace. The video for "On & On," which looked like a trailer for The Color Purple spin-off series, was the best-shot thing on TV last year. You watched it--you watched her, her eyelids drooping and mouth grinning like she knows a secret she'll share for a price--and wondered when someone's going to cast her in a film (too bad it turned out to be one written by and starring Dan Aykroyd as a bloated Blues Brother). She is as much an actress as a singer, layering grins and sneers upon lyrics that change moods before the next beat: "Sometimes I forgive you," she sings, her voice soft and light, then she adds "Sometimes I don't" with a feisty roar creeping up in her throat.

But, for now, the roar is hoarse and exhausted. She says she will begin recording her next album sometime in the fall; Badu explains that "it will come up with the answers" to questions raised by her debut album. She will spend the summer "going back into the lab and putting a new battery into the pack, because I've given so much this go-around."

Indeed, Badu spent the last year and a half touring almost nonstop, not only headlining her own shows, but also touring as part of the Smokin' Grooves package (this year, she will also appear on the occasional Lilith Fair bill). She was nine months pregnant with Seven (who, it turns out, is named after "The Creator's number," Badu says, and not Mickey Mantle's number) when she finally came off the road, and in November moved into her new home in one of Dallas' older, whiter neighborhoods, where she's less an exotic celebrity than a reclusive novelty trying to deal with the riches and responsibilities of fame.

"My life belongs to everyone, and I guess that's normal for me now," she says. "But I'm a normal person, and sometimes it gets hard, but I kinda create my own calm wherever I go. This is your life, and you expect for certain things to happen, and I expect people to appreciate me and come with me and feel me to see if I'm real or a gimmick or something...You know the work has to be done. I don't complain about it. The only thing I have to complain about is being a little tired physically, but spiritually and mentally, I never get tired of it. I'll never get used to it. It will be an ongoing adjustment. It's a full-time job, trying to be a normal human being and a quote-unquote superstar."

Erykah Badu performs May 9 at the Bronco Bowl. Goodie Mob and The Roots open.

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