The Weird Girl

The funky drummer: Badu's life revolves around her community and her kid. This drum kit was given to her son, Seven, by OutKast's Andre Benjamin, his father.
Mark Graham

She could have escaped this city the moment the ink dried on the recording contract that became her ticket outta here. No one stays here too long, not when theres a glam town like New York City or Los Angeles gleaming like a pile of gold at the end of the rainbow. This is a town youre from, where you visit on tour so family and friends can come backstage for quick whassups. Edie left after she got famous, Norah well before. People would have understood if shed gone where they went.

But Erykah Badu stayed. She keeps an apartment in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, but Dallas remains her home. She lives only minutes from where she grew up in South Dallas, at the intersection of Holmes and Romine beneath the Julius Schepps Freeway, not far from Fair Park. The house she lives in now is bigger, the neighborhood safer, and the air's cool and quiet. All you hear when you step outside her home are the sounds of early fall's crickets, not the abrupt, terrifying pop-pop-pop of pushermen's pistols she heard growing up.

"Inside of my home, when I was a child, I had a very safe, warm environment with a warm family," Badu recalls. "But walking outside was a whole different story." Her younger sister, Koryan, remembers being able to tell who was who from the sound of the gunshots. She also likes to say she and Erykah were in the neighborhood, but not of the neighborhood. They would say to themselves, even as young women, This is where we are, but this is not what we have to be. Just where Badu lives now will not be revealed for obvious reasons, but it takes her only a few minutes from home to 'hood, which is good, since she's there almost all the time--still in it, always in it.

Take October 4. She started that day in front of City Hall, serving as celebrity spokeswoman for the AIDS Arms LifeWalk. Later she drove to Madison High School to warn 700 juniors and seniors about the perils of promiscuity. That night, she pulled up to the Forest Theater in the heart of Sunny South Dallas, where she gave a free concert to those same kids. It was a full day, like any other.

At Madison she was joined by hip-hop-turned-fashion-impresario-turned-activist Russell Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis, heads of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which travels the country preaching the gospel of unity and community to kids who think hip-hop's all about the bling-bling and the bang-bang. On hand were Dr. Keith Rawlings of the Peabody Health Center in South Dallas, holistic healers, other rappers. They all warned the kids about HIV, encouraged them to use condoms and gave away Simmons-donated Phat Farm shoes to those who got AIDS tests and actually picked up their results. "Because that's one problem," Badu explains. "People don't wanna get their results. They just wanna get tested."

No media were invited to Madison or the Forest; the events, she says, were "private, personal." She talks about them only in retrospect, to make her point that her business at this very moment isn't about selling records as much as it's about saving a neighborhood. She's made enough money, put enough awards in her display case, taken enough in the seven years since she's gone from coffeehouse waitress to international acclaim. Time to give back, she insists, whether it's to the neighborhood in which she was raised or the high school in which she was trained. A week after the Forest concert, she was on a stage in the Arts District raising money for the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, located just a couple of blocks away.

"Erykah doesn't stage publicity stunts," Chavis says. "She's authentic in her willingness to give back to the community. What she gives back is encouragement, and you could tell in the faces at Madison and at the Forest they see her as a living role model. Sometimes, role models for the youth are so far out of reach they can't touch them. But they spend time with her, they can touch her, and that's part of her greatness--availing herself unselfishly in Dallas, in Brooklyn, in Harlem, in Atlanta, everywhere she goes."

Wait, wait. About the music, yes. What made her famous. "On & On." Baduizm. "Tyrone." Grammys. Hit singles. That head wrap, that bald head, that Afro. "Bag Lady." Mama's Gun. "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)," off the Brown Sugar soundtrack. More Grammys. What about all that? What's a pop profile without a record to pitch?

Oh, yes. Badu has a new album to push, Worldwide Underground, the fourth of her career. And it does need some promoting: Though it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album charts at the beginning of this month, it moved only 143,500 copies--"the smallest first-week take of her four sets," noted the music trade publication. On October 5, on the front of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, The New York Times' pop music writer Kelefa Sanneh noted that Worldwide Underground sneaked its way into music stores September 16 with little push from Motown Records. Sanneh pointed out that the album, a hypnotizing blend of danceable soul and avant-garde noise, has not been terribly well received by the music press. "It seems likely that some of Ms. Badu's fans aren't even aware that she has a new album in stores," she wrote, adding that Badu "seems less like a star than ever."  

Yet Badu, during an interview and photo shoot that stretch from 10 p.m. until well into the next morning, isn't adamant about working Worldwide Underground. Make no mistake, she loves it like a parent loves a newborn. It was a struggle from first track to last, recorded on the tour bus whenever inspiration struck, with Lenny Kravitz, Angie Stone and Queen Latifah pitching in. It's an amazing record, a heartbeat groove sustained over some 50 minutes and 10 songs, some fragments and others prolonged waves of funky dance-floor ambience. Motown Records calls it an EP, but don't be fooled. They only say that so they can sell the record for cheap and pay the artist even less than labels already do, which ain't much.

So, yeah, she loves the record and could talk about it all day. But that day's already filled with other things, only a few of which have to do with making music.

"Music is my second job," she says, chuckling when asked if Motown knows this and is down with it. She says, yeah, Motown's cool. What else could the label say? "Definitely my second job. What I wanna do is better the relationship between citizens here, because we have a lot of people on one side of town and a lot of people on the other side of town who don't relate with one another, and I think hip-hop can bring them together. Hip-hop is all politics, basically: You get to discuss how we feel and what we want and who we are, and a lot of those things aren't attractive to other people, so if they could just get to know who we are and we could just get to know who they are, I think we can bridge the gap and do some really powerful things in this city."

Seven years ago, sitting in a Greenville Avenue coffeehouse where she once served steaming cups to regular Joes, Badu was fondling her passport out of Dallas. She was sitting for her first interview, based on a demo her then-manager had sent to the Dallas Observer. Badu talked about their going to New York and heading into the studio. She said she would pack some friends and family in her luggage and take them on the long trip, but nothing suggested hers was a temporary journey from home.

In February 1997 came stardom, as instant as Taster's Choice. MTV was playing her video for "On & On" on and on and on; she scored with Baduizm,the highest-debuting album by a female artist, got pregnant, made a live album and had even more hit singles, birthed a son--all before the end of 1997. Then people started handing her Grammys like they were ashtrays at a garage sale.

"I was so overwhelmed." She sighs. "I just don't know how it happened so fast. I realized by December, when the smoke cleared, I had a 1-month-old son, a trophy case full of trophies, two good records with a lot of strong people behind me supporting it, and I knew it wasn't me, because I don't remember being coherent any of that time." She laughs. "In 1997, I was really trying to find myself, figure out, 'Who am I? What am I?' I found now, in 2003, there's nothing really different about me, except for the way I look. I have the same ideas and ideals. My main goals and focus is still bettering my community.

"I think really the thing that changed about me was the way other people saw me, because when something happens so fast, you can't really find your place in it. Actually, I'm still trying to find my place in the success of it all."

For now, and perhaps forever, that place is here, in the city of her birth, as Erica Wright 32 years ago, and her rebirth as Erykah Badu many years later.

"I could have left, but I live here." She says this in a tone of voice suggesting deep-felt pride and not a little indignation that someone would even think she could leave Dallas.  

"I'm no runner. I wanna be here. The ship goes down, I'm going down."

She prefers there be little mention of her home. It's her private sanctuary, with descriptions of what's inside or out preferably kept secret. So suffice it to say it does resemble a temple, a boho's paradise full of handmade cabinets and quirky thrift-store furniture and other found treasures, where open windows allow in fresh air and let out the sound of her own album, which she listens to even when no one else is around. "I love it," she says, when told most musicians wouldn't even admit to listening to their own records, much less spinning them when journalists come knocking at the front door. "Why wouldn't I want to play it? I made it so I could listen to it."

A good part of this interview is conducted in Badu's cozy kitchen, where she prepares a vegan lunch--a little spinach, some veggie-made meat--for her son Seven, who will turn 6 at the end of next month. Seven's the son of OutKast's Andre Benjamin, whom she mentions often but with whom she's no longer involved. (She's been known to collaborate, in the studio and out, with rapper Common.)

On a kitchen countertop sits Badu's 2003 Soul Train's Lady of Soul Entertainer of the Year Award, with its golden sculpted bust of Aretha Franklin, for whom the accolade is named. Its current perch is a promotion from its former resting place as a doorstop. "It's gotta pay its dues before it can go in the case," Badu says, referring to the glass case in which rest her three Grammys and the copious other statues and plaques and keys-to-the-city. "If my mother knew it was sitting here in the kitchen, she'd call Don Cornelius," referring to the Soul Train engineer with the locomotive engine's voice.

In this setting, she doesn't come off as a woman who would be accosted during her visits to radio stations or the nearby Target. It happens all the time--jocks and program directors hitting her up for on-air plugs, fans wanting her signature on a piece of paper--but in her white, long-sleeved pullover and shiny black pants, she comes off as just another single working mother without enough time in the day to do her daily chores, which then spill over into the next morning. Only when she goes upstairs to put on a green dress and makeup for a photo shoot does she look like Erykah Badu, a Famous Person you might have seen on television or a magazine cover. Even then, hers is a tempered fame, a low-key brand of celebrity found among those who cash in on their talent yet refuse to take the money and run.

"Erykah's staying in Dallas reminds people who live there they have an opportunity to be successful, and also gives them a good feeling about themselves and their community," says Russell Simmons, who will join Badu this weekend at a Hip-Hop Summit at Paul Quinn College. "She is part of a greater collective consciousness that grows in hip-hop. She was a little bit ahead of her time, but she's part of a movement that's happening even among the most commercial rappers. People are not recognizing it, but it's obvious when you get someone like Eminem and Nas to go to Detroit to have a summit...or Jay-Z doing a benefit concert for the Hip-Hop Summit. Erykah was before them. She's been to every Hip-Hop Summit. She's showing them the way."

The New York Times is right: Badu has never seemed less a star. Perhaps that is because with each album she makes, Badu turns more of her attention toward her activism and further challenges her audience to keep pace with both the music and the message. She's weeding out those who only want catchy, feel-good hit singles. Baduizm was a good-time groove laid over uplift-the-race lyrics and spiritual aphorisms. It was full of that old-time religion proselytized by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Clarence Jowers Smith, founder of the Five Percenters, whose Nation of Islam-inspired gospel of a God within rather than above was something Badu picked up as a young woman. She assumed the role of Nubian goddess and neo-soul princess, adorned in colorful head wrappings and Afrofabulous jewelry--the ankhs around her neck, the gold around her wrists. Those looking for a soul savior found a willing candidate; though she didn't invent or even like the term "neo-soul," created by music-bizzers to sell R&B artists to hip-hop audiences, it stuck to her like glitter to sweat.  

Then came Mama's Gun in 2000, which was angry, restless. She was a star but sounded like someone just trying to get heard; even her voice, famously fragile, roared just a little bit. The princess had become a warrior. And now comes Worldwide Underground, the result of a tour on which Badu embarked when she smashed into the brick wall of writer's block. And though she'll be the first to admit it ain't the easiest thing in the world to listen to--one track, "I Want You," clocks in at almost 11 minutes, appears to skip in places, speeds up and slows down in others, and is drenched in avant-guitar feedback toward its end--she doesn't want people to think she's trying to challenge the listener. "It doesn't go through my mind," she insists. "If I feel it, if it sounds good to me, that's what I wanna put out, because I have to go by my own opinion. I can't really go by what's popular or what I think they expect me to do. I would be putting myself in a prison. I'm gonna do what I feel, and I think the audience likes my truth. I think my truth has relevance in this world, and that's what I wanna share--my story, my truth. When you're different or doing something different from what's going on, there's always a big risk involved. But behind someone who makes that kind of music is an energy that is unstoppable. I'm gonna do this music whether I have a record deal or not."

She mentions the album's cover, which says "neo-soul is dead."

"I didn't invent 'neo-soul,' neither do I know what it is," she says. "I don't know what that is. I saw that in an article one time, that I was the queen of neo-soul. Now, it's good to be the queen, but I at least wanna know what it is."

Oh, Badu always wanted to be famous. Maybe not as a singer. Maybe as an actress. Or as a dancer, a pursuit she studied at Grambling University. But fame is as good a dream as any when you grow up in the inner city and your father's in and out of prison and your mom's working all the time to make ends meet and your grandmother's keeping you in the house to protect you and your little sister and brother.

She was raised to be a performer, schooled in dance and drama when she was a little girl. "The arts," says her 29-year-old sister Koryan, "were our outlets." Koryan, known as Koko, fronts her own hard-rock band called Nayrock. Eevin, their 20-year-old brother, is an aspiring rapper.

"Everyone thinks my mom did something wrong at both of our births," Koryan says, laughing. She's sitting on the front porch of her grandmother's home, which still serves as the family's gathering place. "We've always been eccentric, out there. It's from letting go of that artistry we held in for so long, whether it was through our dress or choice of friends or music or poetry. We had to release it. It wasn't acceptable to do that in our home, so we had to go out and tear up our clothes and all of that to express who we were."

For a while, when she appeared from nowhere wearing colorful head wraps, Badu wanted people to think of her as out there--unlike anyone they'd ever seen, met or heard. She rehearsed her lines for interviews, chose carefully her wardrobe for performances, sculpted the perception like a work of art. She knew the power of the African head wrapping and the ankhs. Newspapers and magazines in the United States and England wrote fashion stories and style pieces about Badu's clothing--"black chic," The Washington Post called it during "a season of positive change."

In March 1997, when she made her first trip to the U.K., she told a British reporter, "I'm seeing balloons and flowers and birds. I've been dressing you up while you been sitting there. I've dressed you up as a clown, I dressed you up as a stripper." The writer concluded she was an amalgam of "relics and myth." In another era, she would have been thought of as merely eccentric and charmingly so--hippie dippy, earth mother, soul sister. There would have been no judgment passed, no eyeballs rolled; no one would have turned up their nose at the smell of incense, which she burns onstage by holding the stick between her teeth like a grenade's pin.

The headdress is long gone--moved to the inside, Badu likes to say, no longer required for respect. It has been replaced by the nuclear 'fro she sports, a mushroom cloud of a wig she wears even when at home alone awaiting a journalist's knock. (Beneath it is a starter kit, where not so long ago was a clean-shaven pate.) It makes her look just like Angela Davis, a clenched fist held high in the air. The look has changed, she will say, but the message has not.  

"I'm still black, and my hair is natural, and I'm African and Afro-centric. It's the same thing to me," she says. "It's a political statement. Your hair is a political statement. The way you dress is a political statement. The kind of jewelry you choose or don't choose is our politics. These are all part of my politics. It's part of my personal rebellion, part of my personal non-conformity. Being able to say what I wanna say is a very dangerous thing. Using my platform to uplift my community is a very dangerous thing. All of it's pretty dangerous once you start challenging people. You're up to face criticism."

She knows what they said, what they still say: She is a little off, a lot of jive. "Flighty," she offers as she nibbles on a peach. "They probably think I'm in the clouds, into astrology, a space cadet." She grins. "I am that, but I am a Pisces, so there are two fish. Pisces--we're the envy of the women, and we rule the men. They think a certain thing about me, but there are two parts to me. I am a searcher, a non-conformist, an Arts Magnet graduate." She laughs. "But I'm also a grounded individual who wants to have peace in her life and in everyone else's life. I've always been called that, in high school and elementary school and in college--The Weird Girl. At Arts Magnet, everybody was the weird girl. What I am is a free person. There's a freedom not to be afraid to do anything. I think that's what it is. It doesn't matter what they think. It doesn't matter. But I do understand and know the 'she's on Neptune and not into reality' thing."

She grins and tosses aside the peach's pit.

How's this for unrealistic: Erykah Badu wants to save South Dallas, something no politician, no carpetbagging corporation, no group of check-writing do-gooders has ever been able to accomplish. She wants to save South Dallas one kid at a time, one building at a time, one lousy block at a time. For now, that mission begins on Martin Luther King Boulevard at the old Forest Theater, a cinema that fell into near-ruin after its stint in 1991 as a jazz club. Badu and her sister used to go to the Forest when they were kids to see Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies.

Badu, under her Appletree Café management company and the Beautiful Love Productions nonprofit she helped form, has assumed the Forest's lease and intends to turn the place into a community center. She has all kinds of plans for the Forest: community outreach programs for neighborhood kids, dance classes for children 5 to 12, a soup kitchen for the homeless, a place for parents to drop off their kids on a Saturday night and know they'll be safe and busy. Maybe she'll even show some movies again.

She says the mission is doubly personal because her family was once involved with the legendary Green Parrot, a long-defunct club that sat next to the Forest--a place where Nat "King" Cole and James Brown used to play when they came through Dallas. "We want to bring that block, that area, back to life," she says.

She knows it's a hell of a job. There is a song on Worldwide Underground about South Dallas, though it could be about any neighborhood anywhere decimated by the using and selling of drugs. Titled "Danger," it tells of a drug dealer's girlfriend pacing the floor in anticipation of her man's imminent, though unlikely, return. It begins with a prison phone call, then degenerates into a tale of simmering fear: "They got the block on lock/The trunk stay locked/Glock on cock the box stay hot." The song's title refers not only to the woman's state of safety, but that of an entire neighborhood bound to the drug trade.

"Danger" is sort of a sequel to words she had put on the Forest's marquee earlier this summer. Drivers passing the joint couldn't help but read the message: "Higher powers bring drugs into our community/You sell them to yo own folks/The hood suffers and soon dies/And all for some rims." Not surprisingly, Badu has told Motown she wants "Danger" to be the first single off the album. This week, she will begin shooting the video all over the city and the old neighborhood.  

"I chose that as the single because that is the main focus of the community--making money--and drug sales are the alternative to getting a job," she says. "That's the way it is, and it's as accepted as breast implants and Botox. What I'm talking about is how drugs get into the community, what happens when they do. What happens is the community itself soon dies. It's dilapidated. Other people from other neighborhoods should have to drive through our neighborhoods in South Dallas and Oak Cliff to see. The freeway should exit there, and you are required to drive through South Dallas so you can know who the rest of the people in our city are and how they're suffering."

When Badu was first signed, those who knew her back in the day expected her to carry them to stardom, or at least New York or Los Angeles, on her narrow shoulders. Some went along for the ride, among them Chonita Gilbert, an old friend and extraordinary backup singer now recording as N'Dambi. Some didn't make it to the final destination and became unhappy. Ty Macklin, mastermind of hip-hop band Shabazz 3, even took Badu to court in New York City in 1997 over a song on Baduizm. They agreed in early '98 to dissolve the lawsuit, but it left a wound.

So there is a price to be paid for trying to help; there can often be the bitter residue of failure, which happens whenever people feel something's been promised and yanked away from them. It was bad enough when one or two people counted on her to deliver. What happens when an entire neighborhood starts believing in her?

"Look, when she came along, we were at the height of our unconsciousness as a community," Russell Simmons says. "Her music was greater than her cause. Now her music and her cause are the same. Her lyrics now, we look forward to them, and they've impacted other rappers. Other hip-hop people are now inspired to talk about subject matter that affects others instead of their own game." That, he says, is all you can ask of anyone.

Badu recalls her earliest days as a recording artist, between signing and stardom. After each show, she and N'Dambi would stay and sign autographs, even while the cleanup crew was stacking chairs. It was an honor, she says, a humbling experience she didn't want to take for granted. Now, she says she will do anything but sign a piece of paper for someone. Do not ask. Please, she begs. Anything but that.

"I'm scared to say it, because what you say goes out into the universe, but I don't want to," she says. "I will sign them, and I appreciate people for pushing my energy along, because that's exactly what they're doing, but I lost the desire for certain things in this business."

She's asked if that is because she would rather leave them with something more permanent than a signature. She nods.

"Yeah, but I also have to understand that's important to them." She grins. "Everybody doesn't think like The Weird Girl."

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