Ask anyone who’s ever attended an Erykah Badu concert and, inevitably, the same topic comes up: “Why does she have to start so late?” It’s a fair question: In the handful of times I’ve seen the Dallas native perform, exactly one concert has begun even remotely close to its scheduled start time. But while it’s a popular gripe, I’m lately wondering if it’s a valid one.
Badu has built a critically acclaimed career by charting her own path, following her inspirations wherever they lead her. This can mean false starts, detours and distractions, all of which can eat up plenty of time. Yet in doing so, she has taken care not to get lost and forget her roots.
Much of Badu’s identity is bound up in her beginnings in Dallas and her formative time at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, as well as her persistent engagement with the city she continues to call home. (Badu is a frequent visitor to Booker T., recently returning with her contemporary Common in tow, to give back to the students.)
Apart from her multiple Grammy wins, Badu's music has yielded plenty of hardware at other awards ceremonies over the years, including the American Music Awards, BET Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, the Soul Train Music Awards and the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards. She's also fearlessly waded into the worlds of acting, stand-up comedy and modeling, with film roles in The Cider House Rules, House of D, Blues Brothers 2000 and fashion turns for Givenchy and Tom Ford, among others.
But Badu hasn't merely written a name for herself in the music industry stratosphere; she also continues her own tradition of unwavering commitment to her community — not only through motivational visits and occasional appearances around her city's venues, but by continuing to employ the city's best and harnessing new talent. For these reasons, she is the obvious and only choice as a recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement award at this year's Dallas Observer Music Awards.
The past informs the present, and Badu exists on a continuum between Dallas’ fraught history and its yet-unwritten future. While the woman born Erica Wright exploded into the global consciousness as part of the neo-soul boom in the late 1990s with her 1997 debut album Baduizm, she quickly shed that laid-back, approachable identity for one shifted to suit whatever project was her focus: Socially conscious sonic explorer for the still-underrated Mama’s Gun and Worldwide Underground albums in the early part of the new millennium, and near-militant woke digital diva for the astonishing diptych New Amerykah in the late 2000s.
Embracing a fluid sense of self can include the ability to see around the corner of cultural conversations and understanding what lies beyond the incendiary pull quote or latest Twitter outrage. The ability to weigh your words, speak your truth and share yourself without fear of derailing your career or sabotaging your brand — Badu has never dodged a tough topic or shied away from touching the third rail.
Indeed, what’s most thrilling about the multiple Grammy winner’s evolution is her willingness to step out onto limbs most others would not. There is, of course, the inescapable 2010 kerfuffle surrounding her controversial video for “Window Seat,” which found her slowly stripping nude and falling to the pavement in Dealey Plaza, a provocation some could hardly stomach.
Was Badu simply jamming her fingers in a wound which never fully cauterized, stirring up Dallas’ bad old days? Or was she simply making literal some of the final words heard in “Window Seat:” “They play it safe, are quick to assassinate what they do not understand.”
Art is often misunderstood in its own time, and the best intentions can occasionally miss the mark. Still, with the benefit of hindsight, Badu’s bold choice seems less designed to elicit outrage than to draw attention to what she’s trying to articulate. But even in speaking, rather than singing, Badu has not lost her ability to generate controversy. Indeed, in recent years, her interviews have drawn more attention than her music — in a 2018 interview with New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, she said, “I saw something good in Hitler,” which lit up the internet for days on end.
By seeing one of the 20th century’s most notorious monsters as a person — a courtesy extended to the infamous likes of R. Kelly and Bill Cosby as well, later that same year — Badu made an implicit argument for grace, a nuanced human emotion all too often lost in the clash to have the last word.
Does that make Badu a terrible person for refusing to accept headlines at face value? Whether she is right or wrong depends upon your own personal moral compass, but there’s no denying that her embrace of the flawed and the human is a radical act in the knee-jerk, easily triggered times in which we live.
Despite her open-hearted nature, she’s no pushover — Badu showcases tough love in her music. The empathetic “Soldier” from 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) reels off vignettes of oppression, but culminates with the vivid lyric “We gone keep marching on/Until you hear that freedom song/And if you think about turning back/I got the shotgun on ya back.”
Going forward can be hard, but going backward can be even more difficult. Such a notion makes me think about something Badu said this past June, as she wound down her debut appearance inside the Meyerson Symphony Center, having joined forces with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
It was a moving, fascinating collaboration, one which illustrated how deeply both performers are knit into the fabric of Dallas’ artistic identity, itself an ever-shifting reality, but also an evening reinforcing just how singular Badu continues to be.
“I want you to know I appreciate you greatly for following us,” Badu told those gathered inside the Meyerson. “Understanding or not understanding, you’re still here. I’m waiting for you to understand. I’m patient.”
Just maybe, Erykah Badu is right on time, and we’re all the ones running late.
The DOMA ceremony takes place at Canton Hall on Dec. 10. For tickets to our showcase on Dec. 7, or for more information, visit dallasobservermusicawards.com.
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