Waiting for Erykah

She was here 10 years ago, with a different name and a different look and a different sound. Back then, the first time she made the short trek from Dallas to Austin, she was known as Erica Wright and was but a guest of a guest performer on one of those few South by Southwest bills not featuring four white guitar-wielding dudes playing circa-'78 slapdicknroll. She says she recalls little about that night, but when prodded she can clear the fog long enough to capture a few important details--like whom she sang with (Dallas hip-hoppers Heads and Dreads), what song she performed ("Appletree," she thinks), where she performed (Catfish Station), where she slept (in the van, 'cause ya do what you gotta). She came to Austin with a demo tape and without her shoes, toting little more than inspiration, desire and tenacity--like a thousand performers before her and thousands more since who hope to get noticed but are forgotten before the last note fades at 12:46 a.m. on Sunday.

A decade later, things are a little different. Erica Wright birthed Erykah Badu shortly after that performance, and within two years the girl from the corner of Holmes and Romine in South Dallas was the highest-debuting female solo artist in the history of the music charts. By the end of 1997, Badu had two platinum-plus CDs in the bins (Baduizm and a quickie live follow-up), two Grammy Awards and a son named Seven courtesy André Benjamin of OutKast. She likes to say she recalls little of that time, too--save that she was "leaking breast milk at award shows." In the eight years since, she's accrued more awards than she can keep track of (some have served as doorstops in her Dallas home), released two more discs, had one more child and, as of this month, become a record-label boss herself, with the formation of ControlFreaq Records, to which she has signed rapper Jay Electronica, from Philly via New Orleans. Badu says she almost started the label eight years ago but had no time; a pity, since back then it would have been called New Pussy Records, its logo a tiny kitty sporting one of Badu's old headwraps. How'd she arrive at that name? 'Cause, she explains, "Ain't nothin' better."

Badu discussed all of this on a Saturday afternoon when most of Austin was awash in free booze and free noise; the parties long ago took over a festival that used to insist it was a conference, too. It was nothing short of stunning, then, that on a balmy spring-break afternoon some 400 folks piled into a meeting room at the Austin Convention Center for the "Interview with Erykah Badu" session during which she and I, as the moderator, discussed, among other things, her reasons for starting ControlFreaq ("to free the slaves and the slave masters," she said, meaning the recordings made by the artists she hopes to sign), her work in South Dallas with her Beautiful Love Incorporated nonprofit, taking over the newly christened Black Forest Theater on Martin Luther King Boulevard and her relationship with Motown Records in the wake of President Kedar Massenburg's departure. (It was Massenburg who signed Badu to his late Universal Records imprint in 1995, luring her away from a then-very-interested Columbia Records.) For 75 minutes the crowd stayed, listened, asked questions, gave thanks, offered praise and, finally, a standing ovation.

Of her relationship with new Motown boss Sylvia Rhone, Badu says all is well thus far: "She's a Pisces, I'm a Pisces. She's a woman, I'm a woman." Rhone hasn't yet demanded Badu deliver the follow-up to 2003's Worldwide Underground. Badu has done only a little work on the next album; she says she walks by her home studio...and keeps on walking, most days. She's more interested in raising her kids ("Being a mother's my first job") and raising money for Beautiful Love and the Black Forest, where Badu hosts not only after-hours gigs with touring pals such as Prince, Jill Scott, The Roots and others but also holds dance and theater classes for neighborhood kids. But running a nonprofit isn't easy business: She says she hasn't been able to get money from the city, which believes you develop the southern sector by turning it over to Wal-Mart and Walgreens. She's never met the mayor, either, which is fine, since Badu didn't know what she looked like till someone pointed her out at a charity parade.

For now, Badu's in charge of a theater filled with mismatched chairs and no stage lights. "We have to rent them for shows," she says, explaining most of the money has to come out of her own pocket. As for the Black Forest, which is not far removed from its days as a dilapidated jewel: "It looks like vaudeville." The longer she spoke, the more she got into it--the more she lightened up and brightened up, cracking jokes like an Aristocrats extra. She even stuck around 15 minutes longer, signing autographs and collecting demos. SXSW organizers had to usher her out so they could begin the next and last panel of the weekend. C'mon, girlfriend--we got 20 people waiting to hear about...uh, something.

That night, Badu and her crew--her sister Nayrok, all rawk; Jay Electronica, politics as unusual--took over the Austin Music Hall, a cavernous far cry from Catfish Station. She was to go on at midnight but hadn't shown by 45 minutes past; the crowd grew bored and a little restless, waiting for Erykah Badu. But Erica Wright's earned the right to be a little late. She's a busy, busy woman.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky