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If a Black Forest Falls: Erykah Badu Won't, Can't Give Up on South Dallas

Marc Baptiste
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My short feature on Erykah Badu runs in this week's paper version of Unfair Park -- turns out, wasn't an easy road to New Amerykah, which sees release next week. Not enough room on that page to get into everything Badu and I discussed over the course of a couple of hours, but after the jump are her thoughts on running the Black Forest Theater, which she took over in 2003 with the intention of turning it into a community center. Over the years, the likes of Dave Chappelle, Snoop Dogg, The Roots and, yes, Prince have played the Black Forest as Badu's invitation.

Only, it's costing her a small fortune to keep the place open -- something she's done without a dime from the city, despite her being one of the most vibrant businesses on Martin Luther King Boulevard, not far from the South Dallas house in which the former Erica Wright was born. The air conditioning unit was recently stolen; the building was stripped of its copper; the main room's in need of repair, so only the front of the theater can be used at the moment. Her manager says Badu's spending her own money to keep the place operational, and the bills are piling up -- hence, the February 27 fund-raiser at the Ghostbar, during which Badu and Q-Tip will spin. After the jump, our Q&A concerning the fate of the Forest. --Robert Wilonsky

So, the theater is still going?

Theater’s still going. Financially, it’s a burden. It’s hard. It is. I need the community’s support as much as I can, and they do, but it’s a big job to take on without having the correct kind of sponsorship and backing. It’s such an expensive piece, but it’s not worth as much as they’re trying to charge for it. It’s a thorn, but it’s bearable because there’s a reason for it, and I really believe in it.

It’s open for different activities and things, but we have some problems with the fire codes and things like that. We’re expected to spend enormous amounts of money for things on a building we’re not allowed to buy.

You can’t buy it?

You can, but all the rent that we pay does not go toward leasing. So, I’m chasing my tail here. And I don’t mind telling this part of it. The landlords are cool, but this is a business. It’s what they do for a living. And they’re not interested in selling it because they don’t have to. They wanna keep it in the family. But it belongs to the community as much as it does to their family. And I think the more we work together, the more we resolve a lot of the problems. Solutions are there. Amicably, we are coming up with a very optimistic viewpoint of the whole thing. We work together very well, the landlords and me. A lot of the tenants over there are moving out because they feel it’s unbearable -- the condition that the building is in, and the amount of money that we have to spend right in the heart of our own community. It is what it is. You know this story.

Sure, it’s the story of that neighborhood. I’ve never understood why the city doesn’t take better care of you. I can’t think of any other famous person in this city who’s been willing to invest what you’ve been willing to invest.

I went broke trying to do this. They spent me and [her children] Puma and Seven’s money in this theater. And I still believe in it. So, either I’m crazy, or something’s gonna really, really, really, really happen that’s very special for us. It wasn’t very smart, the investment that I made. I’m thinking about the day-to-day activity is how I think about it. I just know something wonderful’s gonna happen. I’m not gonna give up on that. At all. Everybody advises me, ‘Just walk away.’ But it’s something about that spot. That particular spot. And it belongs to us. And I mean, us.”

Hey, my dad used to go see shows there when he was a kid. It comes up a lot, actually when people talk about you and talk about the city.

I will never leave this city. I feel very responsible. When I was a kid, what I had was this recreation center called Martin Luther King Recreation Center right up the street on Martin Luther King Boulevard. I wouldn’t have known anything else had it not been for the instructors and the teachers there who went to college and could have moved to other places and done other things, but they brought their black selves back to the same area and took on the responsibility to teach us things -- dance classes and theater and music and drama and sports and all those kinds of different things that those different people came on to do. My next project is to do a mural on the side of the building of those people -- the unspoken heroes of South Dallas; the people that meant a lot in our lives.

There are a lot of children who have gained stronger willpower, who are now adults, have responsible positions in society, raising responsible children and also giving back in the arts. Because all of us in some sort of way have this connection with the arts, and that’s the quickest way to learn. And that is the most important thing to me, out of all of this that I do. The songs are great, it’s cool to have on cool clothes and be able to get free shit from Adidas and all that kind of stuff -- those are great things -- but the most important thing is the children’s minds, because those are the people tomorrow will be making.

And this is cliché-sounding stuff, but this is real deal stuff! Tomorrow is around the corner, and these children are the ones who will be making decisions in their community -- hopefully, if it still belongs to us. And that’s my whole thing. I haven’t begun to do anything. People say that I do a lot for the community, and I give back -- I haven’t begun to do anything, really. I do the best I can, but it’s been very minimal, considering what it is that I have in my mind vision. It’s a work in progress. --Robert Wilonsky

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