The Weird Girl

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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky