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Erykah Badu Will Soon Stare at You From DART Buses and Trains

The arrival of Erykah Badu-themed DART buses marks a turning point for the image of public transit in the city. Plus: Her thoughts on rebranding Big Tex.
Erykah Badu announcing her partnership with DART, at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Dallas Area Rapid Transit

Can Erykah Badu save the planet? We are, after all, living in the hottest February in the history of record-keeping, a fact that was too obvious to ignore as we stood in the sun outside the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts on Tuesday afternoon.

Badu was there, at her alma mater, standing alongside a small roster of public works dignitaries eager to introduce a marketing initiative that had been in the works for more than half a decade. Badu’s face will soon be on two buses and three light-rail trains as they crisscross Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s 13 member cities. 

The goal, as these branding opportunities go, is to get more people to ride. It sounds simple, but it is in line with far more ambitious challenges. If Dallas wants to meet its climate goals, it will need to cut emissions. It certainly could not hurt to start by getting more people to step aboard a bus, and who better than Badu to encourage such a behavioral change? 

Badu’s likeness will stare out at traffic from a few DART buses and trains that have been wrapped in purple and pink. The words “BADU BUS” are flanked by a pair of portraits of the superstar artist who kept her hometown as her home. 

“Yes, I am the DART cover girl,” said Badu, who took the stage with her fists raised above her braids. “I am the perfect poor person for this job.”

For now, we’ll set aside the world-saving and consider whether her likeness can give a much-needed boost to Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s image. Badu has lived through the agency’s branding upgrades. She recalls being 12 years old when the system was introduced after voters approved spending a half-penny of sales tax revenue to fund it. 

“I think before it was called DART it was Dallas Rapid Transit,” Badu said upon taking a seat on one of the specially designed buses. “Then they adopted the acronym: DART, and I saw the buses turn yellow and black and more people kind of respected the brand.”

Badu’s brand alignment with DART took over a year to complete, but its origins go back further.

“Six years later, here we all are,” said Patrick Kennedy, one of the city of Dallas’ appointees to the DART board of directors. Nothing moves as fast as the public sector, he quipped. The recent emphasis on image has come under the leadership of DART President and CEO Nadine Lee, beginning with particularly eye-catching holiday decorations on buses and trains in November and December. She mentions that DART is a “strategic economic asset to the communities that we serve.” Badu fit right in. (A podcast on the history of DART is also said to be in the works.)

Dallas Area Rapid Transit

Kennedy says a 2018 tweet from actor Seth Rogen was the catalyst for the project. Rogen entered into a similar arrangement with his native Vancouver’s public transportation system. Kennedy posited that the same could happen here.  

“I posted to social media something like: If we had some celebrity partner from Dallas provide for us voice work for DART, why shouldn’t it be anybody but ‘Ms. Fat Bellybella’ herself, Erykah Badu,” Kennedy said, referring to the singer’s well-known Twitter/X handle.

“You know Seth Rogen’s a comedian from Vancouver,” Kennedy said.  “I’m sure he probably said something funny at each stop, but why not have a soulful voice from Dallas speaking directly to our passengers if we could?”

Over 100 students were corralled along the Booker T. Washington sign to see the presentation on Tuesday afternoon. They cheered for their principal, Garry Williams. Dallas Arts District Executive Director Lily Weiss remembered Badu as an “endeared former student” who auditioned to attend the school when she was 13 years old. Weiss recalled Badu’s nickname at the school: “Apples.”

“Peace and love, how y’all feel?” Badu asked the crowd, readying them for admittedly unprepared remarks. “Sisters, how y’all feel?,” she said. “Brothers—y’all all right?” She repeated it. “Because don’t nobody ever ask them twice.” She thanked DART and Seth Rogen. 

“In Nineteen and Ninety—Five, Four … I was riding the bus. And I said I’m not going to be riding this bus too long. Ain’t nothing wrong with riding the bus. But I’m not going to be riding the bus too long because my face is going to be on the side of this bus one day.” 

The Booker T. students—who, as usual, are among the most well-behaved high school students seemingly in the world—erupted into applause.

“I didn’t say exactly that,” Badu says. “But you know what I mean.”

Badu is no public transit poser. She mentioned how she often had to transfer between buses and asked whether these inconveniences still exist within the system. “Nobody at DART even knows,” she said, laughing. (Yes, there are transfers, but, in DART’s defense, it recently redrew its bus routes to try and make these less necessary.)

Badu singled out bus numbers and routes by name: 44 Oakland in South Dallas, the No. 2 Ervay, “which passes right by my grandma’s house, the house that my family still owns and lives in.” 

“It’s like yesterday I was here looking at that Pegasus,” she said, referring to the statue in front of the high school, “looking at the school building and wondering about the possibilities of my life. Now I feel like I made it. If you are Black in Dallas, Texas you know you made it if you’re on the cover of Jet and on the cover of DART.”

A reporter later asked a question about race and bus ridership, as American a topic as there is and one fraught with haunting legacies. Badu mentioned that it’s a serious topic and said she usually addresses such matters with comedy. 

The event in front of Booker T. Washington brought to mind similar milestones and ghosts of Dallas’ past. This isn’t the first time DART has tried to change its appearance to appeal to the public. But this one feels different, in that it appears to intentionally target the communities it serves as opposed to something closer to pandering. 

On August 14, 1984, the Dallas Morning News covered an event in which a crowd gathered to cut themed pastries on the anniversary of DART’s first official year operating under the acronym. City officials “nibble[d] at four cakes in the shape of the letters D-A-R-T.” The late Adlene Harrison—Dallas’ first female mayor—was the board chairwoman of DART at the time. “I hope the naysayers in the DART area will fade away peacefully,” she was quoted as saying that day. Her hope did not come true. 

“If you are Black in Dallas, Texas you know you made it if you’re on the cover of Jet and on the cover of DART.”

Erykah Badu

Public transit in North Texas has long been a tenet of civic debates, as City Councils for its 13 member cities debate the transit agency’s responsibilities in each of their boundaries. In fact, Dallas has seemingly always been fighting over transportation and development issues; a cursory look through archival news reports show that these debates were happening even when residents tended to get around by horse and mule.

Even 25 years ago, DART buses were the perfect diesel-fueled semiotic for a publicity or political opportunity. In 1989 mayoral candidate Peter Lesser held a press conference on a DART bus after the transit authority prohibited him to address reporters in its board room. (For the record, DART switched its fleet to liquefied natural gas in 1998.) 

The opposition to DART has also been well-organized. A group once existed in Dallas that called itself SMART, or Sensible Metro Area Rapid Transit. In June 1988, the News reported on a bond proposal that ended in a lopsided victory for the anti-DART contingent. The SMART assessment of the future is prescient, having written this prediction that largely came true over the next 36 years:

“Because jobs are following people to the suburbs, a hub-and-spoke rail system rooted in downtown Dallas made little sense, opponents said. Without the natural borders that confine cities such as New York and San Francisco, the Dallas area will continue to sprawl, making a vast commuter rail system an empty folly, they predicted.

The group lobbied for a “more sensible” transportation plan that focuses on building express bus and carpool lanes on freeways, special freeways for buses, new toll roads, double-deck highways and, maybe, a scaled-down light-rail system.”

Hotly contested public transit issues stretch back to just about a decade after Reconstruction. The Dallas Rapid Transit Railway Company was founded in 1888. The North Dallas Circuit Street Railway Company came the following year. A cable car line from a private San Francisco company attempted to lay track in 1890. Electric rail took passengers around town until midnight and “mules were used to haul cars after that hour,” according to a rail transit history published by the News in 1968.

You may think we’ve come a long way since. But trains still stop operating before the bars close, the only exception being the wonderful 24-hour DFW Airport Orange Line, which is the closest you’ll get to experiencing Dallas as a fully mature city.

Long before the issues of desegregating buses arose in the 1950s, Dallas experienced issues of race and class with transit at the private level.

The original Lyft and Uber was a private ride practice for early car owners called “The Jitney.” It was difficult for Black people to get a ride in that era and so The Jitney—and their operators, known as Jitneymen—was an alternative before essentially being banned. These private taxis were chased out of town with the imposition of a high-dollar bond requirement that required would-be operators to pay $10,000 to stay in service. That would be the equivalent of $264,436 in today’s dollars; paying a nickel for a ride wouldn’t pencil out.  

The jitney topic is further explored in Brian D. Behnken’s Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, And the Struggle For Civil Rights in Texas. But brace yourself, city boosters: He likens Deep Ellum to Memphis’ Beale Street and refers to it as a “tourist trap.”

City-owned buses started to dominate the landscape in the early 1960s with a proto-DART system. However, ridership came at a trickle in the years after the early streetcar systems vanished and public investment doubled down on highways to serve the growing populous of private vehicle owners. The News in 1966 noted that “it still is nowhere near the levels reached during the heyday of public transit here.” Ridership has long been a challenge for DART, which built the nation’s largest light-rail system along freight lines that generally don’t get people to where they need to go. 

Back to the present day, it’s worth considering the possibility that Dallas has been chasing its own tail on the public transit issue for approximately 136 years. A city of the absurd if there ever was one, but at least this place never stops providing things about which to ponder, mouths agape. 

With that sense of wonder in mind, that brings us to a plastic-covered seat next to Erykah Badu on her very own branded bus. She remembers moving to New York City briefly in 1994, where she had a life-changing experience on the MTA. 

“That’s the first time I had ever seen the subway, or ridden on the subway,” Badu says. “And I thought: Wow, these people are so excited to ride the train, even with cars.

Erykah Badu sits inside one of her DART-branded buses. Dallas Area Rapid Transit

“I was really excited to see our rail system come in,” she says of the DART light-rail system. “Have you rode it?,” she asks. I assure her that I have certainly ridden the DART rail, although it’s telling that the question is appropriate here. 

If Badu could carve her own particular DART route, it would go exactly as follows:

“This is my route: I would like for it to go from my house straight to Booker T., to drop my kid off; then straight to yoga. Then to Whole Foods. And then back home. Take a nap for a little while and I would want the bus to wait for me.”

Set aside the on-demand request, and it’s exactly the type of service DART hopes to provide: buses and trains that reliably can get you and your kids to school, to the grocery store, to a gym, to church, to the places where we spend most of our time outside of the home. 

Her branding would not stop with DART, of course. Now that Badu has her likeness on a few buses and trains, she considered what she may do with other Dallas iconography. She looked southeast, where Big Tex stands for three weeks out of every year in Fair Park, near where she grew up in South Dallas. 

“If I could tweak Big Tex, I would want Big Tex to have a fluid voice. I wouldn’t want anybody to know whether it was a woman or a man. And I would want the jeans to be a little bit tighter. Not as much fabric at the bottom. It’s too much fabric…” 

I suggest that it’s the boot cut that is causing Big Tex’s famous jeans to bunch up at the bottom.  “…Yes, boot cut,” she says. “I would add leg warmers.”

Badu’s candid speech was a sharp contrast to the obviously well-prepared remarks of everyone who took the stage before her. It is certainly an encouraging sign, a buttoned-up public transportation agency investing in a branding opportunity that does not feel forced, one that actually might attract the transit-curious among us. A start of something bigger. 

“I was a hustler, everybody,” she said. “And I’m still a hustler today. And what I’m hustling now is love and kindness in any kind of way I can.

“Whenever you see this bus pass by and see my picture on it, remember this … let me think of something.” 

She turned and stared at her own image looking back at her.

“Remember this: Two wrongs don’t make a right, but it’ll damn sure get your money back,” she said. “If you guys can give me my keys, I’d like to take my bus now.”


Christopher Mosley

Christopher Mosley

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