Thursday, April 18, 2024 Apr 18, 2024
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On the last Wednesday of last July, I drove from Waxahachie to meet Erykah Badu and a few dozen others at a garage-like photography studio along the banks of the Trinity River, in the Design District. The Others were tasked with producing provocative and commercially enticing photographs of Badu for New York magazine. I was tasked with telling the story. That I am writing to you now, many months later, means exactly what you might assume it means: something went terribly wrong. 

The Magazine People asked for 3,500 words on Erykah Badu. I thought they were kidding. Nobody really cared what I thought, apparently. To paraphrase a fictional eulogy from the series Succession, America has never been able to fit a whole woman, especially a whole Black woman, in its head, its story. I bet this is one reason Ms. Badu at some point chose to keep Herself to herself, aside from performing or making alluring, if mysterious, appearances online and IRL. (In America’s defense, I’m not sure anybody has been allowed to live in full for long without paying a high price. That’s exactly why I thought it was a crime to give only four pages to Erykah Badu.)

In the end, she proved that I was right: you can’t do justice to Badu in four pages of prose or one lifetime. So here’s the rest of my attempt. 

Badu has warned before: “Time is for White people.” Indeed there was a White man, Jay the Set Designer, who arrived at 7:20 am, long before Badu’s 10 am call time. But on this day, no matter the color of their skin or content of their character, no matter their deadlines or budgets, everybody waited for Badu. 

“We’re just getting ourselves as ready as we can,” the head honcho said around 11 am as she peeped longingly through the glass front door at an empty parking space. “This is probably, like, the loosest we’ve ever been in terms of, like …” She trailed off with a nervous laugh. “Totally,” I said, not knowing what she meant. She introduced me to the day’s photographer, also in from New York City, who paused before responding to my question re: her game plan for the day. “I just wanna be one of the witnesses,” she said. “I just wanna be there with her and see how she’s gonna feed me.” The photographer couldn’t have known that Badu would feed us all as I was fed some years ago at a strange and expensive “restaurant” in Copenhagen: deliciously, surprisingly, and with intervals so long between each course that you fear you’ll never eat again. I wished her luck. 

Half an hour later, just shy of noon, someone nearby whispered, “The cones.” Another somebody scurried from the studio’s back kitchen, called out to their colleague: “It’s the bus, right?” “Definitely,” the colleague answered. They crowded together near a ramp that led down to the studio’s front door. I stepped outside.

After a long, hot lull, a tall man stepped around the bus, wearing a diamond chain and (boldly) a Washington Nationals fitted. Boy. The man grimaced, gripping a long, white towel. Dallas heat

I grew up here. Played high school football at South Oak Cliff, ran summer track, became the first and only Black person to be sunburned, so far as I knew. I was 11. Even still, I sympathized with the man, Badu’s tour bus driver. This heat felt unnecessary, felt like revenge. The Nebuchadnezzaral air reminded me why my grandfather, who preached in Texas from 16 until he died, always stressed, “There is no air conditioning in Hell.” 

“How y’all feeling?” I asked the driver as he took a spot near me. TIRED, he exhaled. “They gone be in here all day, huh?” he asked, sounding already defeated. I had no clue or authority but assured him “they” will be flexible, sensitive to however Badu’s feeling. Then, as if on cue, Erykah Badu appeared. 

She wore no shoes, no socks, a black slip-dress adorned with space monkeys, and a rusted leather top hat. As she walked barefoot, silent, on the scalding pavement, she held her right hand up and away from her face. Between two fingers of that right hand, Badu held a slender cigarette. Between the next two fingers, she held a fat blunt. I didn’t see her puff from either. Also, she had a small, blue robot. 

I stepped back into the studio but hardly farther, as a crowd had clogged around the door and beside a metal freight ramp that led up to the main studio area. “C’mon, P-Funk,” she cooed. 

I peered around a few gawkers and there, near the base of the ramp, stood P-Funk, a Gitaplus robot that retails at this very moment for $3,475 and bills itself as a “cargo-carrying (up to 40lb), following robot built with pedestrian etiquette.” The Gita people call Badu’s model “rapid blue,” but from what I saw this is false advertising and from what I also saw, “following” is pretty close to false, and I don’t know what “pedestrian etiquette” is anymore in this fraying society.

P-Funk crept toward the ramp, tilted down so his single sensor-eye could see the road ahead. He paused, froze. “You can do it, P,” Badu called, still smiling, and he rolled a little, tilted down again, looked up at her, then doinked his wheels against the ramp. P-Funk let out a sad digital moan. He drooped his whole blue body toward the concrete floor. 

Badu spun from P-Funk to the rest of us—her entourage, two teams of stylists, photographers, production crew, her child, a slew of people who would pay their rent or feed their families or write these words to you because she showed up here. “P-Funk said, ‘No, ma’am’,” she cackled, flashing her bejeweled teeth, almost giddy that for once she didn’t get her way. 

“How many looks?” Badu asked the head stylist, a young sister with braces. 

She stood in a small room lined with racks and tables of garments all couriered to Dallas from fashion capitals around the globe. I lingered in the doorway and looked on as a few more stylists and the photographer and a well-moisturized man carrying a laptop all crammed between the garments and Badu. Also nearby was Badu’s videographer, who followed her around throughout the day and into the night, while wearing a baseball cap embroidered with Badu’s tour title: “UNFOLLOW ME.” 

“We wanted to try to get eight strong ones,” the head stylist answered, kinda trembling.  

A little dance ensued: Badu moved garment to garment, the head stylist scooted to give Badu more space, the Others scooted to give Badu and the head stylist space, the head stylist offered context on whatever Badu touched, sometimes the laptop man hopped over and showed Badu an image of the garment on a runway. Every few garments Badu released a Fantastic. Once, she added, Oh, this is fantastic.

I was reminded of an earlier conversation with one of Badu’s stylists. We were waiting near Badu’s tour wardrobe, which colonized a front corner of the studio. Lined atop rows of giant trunks were spectacular headpieces, in varied shapes and materials: a giant top hat made of zigzag fur; a ceramic bowler hat with a cracked bill; a Japanese creation that covered Badu’s face like a selvedge death mask; a custom metallic wizard’s hat that briefly turned Badu into the enemy of another Texas icon’s fans. Strewn about were other costume jewels and artistic doohickeys.  

“While she’s getting ready for a show,” the stylist said, “she gets inspired by fashion first. She’ll go through and see what speaks to her. Then,” he smiled, voila-ing his fingers, “she transforms into Erykah Badu. She’s not always Erykah Badu.” 

She hasn’t always been “Erykah Badu” at all, of course. From her birth in 1971 to her teenage years at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she went by Erica Abi Wright. By the time she left for Grambling State University, she saw this given name as her “slave name,” so “Erica” became “Erykah,” the kah Egyptian for inner light. By the time she dropped out and returned to Dallas, “Wright” had been replaced by “Badu,” as in the scat-singing phrase badu and also, purportedly, as in the Ashanti name for 10th-born child. 

Badu was Kolleen Gipson Wright’s firstborn child, so I dunno.

I sought insight from a man who was around during these transformations: Curtis King, founder of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, who discovered 4-year-old Erica Abi Wright one day at the MLK Rec Center. “When Erykah does something,” King promised, “before she talks about it, she done tossed it over in her head. She done gone out in the garden. She done looked up into the sky. She done communicated with the universe and the spirit. And she has read about it. She done read up on it. She gone tell you what every letter stand for, why this one’s bent this way, why that one’s bent that way—all of that. That’s the way she’s always been.” 

He let me finish laughing and laughed a little with me. “She’s always been like that,” he said again, laugh-free, before adding once more in case I had not understood: “Trust me, she’s always been like that.” 

“When Erykah does something,” curtis king promised, “before she talks about it, she done tossed it over in her head. She done gone out in the garden. She done looked up into the sky. She done communicated with the universe and the spirit. and she has read up on it. she done read up on it.” 

Lunch came. Texas-size cookies came. Coffee came. Badu’s stylists counted out dance routines. A young man from her entourage straddled a red cooler and watched YouTube videos. Jay, the prop designer, told his own hellacious story. 

Before he was a widely respected set designer, Jay was the first male cheerleader in Paris, Texas. At least that’s what he said, and I believe him. As a little boy in Paris, Jay’s mother would sneak him out of the house for “art class.” She’d drive him to a nearby gas station, hand Jay his ballet tights. Dad wanted Jay to be a tailor. 

“I wanted to design evening gowns,” he said with compassion for Pops. He quickly added “Audrey Hepburn,” as if to signify a very particular kind of evening gown for a very particular kind of woman. 

Not long after Jay left high school and fled to Dallas, his cheer skills paid off. “My truck broke down and I started stripping,” he told me. 

“I thought you were a cheerleader?” Jay’s colleague interjected from nearby. 

“I was a cheerleader,” Jay clarified, “but when my Mazda broke down, I went to the Eighth Day. I hooked up with a flight attendant that night. I laid out at the pool; he just left me there—that was more trustin’ days—and one of the strippers from the night before was there and we started talkin’. I said, ‘I gotta earn some money to get my truck fixed.’ He goes, ‘We need a stripper.’ So I said, ‘OK,’ and got up on that box.” 

I asked Jay if he had any talent on the box.

“Huh?”

“Did you have talent?” I repeated.

“Bitch, what?” 

Jay was so outdone that he threw a big Ha! in my face and hurried off to some prop business. 

And then, at approximately 2:22 pm, Badu called out: “Miiiike!” referring to one of her stylists, I’m almost sure. “I told you to go get in that tub!” I saw no tub. 

Ten seconds later, Badu cried out again, this time to her daughter: “PUMA!” 

Puma answered from a far-off corner: “Yeah?” 

“I told you to go get in that tub!” 

“Do you need me?” Puma hollered back. 

“GO GET IN THE TUB!”

There was a long, tense silence, until Puma, who hadn’t moved, yelled back, “No!”

Badu’s next command came just after 4 pm. “I don’t want no WHITE music!”

She had finally, mercifully, appeared on set, dressed as a couture Underworld priestess, in a drapey, hooded black Alaïa number, with a wide band of magenta eyeshadow from temple to temple, a thin brass crown-like headpiece, and a souk’s worth of bangles cuffed up and down her arms. Everybody seemed to love the look, including her. But it was too damn quiet. 

“Can somebody grab my phone?” she called out indiscriminately. “Some-one, some mu-sique.” 

Her videographer, who I assumed, based on the evidence, was White, hopped to it. 

“We don’t want yo music tho, Jordan,” she joked, still inspecting herself in a leaning mirror. “I don’t want no WHITE music!” As hate crime laughter erupted on set, Badu threw her eyes around the room, especially at those who didn’t know her. “He my son!” she cried and laughed. “He’s my son!”

Three days prior, during Yasiin Bey’s opening set at Badu’s concert at the American Airlines Center, a young woman—a writer, as I would soon learn—eased down next to me, holding a thick arena cup of beer. 

“I dunno how you articulate this in the story,” she confessed nervously, about 20 minutes in, “and I don’t know how I even articulate it right now, but, like, I put a million thoughts into this, you know, I write about music, and I am obviously deeply aware of, like, how segregation created popular music as we know it today.” 

Oh, boy. 

“But it does, like—I’m struck—being in this theater, thinking about the level of appreciation I thought White people had for Erykah Badu. That’s my sense. Everybody loves Erykah Badu, you know?” I just kept listening. “And I’m here,” she continued, eyes scanning the arena in surprise if not despair, “and I’m like, OK, I guess.” 

“You expected to see more White people,” I intervened. 

“That’s what I would have thought,” she laughed, perhaps to keep from crying for her people.  

Since she’d recently moved to Dallas from New York, and had grown up in Seattle listening to NPR with her mother, I reminded her that she was now in Dallas, Texas, and therefore should never, ever, expect the races to co-mingle much. She looked at me as if I was parroting George Wallace talking points. 

“Maybe I’m overestimating Dallas White people,” she lamented. More like underestimating the lengths to which White Dallasites have gone and will still go to stay away from Blacks. A proper estimation, I suggested then to her and now to you, will reveal how segregation shaped the city and, more interestingly, shaped Erykah Badu over the five generations her kinfolk have lived in its city limits.  

I’m fourth generation myself, offspring of grand- and great-grandparents on both sides who lived near Badu’s family in South Dallas, where during integration Whites bombed homes instead of allowing Blacks to move in peacefully. By 1956, the bombs had proved ineffective and the closest schools for Black children, Booker T. Washington and Lincoln, overcrowded. The school district’s solution? Turn Forest Avenue High School, alma mater of legendary merchant Stanley Marcus, into a “negro school,” to which the Forest Avenue community said, in essence, “Over our White bodies.” Outraged parents and students demanded that the school no longer be called Forest Avenue, that the school colors no longer be green and white, that the school mascot no longer be a lion, that all Forest Avenue paraphernalia and awards be removed, immediately. And since at that time (if not this one) whatever Whites demanded, Whites received, the stuff was moved immediately or damn near. 

In Oak Cliff, where my grandparents moved in the early 1960s, White residents did not blow up homes, just egged and toilet-papered them, and they didn’t remove the Golden Bear from South Oak Cliff High School, where my father’s two brothers and my mother’s eldest sister enrolled in the fall of 1967, along with a small cohort of other Black students. They simply removed themselves from the homes and their kids from the schools, so that by my aunt and uncles’ 1970 graduation, there were no more than a few hundred White students—and by my own 2005 graduation, there were none, that I remember. In Dallas there’d be segregation by any means necessary, by bombs, by theft, by packing up and tearing ass. Thank god. 

Segregation, I promise you, was a blessing for so many of us darker Dallasites. I don’t mean separate and unequal. I mean the gift of growing up with Black teachers, Black doctors, Black grocery stores, Black tax preparers, Black “greats” like those who mentored Curtis King when he was young, among them Esther Rolle and Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Margaret Walker. I’m not trying to romanticize the situation. I just want to remind myself and let you know, if you don’t know already, that down there in our forgotten realms, we enjoyed a taste of that elixir that expats like Josephine Baker fled to Paris to experience: a taste of what it’s like to be taken on your terms. Not that these terms made you better or even good. 

“I was a devil in other countries,” Baker told the 1963 March on Washington crowd, “and I was a little devil in America, too.” But Paris, like Oak Cliff and like South Dallas, made it much more possible to be a devil and not wind up dead. 

“She knowwss,” Jay the Set Designer whispered as Badu pulled her 5-foot frame real tall, like a tiny boxer on weigh-in day. She contorted her limbs slowly, her microbraids flowing all the way to the concrete floor, and she employed these as props until they tangled. The photographer paused as Badu tried to yank her fingers through the knots, but hurried her eye back to the viewfinder once Badu turned her dilemma into a pose. She slung strands across her face, wrapped a fistful around her head, and spun her braid-wrapped body before the camera like Medusa, like the dervish whirled from Kemet to the hood.

“That body placement in front of a camera,” Jay went on about what Badu knew, “that flow. It’s very hard to do.” 

Jay had some credibility, I discovered after Badu’s first three looks were shot and our second long intermission started. In a Fort Worth penthouse suite, he had once dressed Ms. Audrey Hepburn.  

“In’t that crazy?” Jay asked, freshly awestruck. “I was shaking the first time I met her. She goes, Oh, my gosh.” 

I can’t imagine Audrey Hepburn saying, Oh, my gosh, but OK.

“I’d gotten all these clothes from Chanel, for a UNICEF thing. She said, OK, I’ll be back. She came back out in a slip.” Jay’s voice took on the husky, regal twang of an Old Hollywood star from Paris, Texas. “She goes, ‘Dress me,’ and I started crying.” Hepburn drew closer. “She goes, ‘It’s OK, this is your time to dress me.’ ” Jay fell silent. “I’ll start crying again.”

It seemed Badu might cry when she next appeared on set. She moped out of her changing room dressed like a cosmic caballero—a heavy beaded and sequined jacket and short set, with thigh-high slippers made of disco ball material. Her eyes were smudged with black makeup, and, with a big red beanie she held in her right hand, she gave something akin to Set It Off couture.

“Hello,” she said passively. 

“How you feelin’?” I asked.

She left her iPhone on a chair, kept walking. “I’m good.” 

“You need somethin’?” I asked, genuinely curious though a bit creepy now that I think about it. 

Badu’s disco slippers dragged her away, and she leaned her head back like a Goonie, flashed her eyes around at me. “Take me home.” 

Moments later, I heard her coughing amidst the trunks. “Sorry, guys,” she told the stylists. “The later it gets—” I didn’t hear another word. 

As she moved toward set, one stylist kept yanking up Badu’s jacket zipper. Another stylist called for garters to keep the disco slippers in place. Badu asked for something else to sit on. Jay offered her a platinum metallic globe, maybe to add a thrill to the evening doldrums. All finally settled for what they could get, and the set began to sound like an ICU ward, low murmurs, the beep, beep, beep, beep of the flash recycling.

Next thing I knew the beeps stopped. A little thump and a few Oh!s rang out. Then silence. I looked up, and there she was, Erykah Badu, flat on her ass. The globe had rolled away. 

Nobody moved. I assume The Others were stunned and slightly scared, like me. But then Badu said, very casually, “Put it behind my head.” Badu’s stylist crept over and rolled the globe under her head. She reclined against it, spread her braids in an appealingly disheveled fashion. The beep, beep, beep came back, and Badu came back—swirled around, lifted her legs high, fuck the garter, then settled in a b-boy stance. Somebody propped a fresh, thin blunt in Badu’s mouth. She re-posed for the camera, then paused, then pulled the blunt from her burgundy lips, then threw those terrorizing eyes at the blunt, then from the blunt to her entourage. “It ain’t no good if it ain’t lit!”  

Two people rushed over to light the blunt, returned it to her lips, and the beep, beep, beep rolled on with energy and gratitude while Badu pulled deep drags, flitted the smoke, gripped the blunt between her big, fantastic teeth. They got the shots. 

I understood why Bonz Malone went wild about comic books, one complex superheroine in particular, as he tried to help me understand Erykah Badu. It was Malone who wrote the 1995 Notorious B.I.G. profile that famously christened Biggie “King of New York” on the cover of The Source. Consolation, perhaps, for the fact that he’d come within a dice game of signing Biggie to Island Records, where Malone had signed Mobb Deep to their first record deal, in 1992. 

That moment, in New York, was the “apex of everything we knew hip-hop culture to be up until that moment,” Malone told me. And into that moment, into the tape deck where he and his Source colleagues played new music, came a song that easily passed a test Malone had learned from Bob Marley’s producer, Chris Blackwell: you can tell a great song in the first 10 seconds. The song Malone heard was not on Baduizm, was never even recorded in a studio, only freestyled live before an ecstatic crowd. 

“Oh, my Gawd,” Malone cried, remembering his first listens of “Tyrone” as he hopped off an MTA bus and hustled down some New York street. “It changed hip-hop culture forever. She gave it to us in such a strong way, in a strong industry. That was it, bro. That was it. We loved her and that was it. We loved her forever.” 

I loved Malone’s love but didn’t quite see how “Tyrone” changed hip-hop. How did the “Queen of Neo-Soul” fit into hip-hop at all?

Terrace Martin—whose late father and close friends are jazzmen, and who helped produce one of the most seminal hip-hop albums of all time, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly—would ask you to listen closely to Badu’s music. “If you listen to ‘On & On,’ ” he schooled me from his Los Angeles home, “she’s singing so much, it’s jazzy. Make you think of Nina Simone.” Keep listening. Keep thinking. “But it’s so new, with so much space. She was bustin’ her shit like a rapper. It was the first time I heard somebody with that much soul takin’ they time in those cadences we grew up on in hip-hop.” 

Badu herself might ask you to separate “rapping,” something you do, from “hip-hop,” something you live. Malone wasn’t so hung up on semantics or a sound. The first test of a hip-hop great, he argued, was the same first test of any comic book hero: are they dope

“It’s like being a member of the Justice League or Marvel,” he said. “Everybody has a uniform. But NO. TWO. GHETTO SUPERSTARS have the same colors. And if you do have similar colors, you ain’t rockin’ it the same way. Ain’t no biters, man, from day one. That’s the same with hip-hop. Once we know you’re dope, we come to find out all those other things about you.”

What if, as in Badu’s case, “all those other things” keep changing—if headwraps and ankhs and peace and blessings manifest morph into jeweled grills and pussy incense and couture shipped from Paris? What if, as Curtis King explained about his pupil, “she’s constantly unraveling things about herself”? 

“That’s what happened to Phoenix, right?” Malone asked rhetorically. “She was Jean Grey. To everybody else, on the outside, she was Phoenix. Then she became Dark Phoenix.” Then, he warned, shit really hit the fan. “You better leave her alone. Matter of fact, quit the X-Men! ’Cause this chick is gone kill up everybody.” Malone suddenly stopped laughing, his voice serious: “But you’re not going to leave her alone. Because what could be a more compelling character, in the history of literature, than a character like that? Her superpowers could kill her. She’s fighting for her life and fighting not to kill you at the same time. While you try to control her.” 

I just wanted to find her, maybe talk to her. That’s all. 

As another hour-plus wait began, one entourager slept sitting up on a small couch. The studio manager returned with Starbucks; we yawned in the Great Depression coffee line. 

“Waiting makes me—” 

“Crazy?” I interrupted, projecting. 

“Sleepy,” Jay chuckled. 

By then I had let go of any hopes of ever getting the half-hour with Badu that I’d been halfway promised. So it shocked the hell out of me when, sometime early evening, I heard her voice nearby, getting closer. “When do you wanna tallllk?” 

Before I had a chance to fully grasp the Moment, Badu had spotted something between my eyebrows. “We got the same mole,” she said curiously, pointing to the space between her eyebrows. I honestly don’t think I’d ever noticed. Before I could notice and get buddy duddy, she noticed something else. 

“Who makin’ this?” she asked, pointing a j’accuse! finger at the seat next to me. Badu does not, if you can’t tell, make you feel like you’re the most important person in the room, as is so often said about the famous. She seems, instead, to focus relentlessly, promiscuously, on whomever, whatever, strikes her as compelling, for however long it compels her, unless otherwise compelled. 

Jay, in his attempt to stay awake, had resorted to playing with his props—a tiny wooden replica of a double spiral staircase; a vintage hand-held aperture—and even made a prop from scratch, a Handmaid’s Tale-esque headpiece crafted from leftover wire mesh. He got tired of tinkering and left the mesh sitch on the seat next to me. I told Badu he made it, pointing to Jay, who rushed over.

“You makin’ this?” she pressed him. 

“I make all sculptures,” Jay answered as he lifted the wire-mesh prop so she could appreciate his creation and his talents more generally. 

“Ohhh,” she said, realizing Jay was having a life event. “But that looks like a hood.” 

“That’s why I did it,” Jay said proudly. He started moving the wire-mesh hood toward Badu’s head, fearfully. 

“Please,” she whispered, bending her head toward Jay. As the hood reached Badu’s crown, she wondered out loud, eyes on the floor, “This way [meaning upright] or the other way?” 

Jay paused his coronation. 

“You can do any way you want,” he answered reverently.

“Go the other way.” 

Jay reversed the wire-mesh hood and flipped it over, slightly confused. 

“I was gonna ask you if I could send you hats,” he snuck in as he lowered again. 

“I would love for you—” she started to say, sweetly if not sincerely, but before she finished the statement, before the former hood was fully in place, she proclaimed, eyes still facing the ground: “This is now a bonnet.” 

Jay gasped. He froze his fingers on the thing he, as its maker, knew was born to be a hood. 

Badu eased her head away from him, pivoted toward a standing mirror someone had carried over. “Yep,” she said with a plain satisfaction.  

Jay leaned his head to one side. Clasped his hands. “YES.” 

(As you and I know, most people just agree with whatever famous people say, even if it’s dumb or wrong. But I am a witness: the thing was better as a bonnet!)

When Badu turned back to me, I hurried out, “I was talking to Terrace Martin about you,” hoping a name drop would make her stick with me. From everything I saw, not a single muscle moved in her face nor did a sound escape nor did her eyes take on a look of interest. “I wanted to know what it was about Miles Davis for y’all.” She stepped closer. “He said that Herbie Hancock told him Miles honored the mistake.” She lifted her eyes away from me, looked past me and out the front window. A curious smirk wound its way to the surface.

“Miles knows how to play—the—silence,” she nearly whispered, the words emerging jagged like an MS-DOS reboot. “The breaks. The negative space. Whatever you wanna call it.” Her eyes lifted higher, and she raised up on her tiptoes to push the eyes higher still as she moved, or was conveyed, further away from me. “He lives. In. That. Space.” She snapped her eyes back for a millisecond, was reminded, I guess, how poor a substitute I was for Miles, and turned quickly back to the window where the sun had taken on its evening sherbet raiment. “And he only comes out,” she said severely, as if her wildest dream was for each and every one of us to learn this lesson expeditiously, “if he has something to say.” 

She stepped away, then took one final look at me. “What’s your name again?”

“Oh, my Gawd,” Bonz malone cried, remembering his first listens of “Tyrone” as he hopped off an MTA bus and hustled down some New York street. “It changed hip-hop culture forever. She gave it to us in such a strong way, in a strong industry. That was it, bro. That was it. We loved her and that was it. We loved heR forever.” 

I told her my name.  She told me my name. 

“I got you,” she said. Then she was gone. 

I understood Badu’s greased-eel slipperiness much better 10 days later, when we exchanged our greatest fears by phone. She prompted me. I shared three fears. She told me my third fear was not, in fact, a fear. She was right. “My biggest fear is the same as my biggest hope,” she put into the space. “That I am seen.” 

Ironic, I thought at first, since as an icon and all she’s been seen by lots of people for a long time. Then my sister-friend Sarah Lewis told me that the “icon” is not seen exactly but co-created by the viewer, who projects onto and draws out of the icon their personal fears and hopes, no matter what the icon—or the human that’s fashioned into icon—fears or hopes or is. I’d been guilty of this, too.

For days after Badu’s Dallas show at the American Airlines Center, I was vexed by what seemed like a contradiction: the Erykah Badu who told a room of young worshipful fans that she is a performing artist versus the Erykah Badu who knows, as she later told me, “I could start a church,” and who sometimes seems inclined to do just that. Badu herself had told the concert crowd, onstage, “I have a confession to make. I wrote Baduizm for the ’90s babies.” This came after a roll-call of the generations, starting with ’50s babies, then ’60s babies, then a roar from ’70s babies, her peers, then the loudest collective cheers from ’80s babies, my peers, then the loud and numerous but slightly jaded whoops from ’90s babies, then an almost solitary primal scream from a 2000s baby girl right behind me. We turned and smiled at the young sister and gave her space; 2000s babies have really been through a lot. 

Badu made her confession. The ’90s babies made about the same amount of noise they made before they knew they were her chosen people. “I’ve been waiting for y’all to grow the fuck up, so we can talk about this shit.” She laughed and the crowd laughed and I laughed until all my other feelings kept me up at night. This felt more like indoctrination than performance. I mean, she even led us through a spiritual ritual, seven-plus minutes long, sweetly taunting at one point, “If you’re scared, go to church.”

I was scared, to tell the truth, and a ​little disturbed. Was it not kind of cruel to receive so many young pilgrims yet tell them they’ve only been to a show? Was it not kind of reckless to hand over 1,000 puzzle pieces of sacred teachings, compiled from a cornucopia of many ancestral, political, and spiritual teachings, and, say, in essence, Good luck

When I ran my worries past Saul Williams, the multihyphenate artist, he explained: “The thing to understand about hip-hop—I don’t mean to lecture—is the idea of mixed media, the idea of, you know, I don’t need the whole song. I just want the drum break, and I’m gonna loop that. That’s our generation’s relationship to, let’s say, religion.”

“Is there any danger in that?” I asked earnestly. 

Williams cackled in my ear. “Danger is everywhere, bro!” 

“It’s not that deep,” another longtime Badu peer, Tina Farris, snapped at me as I went on about my vexations. Farris is the longtime tour manager of The Roots, one of the toughest and most respected in the music business. A sentimental mood snuck out when Farris recalled the first time she met Badu, en route to a 1999 Woodstock performance. “She got on the bus with us, and I thought I was gonna lose my mind. 

“We all turned 50,” she said, referring to herself and Badu and their crew of once-twentysomething revolutionaries. “And it was shocking to all of us that we were 50. How do I get to be 50 and what do I do now? Life is long and it all goes—short. So while other people are coming up to her, and saying, We’re trying to figure out who we are and how we live, we’re all over here trying to figure out our mortality. Have we finished everything we need to finish? What are my grandkids gonna call me? You know what I mean?” I didn’t know exactly what she meant, of course, but I started trying. “We’re not done yet,” she continued, sounding like the same Tina Farris who hustled her way from Sacramento to concert groupie to someone Terrace Martin simply called The Legend. “So everybody’s in a different time and space of what they’re doing,” Farris read me in summation, “and none of it has anything to do with teaching your generation.”

I’d failed to see Erykah Badu the human being. Erykah the mother. Erykah who was dead serious about wanting the fan to blow on set. “Perimenopause, shit.” Erykah the boss, responsible for many livelihoods. Erykah who wants to be left the fuck alone and not judged for maybe, at some point in the past or future, smoking a cigarette, though “nicotine is not something I endorse at this time.” For anyone who might have something to say about any of these Erykahs, Farris offered this assessment: “You’re not revolutionary because you talk. You’re revolutionary because you sustain. And how many of y’all are sustaining? Because Erykah is.”

On set, as Wednesday hurled toward Thursday, folks were sustaining best they could but some also seemed close to losing their shit. Each hour after 6 pm meant overtime for all the crew, so the Magazine People in Dallas had to call Magazine People in New York each hour, on the hour, to get approval to keep going one more hour. In the 8 o’clock hour, somebody assured me, “I think we’ll be outta here at 9:30, 10.” Around 10:15 somebody else murmured, “They’re gonna kill me back at home.” I asked them if this was how things always were. “This is a very long day. This is unusually long. This is not normal.” 

The bigger worry was that Badu would tap out long before they got eight good looks. “This woman,” somebody spiraled, “it’s crazy what she’s doing. She’s not feeling well. She’s been at it for,” they looked at their watch, “eight and a half hours. I think her body is like AH! shutting down.” 

They didn’t know Erykah Badu, the birth doula who stayed woke 52 hours straight to help her friend bring life into this world. The artist who almost killed the great James Poyser with the intense, unending sessions that produced Mama’s Gun. The Curtis King pupil who was trained in the theater “the hard way.” What’s the hard way?

Oh, so you tired? OK. Take five minutes, let’s go back at it again. Until you get it right—and you do it on a consistent basis

“I don’t have a manager,” Badu says to illustrate her birth chart placements. “I have 22 dry erase boards around the house. So Saturn shows up for me that way. If I’m resting at the wheel, that mean the car ain’t driving. That’s time to contemplate, to live, to procrastinate. But if the car moving, I’m driving. And I’m driving fast.”

And at 11:47 pm, Badu was moving just fine, back for one last look. 

Before I saw her, I heard musique, a song I used to love in high school, produced by and featuring my favorite rapper at that time, Kanye West, and a singer named John Legend, who had yet to release his first single. I never thought much, at 17, about the group whose song this actually was—Detroit-born hip-hop group Slum Village. Never knew, until years later, that one of Slum Village’s founding members, J Dilla, had been an inspiration to Kanye. And I did not know till I was nearly now-years-old that this J Dilla’s life and world had, long ago, been rocked by Erykah Badu—and hers by him.

As work began on Badu’s sophomore project, she sojourned to the Detroit studio of the young producer then known as Jay Dee, who’d already established himself as a crate-digging mastermind with a new sonic blueprint that not only fused hip-hop, jazz, and soul but changed time altogether. He brought this vision to a new collective of musicians, the Soulquarians, whose founding members included D’Angelo, James Poyser, and The Roots’ Questlove, who served as dean and described their common thread as a love for “offbeat rhythms, unorthodox chords, stacks of harmony, [and] an overall rebellious attitude to the status quo.” 

Those offbeat rhythms were Dilla’s signature. As Dan Charnas writes in his biography Dilla Time, “Before J Dilla, our popular music essentially had two common ‘time-feels’ ”—straight time and swing time—“meaning that musicians felt and expressed time as either even or uneven pulses.” But Dilla created “a third path of rhythm, juxtaposing those two time-feels … creating a new, pleasurable, disorienting rhythmic friction and a new time-feel: Dilla Time.” He couldn’t have known ahead of their first meeting that Badu Time would be an equal, alchemical force. 

For their first little while together, Jay Dee proceeded as he normally did with artists, playing Badu beats he’d already crafted. She picked up nothing he put down. “I want to make something together,” Badu countered. Faced with such a curve, Terrace Martin told me, “Some producers would be like, ‘You know what? Get back on the plane. Go back to Texas. I’m Dilla … don’t tell me how to do the fucking music.’ ” 

Jay Dee, instead, complied, a testament to Charnas’ observation that Badu’s “presence short-circuited his usual order of operations, because Erykah was going to set the pace.” He invited her to choose a record, any record, from his treasure trove. “I just picked a record at random,” Badu told me, “and looked at the album cover and said, ‘This is it.’  ” 

The record was The Very Best Of by Tarika Blue, the very first record she pulled from Jay Dee’s shelf, “’cause it looked like my name.” She picked a song off the record, “Dreamflower,” picked a part of the record to sample, and then together she and Jay Dee, who soon became J Dilla, created one of Badu’s enduring classics: “Didn’t Cha Know,” all because “he trusted me and I trusted him. And we introduced a sample, a melody to the world that probably would have never even existed in the world had we not worked together. I put my hand on it and pulled it out.”

Had Dilla and Badu not worked together, we might have never heard Mama’s Gun. Had his fellow Soulquarians not understood the portalthey could open using Dilla’s time, had they not camped out like maroons for years in Electric Lady Studios, making things together, we might have never heard D’Angelo’s Voodoo, or Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, or Bilal’s 1st Born Second, or, for that matter, the sounds we later heard from Kanye West. What Florence, Italy, had been during the White Renaissance, what Harlem had been during the Black Renaissance, what Haight-Ashbury had been during the Summer of Love, Electric Lady Studios had been at the turn of the 20th century, a cipher that bent the arc of our cultural universe.
Yet when I asked Badu what it was like to witness that, to make that, she pulled me back from hero worship. 

“I don’t know [what it was like]. We were just doing what we do—a bunch of people through natural selection in one building. We didn’t know we were creating a movement at the time, but that’s what they say we did.” She laughs. “We were just living and loving and hurting or healing or laughing, crying. We were expressing and we were young in our expression—and fearless. There was no template. We was the template.”

Here she was, two decades later, still the template. Black gator stilettos, black skin-tight pants, an oversize red tartan scarf draped around her shoulders, and a red ceramic fitted cocked to the right. A high voltage set light shone down on Badu’s face, and in this light I finally saw her eyes up close. I understood immediately why Bilal once warned that looking into Badu’s eyes is like “staring into the universe … like she’s drawing you into the abyss.” Then, within moments, as the song “Selfish” played on, those eyes were red and wet. 

I couldn’t help but wonder if the song had touched Badu. On February 10, 2006, two years after “Selfish” came out, three days after his 32nd birthday, James Dewitt Yancey died at home in L.A., after a painful battle with lupus. Died his first death, I should say. “The second death,” Badu explained, “is the last time somebody says your name or sings your song or creates because of you or hears your melody. That’s a resurrection.”

Whatever the cause, Badu’s eyes were quickly focused on her final shots, on set. A flurry of beeps pulsed from the camera, a last call for shots, for feeding, and then quiet. There was a brief moment of suspense (futile because there’s no time for do-overs), as the photographer and Head Stylist and Magazine Head Honcho huddled around Badu as she inspected the camera’s preview screen. Nobody said a thing. Then Badu’s eyelids rose and those eyes appeared, gazing at the three young women. She hugged them, tight, one by one. Then she flung off her gator stilettos. I happened to be standing along her pathway to the dressing room, and she reached for my hand, like a reflex. You did it, I said, feeling oddly proud. Badu stopped walking, turned back to the room, to all those who had labored for her, some since 7:20 am. 

“We did it, Dallas!” she cheered. 

I wonder now who Badu meant by We, since when she and I later spoke of grief, of how the dead are not exactly, or only, dead, she told me, “Some of the habits I have are not even mine. They’re theirs. They’re my father’s or they’re my grandfather’s or my mother’s or my grandmother’s. And they get to enjoy that through me. I get to be the best of them. I imagine what they want in these moments. And then I do that.” Perhaps that’s what explains her on-set genius or how the song “Tyrone” just came to her onstage. Perhaps it was this We coursing through Badu between 2005 and 2010, a period that birthed two albums, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) and New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), birthed songs like “20 Feet Tall,” where she reminded a neglectful lover, “if I get off my knees/I might recall/ I’m 20-feet tall.” Birthed performances that led the writer Sasha Frere-Jones to declare, after witnessing a performance at Radio City Music Hall: “If you want to know who is at her peak, who is both of her moment and channeling so many forces that her work spills out over the edges of history and stops time, that’s Erykah Badu in 2008.”

“I feel those things came up, out of a need,” Badu said when I asked her about that moment, “came out of a prayer that people prayed a long time ago.”

“What is your prayer these days?” I wondered. 

She said nothing for a long while, as if carefully opening an envelope that would reveal to her the answer. Then said, simply, “Thank you.” 

Before I made another sound, Badu’s voice shot through the phone, again: “Thank you,” and flowed on with the force of fresh and lasting clarity in a breathless, varied song of praise. “Thank you. Thank You. THANK YOU.” 

Then, for a brief moment, Badu fell silent, and I stayed silent, until she whispered, “That’s my prayer.”

It was nearly 1 am, Dallas time, when Badu finally left the studio. Jay had finished hauling cardboard boxes and Ikea bags down the freight ramp and into a U-Haul. Badu’s sister Koko had overseen the many trunks of tour garments being rolled back to the tour bus. Badu’s stylists had waved goodbye and strolled out. The photographer had bid adieu. “You killed it,” I said, telling the truth, as we hugged. She backed away, her lips curled into a halfway smile. She bowed, as if to say, “I survived.” 

As the studio cleared, Badu leaned calmly against a vanity while someone did something to her fingernails. She was barefoot once again, back in her black space monkey slip-dress, no rings, no hat, a freshly lit blunt dangling in her free hand.

“What you waitin’ for?” Badu called out as she headed toward the exit. I’m pretty sure she feared that I was waiting for her, for an interview. I really wasn’t. I’d resigned myself to making do with all the stuff I’ve told you of that long, strange day in Dallas. “I gotta get P-Funk,” I mumbled.

“What?” she said, squinting.  

“I gotta get P-Funk,” I repeated with a little more of my chest. “He in my story now.”

Badu’s eyes fell from my mid-brow mole to the notebook in my hand, down to a corner of the lower level, where P-Funk stood alone. She grinned and kept her eyes on him as she continued down the stairs. It seemed she knew instinctively a performance was at hand. I could be making that up. She circled P-Funk, flicked her finger on his sensor-eye. 

P-Funk rolled well and close behind Badu. She paused at the bus’s headlight, looked down at her robot-child, who slumped toward the pavement, made that same sad sound he’d made earlier when he gave up at the ramp. She didn’t call his name this time. She simply turned away, clutched the hem of her dress, lifted her bare foot, and disappeared into the golden bus. 


Casey Gerald’s memoir about growing up in South Oak Cliff is titled There Will Be No Miracles Here. He is the chairman of the board of Kickstarter. 

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