Erykah Badu offers an unapologetic 'window seat' to her soul
Since releasing her debut, “Baduizm,” more than 13 years ago, the Dallas native has found new, creative -- though sometimes controversial -- ways of expression. From donning head wraps as towering as Marge Simpson’s tresses to shaving all her hair completely off -- she knows how to make a bold declaration.
But it was her last artistic statement that sent tongues wagging and the media afire when she premiered the video for “Window Seat,” the lead single from her newest album, “New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh.”
In the clip, which immediately went viral, she is seen walking the streets of Dallas near the site where JFK was assassinated, slowly stripping; the moment after she takes off her last piece of clothing, the singer is shot by an unseen assassin.
Thanks to a media firestorm and a complaint from a Dallas resident, she was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct, a Class C misdemeanor, for her "disregard to individuals nearby.”
But Badu is not fazed. The 39-year-old is gearing up for a hectic summer. She has joined this year’s Lollapalooza festival and will reunite with the revamped Lilith Fair tour for a slew of Canadian and U.S. dates. Not to mention that she will be featured as a special guest on Maxwell and Jill Scott’s current tour. All of this on top of launching her own summer trek.
Before Badu plays Los Angeles on Sunday at the Greek Theatre she chatted with Pop & Hiss (after a grueling promo tour in Japan) about the video seen round the world, her latest album and Twitter.
Let’s talk about the new album. Part 1 was pretty political and the beats were as you’ve said 'sinister,' and Part 2, the music feels more romantic, more emotional. What inspired that progression?
The music. It’s always the music. Where the music leads me to write. Because I like to do albums and not just compilations, I like to fit them all together. How you put the songs together is just as important, if not more important. It’s like weaving a garment. This time around, I found it very necessary to put all the analytical things together. I had so many songs. I had to find a way to put them all together logically.
Fans love that you are brave enough to give away so much of yourself for your art. I finally had the opportunity to see you live and it felt like church the way people responded to your music. Are you surprised at the way your fans connect to your music?
I never underestimate people’s feelings. The first time I performed was in New York at Malik Yoba’s café. Cellphones had just come on the scene, the Internet wasn’t what it was now. That show was when I found out people had connected. My [debut] album wouldn’t be out for another month but people knew all the words to the songs. It shocked me. It floored me. They were singing louder than me. I’m talking about “Other Side of the Game” and “On & On.” I mean how do they know this? That’s when I knew I had some kind of connection that was bigger than me, that belonged to us collectively. It’s like me and the audience become one living and breathing organism the further we go into the set.
You have a strong following on Twitter. You seem to have really embraced it. I don’t know too many people who’d have the strength to tweet while giving birth. I’m curious -- how much access do you want your fans to have to you? How do you decide how much fans should know about you?
I don’t know. Whenever I think of something. Twitter is like a therapist (laughs). I’m not deciding what to tweet based off of what people think.
You also used Twitter to get Paul McCartney to clear a sample (she uses "Arrow Through Me" by Wings for "Gone Baby, Don't Be Long"). Did you ever imagine you’d be able to get business done in 140 characters or less?
(Laughs after double checking the number of characters) No, I’m a master of that. It’s like an art. [In regards to the sample clearance] I just knew that I needed to get it done. I think Twitter is like the matrix. Somebody on Twitter is going to give you the information. It’s a part of our social evolution. It’s a big part, as a matter of fact. The social network that we are doing. People are becoming more and more free.
Your late-night phrase, 'they sleep we grind,' has to be one of the most retweeted mantras. Do you find Twitter a good way to inspire others?
Yeah, I do. I just randomly wrote that one. It got so many retweets that I felt it was a way to say what they’re feeling. I call them rock star hours. You’re just up creating. When everything else is quiet, you hear this little grinding in the distance. And it’s you.You were in Japan recently. How was that?
Oh, wow. It was amazing. It was amazing. [When I’m in different cities] I’m only there long enough to do my show and do an afterparty or whatever is required of me and usually I leave. I stayed an extra day to see what kinda shenanigans I could get into. I went to a really beautiful temple and did a really wonderful blessing with about a million other people. I needed that. It was enough to reprogram me.
How often are you able to take the time to reprogram yourself?Everyday. I have to take it. No matter what, I just have to do it. It’s majorly important to me because I give out so much of myself. So I have to recharge myself. Whether it’s with some kinda sun, or lighting a candle -- or as simple as taking a bath. I make a moment.
Of course, we have to talk about 'Window Seat.' Did you think the fallout would be what it was?You know, I knew it was a shocking thing that I did. So I did expect some kinda dialogue about it. That’s the point of performance art. There is going to be some kinda dialogue. I didn’t think it would become this …well, yes, I did (laughs). I predicted what would happen. It became clearer and clearer as I shed layers. The next step is assassination of character. That’s exactly what happened.
The word coming out of your head in the end was ‘groupthink’ … a lot of people might not have known what that concept of thought was before the video. Can you talk a bit about it?Just in case they didn’t know I did speak English in the end of the video (laughs). At the end of the video, I gave the definition. But people ignored that. That’s not newsworthy. It’s hard to accept nudity when it’s not packaged as male entertainment. I didn’t have on high heels, it just can’t be something intelligent. It must be something crazy. What groupthink allows is that everyone says the same, exact thing. We must all report the same thing, and anyone against it must be ostracized.
But isn’t the notion of groupthink a little of what the record industry is built on? Especially when it comes time to package an artist and slap a label on them, in your case, ‘neo-soul.’
Absolutely. It’s the world as a whole. The world is like that. Your church group. Your radio station. Everything is that way. Everything we use as a social media is that. Politics, the science world. The whole world behaves that way.
I ignore that. I have no idea what neo-soul is. I just remembered before I came out I didn’t label my music. I didn’t know I had a style until I got a record deal. There are millions of different atoms of music. It’s something that just came out of me. I know they have to do that in order to package it so they can sell it. It doesn’t affect what I expect of myself. My job is to be honest. And I do not deviate from that to fit in with a label that is given me.
You’ve always released your music on your own terms, putting videos up on your site first, treating fans to tracks. In a world of constant leaks, how do you manage to maintain control over your art?I just keep it from the beginning. I had an album before I had a record deal. It’s always been on my terms, with an ample amount of fairness. I just try not to compromise the vision. If it doesn’t compromise my vision, I’m with it. The Erykah Badu brand, I associate with certain things, and I don’t associate with certain things. I write all my videos, choose the artwork, and package it. It’s all fun to me. It’s a part of telling a story. God forbid something happens to me. I want people to know that.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind, Just in Time Tour” with Janelle Monáe and Lupe Fiasco at Greek Theatre, 7: p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $38.50-$101, not including surcharges.
Photos: (Top) Bode Helm. (Bottom) Kenneth Cappello.
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