My words, my lyrics…If you want to know anything about me at any given time, just listen to those bodies of music, they will tell you.” – Erykah Badu
Changing the aesthetic of what it means to be a female in the music industry and the definition of superstar, is Erykah Badu; activist, actress, deejay, singer, songwriter, lyrical genius. “Performing is like creating a moment and recording is like perfecting a moment…Not one is more important than the other.” – Erykah Badu on Chronyx.be interview in 2009
Before she became the renowned Erykah Badu, she was born Erica Abi Wright on February 26, 1971 in Dallas, Texas. She grew up with her mother and maternal grandmother along with her two siblings. Influenced by her mother’s acting career, she became inspired by the performing arts and began singing with her at the age of four. She got her first standing ovation at six years old.
Her grandmother bought a piano that she started playing at age seven, using her pinky and thumb because her hands were so small and at fourteen she started free-styling. She grew up listening to soul, R and B and funk so that also influenced her style today.
During her teenage years she made the conscious decision to change her name to Erykah instead of Erica which she believed was a slave name. The term ‘Kah’ she found signified the inner self and later changed her surname to Badu which was her favourite scat sound.
“It was at an elementary school play, and I was playing a boy, the boys had auditioned and I wanted to audition and I got the part… I had a baseball cap and bat and I was doing the act, it was very natural and I drew on the immediate reaction from the audience and I felt that this is what I would be most comfortable doing for a long time.” – Erykah Badu in an interview with BFM Spotlight in 2012 speaking on her first time singing/performing.
She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and went on to enroll in theatre at Grambling State University, however she left before graduating to focus on music full-time. During that time, she became a teacher of drama and dance to children at the South Dallas Cultural Centre and also as a coffee waitress.
She recorded a 19-song demo called Country Cousins with her cousin Robert “Free” Bradford and with Kedar Massenburg taking interest in her talents gave her the opportunity to record “Your Precious Love” with D’Angelo. Massenburg later signed her to Universal Records giving her a record deal for her voice to be heard.
“Music is why we are who we are….It’s who we are…its part of our everyday life…it’s like breathing….Crying, singing and laughing come out of the same need, the need to release things inside of us.” – Erykah Badu
Badu’s Music Career
The Launch of Her First Album: Baduizm
Badu then opened D’Angelo’s show and was signed to Kedar Entertainment. She left an impactful impression on Massenberg and her first album, Baduizm, was released in 1997. The album had greater meaning as it was the start of a new lifestyle of boho culture, head wraps and incense.
“It’s my therapy, how I create, how I connect. I’m not trying to sell a four thousand or ten thousand seaters, I just want to perform, it’s what I want to do.. Music is the fifth element and I’m happy to be able to use my platform to express myself, it’s wonderful..I don’t take it for granted I love what I do.” – Erykah Badu in an interview with Billboard.com in 2010.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified her album triple platinum and gold by the Canadian Recording Industry Association and British Phonographic Industry. Due to the audience reception of the album, Badu was established as an emerging and leading artiste of the neo soul genre. “Next Lifetime”, “Other Side of the Game” and “On and On” were a few of the top singles created on this album. She won many awards for Baduizm, including a Grammy Award, Best R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for her single ‘On and On’. She also was named Entertainment Weekly’s Best Female Singer of 1997 and Rolling Stone’s Best R&B artist.
Her Follow-up Album: Live
‘Live’ was then released in 1997 and it was her first live album; a play upon words. Live was certified by the RIAA as a double platinum album and sold over two million copies. She recorded the album when pregnant with her child Seven Sirius which reached number four on US Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. The album spawned singles like ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘Tyrone’ which topped the No. 1 charts for six weeks. She also collaborated with the Roots with the track ‘You Got Me’ which later won for them a 1999 Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
“As a performance artiste, I like to create dialogue about the art. It’s all about the art it’s very important to me to use the platform to be honest and be creative for me.” – Erykah Badu in an interview with Billboard.com in 2010.
Mama’s Gun: Her Second Studio Album
The year 2000 marked the year of the release of another album. She entitled it ‘Mama’s Gun’ which was a combination of funk, soul and hip-hop, what she grew up on listening. The album maintained her platinum status, receiving platinum certification as well as her single ‘Bag Lady’ topped the Billboard Top 100 R&B charts. Other singles on the record were “Cleva” and “Didn’t Cha Know?” Records of sales from Mama’s Gun surpassed Baduizm as the album sold over one hundred and ninety thousand copies.
Her third studio album was released in September of 2003. The album sold 143,561 copies in the first week of debuting and spent eleven weeks on the BillBoard’s 200 and thirty weeks on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. “Love” (reached Billboard’s Hot 100 at the number nine spot and the album), “Back in the Day” (peaked number 62) and “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” (peaked number 1 on the charts) were three singles off the album which reaped more success for Badu. ‘Love’ didn’t come as a shock that the album became a Gold certified by the RIAA and also received four Grammy nominations. The album sold 609,000 in the United States alone according to Nielsen SoundScan . She toured under the album in 2004 throughout the United States and Europe.
New Amerykah Part One Album
Released by the Universal Motown Records in February 2008 on Erykah’s 37th birthday. “Honey”, “The Healer” and “Solider” were products of the New Amerykah: Part One Album. “Honey” spent seventeen weeks on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Song charts. The album hit to No. 2 charts on the Billboard 200 as well Rolling Stone dubbed it the year’s beat album, and placed on the UK, French, Swiss, Polish and Netherlands Albums Charts. The album sold 125,000 copies in the first week and a total of 359,000 copies in the U.S. by early 2010. The Vortex (2008) spanned America and Europe and The Jam Tour (2009) was a summer music tour in America.
New Amerykah Part Two Album
Two years after part one, Amerykah Part Two debuted in 2010 which tapped into her emotional and romantic side. It sold 110,000 copies in its first week and topped the US Billboard 200 charts at the No. 4 spot and No. 2 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Album Charts. It also placed on Music Charts in Europe, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Poland. “Window Seat” appeared on the Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and “Turn Me Away” spent three weeks on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart as well.
Her Charity, BLIND
Beauty Love Incorporated Non-Profit Development (BLIND) is her non-profit organization “geared toward creating social change through economic, artistic, and cultural development”. She launched the charity in 2004 and has received a lot of support from people all over the world. She feels she has no need to travel the world since the world came to her through their involvement. Even though she performs eight months out of the year, every year, she still finds time to give back and make a difference.
In 2004, Badu raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the fund for scholarships for the St. Phillips School and Community Center in Texas.
Badu & Acting/Modelling
Badu acted in supporting roles in big screen movies like “Blues Brothers 2000”, “The Cider House Rules” and “House of D”. As a result, she received many nominations for awards including the 2000 Black Reel Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Satellite Awards.
She also appeared in the “Before the Music Dies” and “The Black Power Mixtapes” documentaries. Badu promoted her albums while performing on the Wendy Williams Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Chelsea Lately, Good Day New York, El Rey Theatre and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The opportunity to exhibit her style presented itself and Badu was featured in the EQ Magazine, Playboy, Nylon, Rolling Stone, Time Out New York, Vibe, Entertainment Weekly, Paste, Spin and People. She was the face of fashion designer Tom Ford’s White Patchouli fragrance in 2008 and the face of Givenchy’s 2014 Spring Collection.
“My aesthetic style I perceive as being dancer-ish. Like a dancer in some kind of way. I used to dance for many years. It feels good. I like to be deconstructed, not perfect and that’s the same with my music.” – Erykah Badu.
Her Aliases and Other Skills
On her website one can see where she is a queen of the writing circle. She authored a book entitled Baduizm and got it published in 1999 by Hal Leonard Corporation; Otab edition. Joel Mcivor also wrote a book called ‘Erykah Badu: The First Lady of Neo Soul’ in commemoration of Badu’s story which was published by Sanctuary Publishing, Ltd.
In 2004 her “mini-me”, Puma Sabti was born, and in 2009, she gave birth to her beautiful daughter Mars Merkab. She has many aliases like Badula Oblongata, Sarabellum, Fat Belly Bella, Manuela Maria Mexico, Annie, Analog Girl in a Digital World, She-el, Low Down Loretta Brown, to name a few. Her monikers in her eyes is what makes her unique and allows her to express herself in all her dimensions. For instance, she identifies with Loretta Brown when she deejays for her audience and Badula Oblongata when she is performing midwifery.
“It changes decade to decade; my most rewarding thing that I do is deliver babies, catch babies… I have assisted some mommies.. I am a midwife… I catch babies… I’ve studied it and wanted to make it a part of my life..” – Erykah Badu interview with the Work Reel in 2016.
She also co-founded the music festival known as Sugar Water Festival with the likes of Jill Scott and Queen Latifah. The successful event brought about awareness of health issues to the African American female population in 2005 and in 2006.
Badu’s entrepreneurial skills surfaced in 2005 when she launched her label, “Control FreaQ”. She created the label to promote artistes to control their own masters in a ten year conversion deal. The production house produces remixed records and develop artistes. Control FreaQ also supports “The Cannabinoids, the group she started with musicians, deejays and beat-smiths.
Recently she has been doing mixtapes, which includes “But You Caint Use My Phone” in 2015 – released under her record label – available for download digitally. The mixtape sold 35,000 albums in the first week and was No.14 on the Billboard 200.
Badu continues doing her tours for her audience who admire and support her music alongside her production house. She also stays close to her children, her charity, and her passion for midwifery.
By Alexandra Daley