Words by Kate L Munro Photography by Denise Richardson
Authentic to the core, courageous to a beat and with captivating wisdom that belies an old soul, Erica Abi Wright her first breath of life on 26 February 1971 in Dallas, Texas. Kolleen Wright, Erica’s mother and manager, was a theatre performer who worked hard in the arts to provide for her young family. A woman with the strength of lions and the soul of a creative, she single-handedly raised three children: Erica, Nayrok, and their brother Jabbada. Erica’s father reportedly deserted the family when she was still a young child. 43 years later, Erica Abi Wright is known the world over as Erykah Badu, the Queen and originator of neo-soul.
Badu, a staunchly spiritual singer-songwriter, producer and activist, changed her name as a teenager to better reflect the substance of her essence; the ‘kah’ in Erykah is an ancient Egyptian word meaning vital energy and inner self. ‘Badu’ is said to be Erykah’s favourite scat, but also means, in Arabic, to manifest truth and light. Badu made her musical debut on stage with her mother at the Dallas Theatre Centre at the age of four. Years later she and her cousin, Robert ‘Free’ Bradford, formed hip-hop duo Erykah Free. By the age of fourteen Badu was an MC on Dallas radio KNON.
In the mid 1990s Badu was discovered by producer Kedar Messenburg while waitressing and teaching drama in Dallas. Messenburg paired her with D’Angelo to record the ‘old skool’ track ‘Your Precious Love’, and after that no-one ever looked back. Erykah Badu officially blitzed onto the American music scene in 1997 with her debut album Baduizm – an intelligently compiled collection of soul, jazz, funk and R&B tracks that essentially paved the way for a more conscious and organic sound. A sound that has made the people of our planet stand up and pay attention.
When listening to Badu, one can feel that her ancestral spirits are standing tall beside her on this journey, connecting her directly to her life source and her roots. Travelling to Africa some years ago, she had a DNA test done that revealed an ancestral link to the Bamileke tribe of Cameroon, and only a generation or so back she has a native American connection on her great-grandmother’s side. Often appearing on stage in a traditional African headdress, Badu leaves no room for doubt that she is at one with her sprit, her ancestry and her bloodline. Badu has an affinity with Indigenous people and our land rights the world over. In 2011, when she was a headline act at Australia’s renowned Good Vibes festival in Sydney, Badu spoke on stage about her support for our people and our connection to Country.
Badu’s deep, husky tones, mixed with mellow interludes, scats and meaningful lyrics, have solidified her as an artist who is unique and visionary. In 1997, Baduizm went triple platinum in the United States. The same year, Badu announced she was pregnant to OutKast’s Andre 3000, with her first child Seven. During her pregnancy Badu recorded her second album Live, released in November of 1997. Live went double platinum, and included the raw and award winning song ‘Tyrone’. Written and recorded while Badu was ‘playing around’ on the microphone with her crew one day, Badu gave birth to a song that so many of us sister girls connect to.
To me, as a strong Gamilaroi woman with growing strength in my spirit and consciousness, Badu is the epitome of ‘cool’. She is a unique energy whose eclectic and lyrically diverse style belies a musical superiority that’s rich in substance. Badu brings awe to the stage with a penetrating gaze and a focus that’s flawless; her small five foot five frame radiates energy in concert. Badu essentially represents an escape from the caged oasis of western society. She was quoted in a 2010 edition of Rolling Stone magazine as saying,
“I do believe that getting outside of my mind is one of the most valuable things that I have adopted, not worrying about things that don’t really exist.”
To me, Badu transcends colour, creed, race and gender to connect with a listener by simply expressing her beauty as a human being – one who challenges societal conditioning, peeling each layer to arrive at a better understanding of self.
Despite the immense positive energy and conscious dialogue Badu creates on an international scale, she is not free from creating controversy either. Making the music clip for the melodic track ‘Window Seat’, from her 2010 album New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), cost Badu a $500 fine and a charge of public nudity, resulting in a six-month probationary period. Always moving forward, evolving and expanding, Badu doesn’t have to ‘reinvent’ herself, she simply just is, and allows herself the freedom to experiment, express herself and be whole as an artist.
Badu, a long time vegan and now mother of three, is known by her fans and admirers world-wide as ‘the healer’. Although touring for approximately eight months of every year for the past ten years or so, Badu has found the time to home school and raise three children, launch her own record label Control Freaq, and spearhead the charity Beautiful Love Inc. Non-profit Development (B.L.I.N.D) – a Dallas based charity aimed at assisting inner-city youth through development of the creative arts. Badu has publicly mentioned that her eldest daughter Mars, who is 8 years old, wants to be an entertainer one day. Badu tells her daughter that life as an entertainer is a lot of commitment; but that if she loves doing it to hold on to it. Never let anyone infiltrate your dream.
During her musical career, Badu has been nominated for multiple Grammy Music Awards and has won several of them. In recent years, her studio albums have seen a steady line of hits and awards. More important than the awards and studio successes is the fact that Badu’s music continues to perpetuate a different way of thinking about our world.
One song that resonates with me in particular is ‘The Healer (hip-hop)’ from the album New Amerykah Part One. In the song Badu says, “Hip-hop, it’s bigger than religion…Hip-hop, it’s bigger than the government.”
Hip-hop has travelled the globe, more than any other style of music. Despite differing religions, governments and ways of faith, one thing we have in common worldwide is hip-hop – a way of life, and yes, bigger than the government!
Kate L Munro is a Gamilaroi journalist, specialising in the Aboriginal arts sector, with published works in the Koori Mail, Guardian and The Tracker.