Thirteen years before Beyoncé’s ‘I woke up like this’ became the mantra of natural (black) womanhood, another queen B. spread similar words of wisdom:
'This is how I look without makeup / And with no bra my ninny's sag down low / My hair ain't never hung down to my shoulders / And it might not grow / Ya' never know' (Cleva, 2000)
Defined by the New York Times as ‘an eccentric neo-soul sex goddess/funky earth mama/black power revolutionary persona’, Erykah Badu gave new meaning to the word soulfulness by both embracing and unwrapping it. Her debut album Baduizm (1997) just celebrated its twentieth birthday, but her latest mix tape But You Caint Use My Phone (2015) showed that this ‘analog girl in a digital world’ is anything but out of fashion. By constantly reinventing her own persona, Badu keeps making sure that nobody but herself can give her a proper title, ranging from fatbellybella to Maria Mexico and from DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown to Erykah Badoula. An ode to Erica Abi Wright, the old soul that keeps on exceeding all our futuristic expectations.
In early 1997, 25-year-old Badu entered the set of BET’s ‘Planet Groove’, a TV show that attracted some of the biggest hip-hop and R&B stars of the nineties. Despite the fact that Badu’s debut album Baduizm had not seen the light of day yet, her appearance already seemed to be fully formed. Slowly entering the studio, she started to burn candles while effortlessly wearing a goldenrod headscarf. After that, she casually sipped her herbal tea while countering trivial questions with complex answers. ‘Music is kind of sick. It is going through a re-birthing process. And I found myself one of the midwives in this process’, she explained her motivation for becoming a musician. A week later Baduizm was released, transforming the self-proclaimed midwife of sick music into the praised godmother of soul.
Badu didn't present herself as an adolescent male-fantasy dressed in knee-high leather boots, but as an adult queen
The towering head wrap Badu wore in ‘Planet Groove’, and later on the cover of Baduizm, turned out to be a radical symbol of black femininity in the male-dominated world of R&B and - more importantly – hip hop. Wearing the concealment of her hair as a crown and holding a golden ankh in her hands like an Afro-centric priestess, Badu combined dignity with delicacy and sensuality with serenity. She presented herself not as an adolescent male-fantasy dressed in knee-high leather boots, like so many other female R&B acts at the time, but as an adult queen that was able to give female mysticism a hip hop edge.
While the flickers of vibrato in her voice resembled Billie Holiday’s sound and her powerful appearance drew on Nina Simone, she was less an offspring of than a reflection on these soulful predecessors. She mastered the art of solidifying coolness in consciousness, discussing complex issues of the female and black self by delivering it in the funky sound of the future. With her nasal tonality, eclectic style and eccentric female presence she marked the beginning of neo-soul: a subgenre that incorporates elements from jazz, funk, and hip hop and is considered to be a non-conventional critique on the misogyny and male supremacy in rap music.
While Badu's head wrap swiftly became the epitome of black female power, she decided to change her signature image soon after the release of Baduizm. 'As much as I appreciated it, it kind of made me feel trapped a little bit. I became the incense [and] candles poster child,’ she states in an interview with Essence Magazine.
In the essay ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?’ (2009), the British author Zadie Smith (who, like Badu, is known for her signature head wrap) questions the ultimate cliché of black life that is inscribed in the word soulful. She describes the fetishisation of black female protagonists and authors that are supposed to be ‘unerringly strong and soulful; they are sexually voracious and unafraid; they take the unreal forms of earth mothers, African queens, divas, spirits of history’ (p.9). According to Smith, these characters are invented role models, brought into existence by others in order ‘to patch over our psychic wounds’ (p.9).
Like the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, Badu is ‘capable of expressing human vulnerability as well as its strengths, lyrical without sentiment, romantic and yet rigorous and one of the few truly eloquent writers of sex’ (Smith, 2009, p. 9). But we should not assign these qualities to the tradition of black culture, but to Badu herself. While she embodied certain characteristics that Smith described as the cliché of 'soulful', she also immediately started to deny this concept. By marking her own territory, she made it impossible for others to assign any invented ideas of feminity, blackness, soulfulness or motherhood to her elusive persona.
Badu's decision to lay down her textile crown was a conscious, and almost political, choice. ‘[The headwraps] just got heavy, physically and a little bit mentally, because of the expectations of what was under that wrap and what it came with. I remember riding the airplane and people treating me different, as if I were a diplomat, a goddess or an empress of some sort’, she explains her decision in Essence Magazine. Her image became a restriction that needed to be removed in order to make room for the woman underneath it. Like Chimananda Ngozi Adiche already told us, hair is politics and Badu was one of the first black female singers to fully embrace her natural hairdo. Switching from belly-long braids to big black Afros and from buzz cuts to bowl cuts, she wears her hair today like she wore her one-meter high head wrap in the nineties: effortlessly and with indefinable honesty. A trademark for everything she creates.
Most of Badu’s videos, performances and lyrics are a critique on current political issues (“Window Seat”, “Soldier”, “Amerykahn Promise”, “Me”, etc.) and her rallying cry against patriarchal and racial imperialism made her a feminist role model for many generations. She constantly shapes her statements as aesthetically powerful and politically advanced works of art that always seem to fit the quirky realm she created for herself.
In The Guardian Badu stated: 'I don’t see myself as feminist. I see myself as humanist (…) I consider myself a spiritual being first, a human being second, a woman third’. While gender- or colorblindness does not yet exist in today’s society, this queen of all exceptions is capable of escaping the pitfalls of being both black and female; she just keeps on going. While we wait for Badu's next unexpected move in today's troubled times, the wisdom of Baduizm still resonates.
I could not find a better way to celebrate International Women's Day than staring at the 25-year-old midwife of sick music as she entered the stage for the first time. Changing haircuts, music genres and partners-in-crime, she is still the proud citizen of her own Badu-kingdom. A place that everyone should visit once in a while.
Smith, Z. (2009) 'Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?' In: Changing My Mind, Occasional Essays. Penguin Group, London, UK.
Screenshots from music videos:
Badu, E. (1997), "Baduizm" on Planet Groove [YouTube]
Badu, E. (2010), Window Seat [YouTube]
Badu, E. (2000), Bag Lady [YouTube]