I finally met Erykah Badu. Well, sort of. You see, Badu’s music has always spoken to me on so many weird, indescribable levels that seeing her throw down live was like meeting the mind behind those searing vocals. I had seen her on two separate occasions, once when she sang the national anthem at an NBA All-Star game and again when she manned the 1s & 2s at SXSW 2011.
Saturday night was my first time watching her operate live. She didn’t disappoint. Her set list was unpredictable and her vocals sounded just like they do on wax. There were a few self-indulgent moments but for the most part, it was a great show. And she looked as stunningly beautiful as ever. And I don’t mean “looks good for a 40-year old” beautiful. I’m talking “I want to run up on stage and propose to her right now” beautiful. Following the show at Arena place, there was a workshop hosted by the human development group, Umami Folklore.
DJ Ipod Ammo was in the building spinning some feel-good tunes while Bun B’s “Trillionaire” music video was in rotation. Video in the front, Bun casually leaning on the bar in the back. I wondered what it feels like to see yourself on TV. I then wondered if this was what Osama bin Laden felt like in that FBI video where he’s wrapped up in a snuggie watching himself on TV. Then, I wondered, “Why on earth did I just think of Bun B and bin Laden in the same breath?”
I spotted Bun in the back leaning on the bar and asked how nervous he was about interviewing Erykah Badu on a scale of 1-10. “Not at all. Erykah is one of my good friends.” Good thing they didn’t pick me to interview Badu. I don’t stan for a lot of artists but I would have fainted before the first question. Bun, it turns out, has been doing a lot of these community type events. He held a public forum on hip-hop and religion last month. Recently, he collaborated with Tre 9 on some christian event.
I wondered if Bun B was laying the groundwork for political office. “No, I don’t have an ego to where I want to hold some type of political office and restrict my voice to that office. I’d rather be a kingmaker and put three people in different positions to help.” That’s gangsta.
One of the folklore curators, Marlon Hall, described it as something they started to help people develop. Participants were required to fill out an application telling their story. The idea is that everyone has a story.
Bun B had a good story. He submitted a picture that showed him in a perfect suit and a top-fade. Bun said he was still trying to find himself. “People had all these expectations for me–go to college, get a degree, the usual stuff.” What young Bernard Freeman really wanted was to delve into the world of hip-hop. At the time, he wasn’t sure if hip-hop would give him a ticket to the mentoring work he had in mind. After nearly two decades of giving his all to hip-hop, Bun finds himself right back where he started. “It didn’t matter which route I took, A still led to B.”
About thirty minutes later, Badu walked into the room for the workshop, now in a flowing dashiki. She was a lot shorter than I thought. Her dress brushed against my skin when she walked past and made her way to the stage. I made a mental note to never wash that part of my body again for the rest of my life.
Badu debuted two years before D’Angelo brought soul back to music. She was two years removed from Lauryn’s equally groundbreaking Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Like those two, Badu witnessed sudden success that jerked her almost unexpectedly to high altitudes. D’Angelo’s recently made headlines for giving an undercover cop $40 for a blowjob, while Lauryn continues to struggle with career and various personal issues. Badu has survived the industry’s cutthroat nature in part because she has simply refused to be tied down to anyone’s standards of anything–beauty, relationship, music-making. Her influence spans the globe from Dallas to Dubai.
One of the participants, Lennart Hjalmarsson, came all the way from Sweden to see Badu. He likes Badu for the same reason many of us love her. “She’s unpredictable,” Hjalmarsson told me. “A lot of artists do stuff the same way. She’s never straightforward. She keeps you guessing.”
Badu is not some type of deity, no matter what her stunning looks or Lennart’s enthusiasm would have you believe. When a fan asked how one can attain the same level of cloud of creativity she enjoys, Badu gave him a dose of reality. “I don’t just live in a cloud of creativity. It’s a struggle. I also hurt and suffer just like everyone else.” The difference is that, through trial and error, she’s learned to deal with life’s many struggles. Her advice? “Get out more. Pay attention to your steps. Pay attention to your breath. Pay attention to other people.”
Badu attributes her moment of personal awareness to a trip to Cuba. “Brother Common took me to Cuba in 2000,” she said. Baduizm had just come out. Badu was one of the most sought after singers out. She met the love of her life. All these great things were happening and she wanted to control her breath and watch her steps. “I was in a place of soul-searching. I was looking for Erykah.”
She found her at a Santerian reading in Havana, Cuba. Badu was dressed for the occasion–white gown, head wrap, heels. While sitting on the dusty sidewalk waiting for her turn, she noticed several people, including a young man who wore cutoff denim shorts and ragged shoes. He held a lit cigarette between his dirty fingernails and shared a beer with a friend. When Badu went in to get her reading, the man in the denim shorts followed her, beer still in hand. Concerned that someone else was interfering in her sacred space, Badu wondered about the young man’s presence. Pablo, her interpreter, explained that the man was actually the priest. He had come from a long line of priests. It didn’t matter what he wore, it only mattered what he bore inside.
Badu says the experience taught her that people transcend image. She left Cuba without her head wrap and hasn’t worn it since. “I realized that I am the head wrap. I am the ankh. I am the incense. I am all those things.”
Bun B followed up with: “You talk about all the things you left behind. But what did you take with you?”
Badu contemplated for a few seconds and responded that she left with a greater sense of awareness, before adding a quote that was sure to stick with many in the audience. “Evolving is a process of elimination. Instead of adding things, I continue to eliminate.”
I left the event thoroughly inspired.