Think Twice

Or, Why I Couldn’t Write a Hero Status About My Former Hero, Erykah Badu.

Collage by Minna.

Collage by Minna.

“I’ma need y’all to shout out your own names!” she called out from the stage. “Can y’all do that, South Africa? Shout out y’all own names for me!” I was finally getting to see my hero, Erykah Badu, in concert. There she was, barefoot before my eyes, in just a white vest and black sweatpants, super casual, and telling us all, in her powerful voice, that we were amazing. And as she raised her arms and launched into the chorus of “Believe in Yourself,” I felt my whole body well up. It may have been the best moment of my entire life, and it only happened five months ago.

Since then, my feelings about Erykah Badu have changed. But before I get into that, let’s go back to that happier time, when everything that Erica Abi Wright represented for me was good: bravery, pride, creativity, intelligence, and freedom. I fell in love with her as a kid, when I first heard her song “On & On” and was immediately mystified and entranced by the line “I was born underwater, with three dollars and six dimes.” I looked her up, hoping to find an answer to that riddle, and found instead a new obsession—on every level. First there was her music, of course, and that amazingly clear, octave-scaling voice. Then there was her style: In the early years, she had her hair in locks and always wore high turbans and long, flowing dresses. Here she is at the Oscars in 2000:

Photo by SGranitz/WireImage, via New York magazine.

Photo by SGranitz/WireImage, via New York magazine.

She was and is also a renaissance visionary. She’s produced music, written and performed poetry, acted in movies, helped birth several children, and is raising three of her own. In times of creative insecurity and ennui, she inspired me to try to be more like her: a woman who maintains an unending flow of invention and creation in her life.

So you might understand why I have not just a soft spot, but a MARSHMALLOW WONDERLAND, for Erykah Badu in my heart. I have stood by her over the years, despite her penchant for controversy: In the last scene of her 2010 video for “Window Seat,” a naked Badu is shot in the head at the spot where John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In 2012, she and her sister appeared in a Flaming Lips video; when it was released, she got in a very public fight with singer Wayne Coyne because, she said, the finished product contained much more nudity than she was told it would. But her reactions to those scuffles did nothing to diminish my respect: In the former, she simply asserted her right to her own artistic vision; in the latter, she told Coyne to “kiss [her] glittery ass.” Despite her occasional brattiness, I envied and respected her utter disregard for what anyone thought of her. When Oyster magazine asked her, in 2012, to identify the public’s biggest misconceptions of her, she said, “I don’t know! I guess what people think about me is not my business. That’s my last concern; it’s just people. Human beings don’t scare me!” I thought nothing could lessen my love for Badu.

That was before this past May, when Badu performed a concert for King Mswati III of Swaziland, who has maintained dictatorial control over that country during almost three decades of torture, targeted killings, and clampdowns on free speech. With its citizens staggering under rampant AIDS and HIV (Swaziland has the highest prevalence of AIDS among adults in the world), devastating poverty (63 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day), and prohibitions on political activity, Mswati lives in luxury and has 15 wives—three of whom have fled the country, claiming physical and emotional abuse. At the concert, which was organized by the ever-so-shady Jacob the Jeweler, Badu sang “Happy Birthday” to the dictator and brought him gifts. After human rights organizations and media outlets called her out, Badu only made matters worse by launching into a tirade on Twitter, telling one person to “go to human rights class” and asking another, out of nowhere, in what looked to me (and almost everyone else) like she meant it as an insult, if he was gay.

And yet…I can’t help myself. I still love Erykah Badu’s music, and I still love the image I used to have of Erykah Badu. I wonder if it’s OK for me to maintain that person in my mind as a role model. She was so brave, so original, so sure of herself—all things that I want badly to be. She was seemingly impervious to criticism. Though, given everything that’s happened, maybe that last point isn’t something to aspire to. ♦


  • TessAnnesley August 21st, 2014 12:34 AM

    Holy wow. Having someone you love (even a stranger who is a role model) fuck up badly can be a genuinely traumatising experience.

    *flashes back to finding out my favourite actor and hilarious interviewee Michael Fassbender allegedly assaulted a previous partner*

    This was a difficult thing to read but I’m glad Rookie is acknowledging that it can happen.

  • mangointhesky August 21st, 2014 1:57 AM

    I think it’s okay to like someone’s music without necessarily liking the artist and her/his attitude. (+vice versa) But as well as this, when you starting idolizing her, you didn’t really know that she would do something like that- so if it was me, I would still continue loving her music, and some things about her!

  • EEEmily August 21st, 2014 4:20 AM

    I think it is completely ok to still admire someone for what they have done in the past even if what they are doing now isn’t great. You recognize she is not a perfect person and some things she is doing now are hurtful and feel wrong to you. That doesn’t take away the value of how her music and art and entire expression makes you feel and connects to you. I try to just appreciate my favourite artists work and not put them up on a pedestal of being perfect, knowing it is even ok for me to have a completely different view of something they’ve created. All art is open to interpretation and is free for you to connect with it in any personal way you want. It would be amazing if all our favourite people could evolve for the better in their lives and careers, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. I think things like this are also a reminder that people we admire are human and do make mistakes and might contradict themselves and act, or speak in a way that goes against things they’ve believed in and promoted in the past.

  • Tiana August 21st, 2014 7:20 AM

    I grew up listening to Erykah badu so I have always admired her music, I can’t believe that is something she would do…
    Tiana x

  • cornfed August 21st, 2014 7:52 AM

    Whoa I only heard about this in passing but thats really messed up. Is there an article on what to do about problematic favs??? Like I think there was one after the Woody Allen debacle. I feel like everytime I start to like a person or their work it turns out they’ve done some really crummy things…

    • goldfinch August 21st, 2014 4:39 PM

      Yes, I think you can find one of those in an edition of Saturday Links (We’re With Dylan Edition).
      Woody Allen was the first person I thought of when reading his article because, despite all accusations, I can’t help but still fall in love with his movies. I don’t necessarily think that is something bad, as long as you are aware of it, don’t try to defend him/her irrationally and without solid proof, and don’t ‘worship’ them, which is always a risky thing to do.
      I also love the tumblr

  • doikoon August 21st, 2014 4:39 PM

    EEEmily, a commenter a couple above, gave what feels to me is a healthy response to your question of “what to do about problematic favs?” I hope that helps.

  • yup yup August 22nd, 2014 11:48 AM

    I saw Erykah in concert eons ago, and she spoke about On & On. She said $3.60 was another way to express 360°: a full circle and the number of degrees the earth rotates in a day. She made it all sound really groovy.