“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:
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. ♦