Pop stars come and go like disposable commodities in our culture. It's a rare occurrence when a singer emerges whose sound and creative energy are distinctive enough to endure for the long haul.
Erykah Badu is that kind of performer. Even over the phone the difference is apparent in her voice --- that deep, cool tone that drives her critically acclaimed recordings.
It was while growing up in Dallas that Badu first realized what she wanted to do. All it took was hearing Chaka Khan on the radio.
"I just wanted to sing background for her as a kid," Badu says, "just to be part of the whole rhythm section."
Badu paid tribute to Khan on her Live album, recording "Stay," one of the few songs she has ever covered. But, when it came time to carve out her own career, Badu did not imitate Khan or anyone else. And her record company has never tried to shape her into anything other than herself.
Badu was discovered when her HipHop duo opened for D'Angelo in Dallas. D'Angelo's manager, Kedar Massenburg, was so impressed he signed her to his label. When he became president of Motown Records he brought her along.
"Kedar is also very creative and I think he really understands the creative process, that it can't be tampered with."
That's good, because Badu insists on taking an unusual amount of control over her career. She has released only three albums since 1997. And when you see one of her videos, chances are she conceived and directed it.
"Some people call me a control freak, but there's nothing freaky about wanting to be the one to decide what you are and who you are. It's very important to me. Here's a Baduizm for you: To me there are three levels to an artist. The first level is those who are actually the creators. It takes a lot of pain to create. You have to go through a plethora of things to be able to come up with these songs or ideas. The second level would be those who imitate the creators. The third level would be those who are just told what to do or told how to do it and show up on time, which takes a great deal of discipline as well."
Badu's process of creation rarely slows down. If she's on a plane she'll write poetry that may one day turn up in her music. And sometimes she doesn't even have to write it down.
This was the case with "Tyrone," perhaps her best-known song.
"I was just following the tradition of HipHop. It's called freestyle and it's the most relaxed kind of writing, where you just let the words come out before you can even think about them. It sometimes becomes something really great."
The song tells the story of a relationship between an exceedingly laid-back man and a woman who's hip to his tricks. Although Badu says it's an exaggeration, it contains enough truth to make audiences go crazy when they hear it. But men and women react differently.
"Women can relate to what I'm saying. Men --- they just laugh."
There is also a more serious side to Badu's writing. "Bag Lady" deals with all the metaphorical baggage we drag around with us as we live our lives.
Badu says she was not writing from personal experience at the time.
"I wasn't in a particular situation when I wrote the song," she says. "Later I found out that I could have very well been talking to myself. I guess we all are bag ladies and bag men of sorts in a lot of cases because it takes a great process to heal or let go of things that really shape us and mold us in a difficult way."
Other songs relate to relationships that might have been. "Next Lifetime" tells the story of a powerful attraction left unconsummated.
"I heard so many songs on the radio about 'come on baby, let's sneak around, my man don't have to know. Your woman don't have to know.' I wanted to do something from the perspective of 'you're so beautiful to me and you know, the first time I saw you, I was head over heels, but I'm someone else's girl, so I guess I'll see you next lifetime,' in lieu of sneaking around and being dishonest. I explained totally how I felt about someone but then took the high road and decided not to be unfaithful."
All of Badu's songs are delivered in one of the most unusual and intriguing voices recording today. It's a voice that can be husky or vulnerable, a voice that can occupy a narrow range, or, on a tune like "Stay," soar into the stratosphere.
Even though their respective genres may be seen by some as miles apart, Badu has been compared to one of the 20th century's greatest singers, Billie Holiday.
Badu is honored by the comparison. She was introduced to Holiday's music as a child, but it was in the form of Diana Ross' portrayal of Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.
"When I heard Billie a lot later I didn't like her voice as much as I liked Diana Ross's. Now I totally understand the amount of craft and what magic she had and what influence she had. Instead of notes it was primal wails and tribal moans. Her throat was some therapy for us all."
Hearing Holiday and other jazz musicians struck a chord.
"That era had seemed so familiar to me," says Badu, who took her name from the syllables used in scat singing. "I never studied jazz music but I remember it from someplace deep inside of me. I don't have perfect pitch, but I also believe that there are a lot of notes missing on the piano and I've just got to sing in between the keys."
You can hear bits of jazz influence on her albums, including the introduction to her live album, which is a take-off on Miles Davis' "So What."
Badu went to an arts-oriented high school in Dallas with jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who arranged the horns on her Mama's Gun album. On Hargrove's latest CD, Hard Groove, Badu returns the favor, collaborating on "Poetry."
"I love it. That song was one of those 'Tyrone' songs. He said 'Here's the music, can you just make something up?' and I said 'Yeah.' We kinda liked it. The next week he said, 'Apples, I think you got something else in you better than that.' I came in, I was feeling pretty good, and I wanted to talk about love and life. I kind of freestyled my way through that thing. Nothing really rhymed; it's kind of like a testimony. It was how I felt that day."
(Badu's nickname, "Apples," dates back to elementary school, but she can't remember where it came from.)
While in high school, Badu was heavily involved in acting, an art she continues to pursue. In 1999, she had a role in The Cider House Rules, and she plans to do more acting.
"I have a role in mind right now that I really want to get across and I'm working on it. I can't tell you what the piece is right now."
Badu is also writing a theatrical work herself. She sees acting as a field requiring a great deal of discipline, maybe more than her current work.
"What I do, performing and singing, I do it at my leisure because it's not my first job. My first job is being a mother and a teacher and a community service person. My second job, music, gives me a platform to even further those ideas."
Badu won't reveal her community service activity, but says her desire is for things to "be fair for everybody."
Fans of Badu, who have waited three years for a new album, will be excited about the August 29 release of her EP, Worldwide Underground. (An album follows in December.)
In a strange way, Worldwide Underground takes Badu back to her roots.
Her first album, Baduizm, was programmed with drum machines and synthesizers and contained no live instrumentation outside of a few songs with The Roots. But her live album and Mama's Gun were both done with live instrumentation. Worldwide Underground is, once again, programmed.
"It's back to the roots of where I originally got my desire --- from HipHop. It's HipHop influenced and derived and driven, and it's all about the rhythm and the chanting and the grooves. It's one continuous song. Like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, but the street version, if you will.
"The underground is a place where artists who are often unheard derive and do music not for the sake of selling units but for the sake of saving souls," Badu says. "There are a lot of artists who are superb but never emerge from the underground scene. I call it Worldwide Underground because, even though I have an opportunity for the world to hear it, it's still underground, it still has the same purpose. There's not a lot of deep messages or preaching or teaching. It's about the groove, which is also therapy."
Badu wrote the entire album on stage and in a little studio on her bus while touring overseas. She gathered rhythms while traveling through Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and Africa.
Visiting Africa was especially important to her.
"I'm an African woman and I know who I am. I know where I'm from, where my roots are from, where my rhythm derives from, and what my soul gravitates towards."
She may have put away the enormous head-wrap that became her signature look at the beginning of her career, but recently Badu has been wearing an Afro as wide as the head-wrap was high.
"I never wanted to be pinned into some image, even though that's what happened and it kind of made me afraid to change because people depended on it so much," she says. "That's just being who I am and evolving into the African woman that I am. It's not how it looks to me, it's what's inside of me."
While Badu has embraced her African roots, other performers have all but erased theirs. But when I asked Badu if she was turned off by Michael Jackson's physical rejection of his African roots, she had a surprising answer.
"No, it doesn't turn me off. I understand the human experience. We have to do what makes us feel better sometimes. It may not be the best thing for us, but it's the thing we have to do at the time. I don't have no judgment on my brother or anybody about what they want to do."
Still, Badu has set a considerably different example for young people who may look up to her.
"I just hope one day we all love ourselves enough to know that it's OK to look however we are born, even though we are faced with images that are not our own, especially African black people in America, children. We're almost taught to hate ourselves because we don't fit a certain criteria or image. And that was my whole purpose, not for wearing a head-wrap --- I did that because I'm just me --- but for continuing to display myself in my African garb and adorn myself with my culture. It was important to me because it made people feel like 'OK we can be us and still be accepted and successful and loved and wonderful.'"
Although she is as busy as any artist working today, unlike most of them Badu was in no hurry to be finished with our interview. There was one more thing she wanted to share.
"Can I leave you with my last thought? I wrote this today, it's called Center: In the middle of it all we wait and we pray / We do not have all the answers and we know nothing for certain / We get ill, we heal / We get old, we pass on / We humble ourselves and lighten our load / Carrying nothing but which we have inside / Love wins in the end."
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