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The Second Coming of Erykah Badu
Erykah Badu likes to wear clothes that make music when she walks—it’s why today she has strings of bells strapped to her ankles. She also has a tangle of amethyst crystal pendants thrown over her paint-splattered overalls, gigantic silver rings on each finger, rubber bangles stacked up to her elbows, and a red beanie pulled over her hair. Standing on the porch of her South Dallas childhood home, a modest white clapboard house where her mother still lives, she’s serving a look that’s part shamanic priestess, part artist at work. This is a Tuesday in mid-December and the area has been under a tornado watch all morning, unusual for this time of year. But now the clouds have parted, and the normal sounds—birds, traffic—of the tree-lined neighborhood are filtering in. “I grew up listening to these trucks and cars pass by,” she says, motioning toward the freeway, her tiny flip-flop-shod feet jingling as she approaches the door. “The vibration is familiar, soothing, like wind chimes.”
The door opens and out bounds the welcoming committee: an excitable snow white Malt-Tzu. “Hi, Tyrone,” she purrs, petting the puppy, named after Badu’s most enduring single from 1997, a hilarious freestyle about a deadbeat boyfriend. Badu’s mother is Kolleen, goes by Queenie. “Once you meet her, y’all are going to forget all about me,” the 51-year-old Badu says. In other words, if you want to know where Badu got her trademark irreverence, her mischievous wit, it’s best to come here and call on Queenie.
Born Erica Abi Wright, Badu was raised by a circle of women—Queenie (who’d separated from Badu’s father when Badu was a girl), and also her grandmothers Thelma Gipson and Viola Wilson, and godmother Gwen Hargrove. They were all educators and caregivers by trade who used humor to navigate life’s ups and downs. “I thought Richard Pryor was my daddy for a long time,” Badu deadpans. “It’s the only male voice I heard in the house.” The family has lived in Dallas for decades, and it was in this near-100-year-old home that the singer-songwriter picked up her ear for music: Chaka Khan, Pink Floyd, Phoebe Snow, Prince, and Rick James. All were a running soundtrack for game nights and birthday parties. “It was a little-girl factory,” Badu remembers.
Today the place is relatively quiet—her younger brother, Eevin, and younger sister, Koryan, have yet to arrive—and Queenie is holding court. “My mother was the historian, she kept every article,” Queenie tells me, referring to her mother, Thelma, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 93. “Every day she would cut out clippings and paste them into different frames.” Several of those lovingly assembled collages of Badu memorabilia hang on the rose-colored walls alongside family photographs, including pictures of Badu’s three children: Seven, 25, the son she shares with OutKast member André 3000; Puma, 18, her daughter by rapper The D.O.C.; and daughter Mars, 14, whose father is the hip-hop artist-producer Jay Electronica. There’s also a sizable portrait of Queenie herself, resplendent with her Cleopatra-style honey blond bob.
She’s recalling the surprise of Badu’s first appearance in the newspaper: a street style picture of her 14-year-old in the lifestyle section of the Dallas Morning News. Badu was an avid theater kid then, and amateur dancer, and was dressed for the photographer in pajamas rolled at the waist and a men’s suit jacket. (Badu would have her first real headline-making moment in 1994—a solo deal with Universal Records—after she opened a D’Angelo show in Fort Worth with her cousin Robert Bradford as a hip-hop duo named Erykah Free.) “I mean, if you saw her then you might have thought she found her clothes rummaging through a donation bin in the church basement,” says Queenie. “She dressed outrageously. And she had this high-top fade.” In Queenie you can see Badu’s meticulous approach to self-presentation, in her black leggings and striped shirt accessorized with chunky tortoiseshell glasses and a necklace of amber and turquoise stones. “I know now that it was her style,” Queenie says. “She always was a trendsetter.”
From the moment Badu floated onto the scene with her genre-defining 1997 album Baduizm, the iconoclastic star has made personal style a radical calling card. In that era, standing tall on platform shoes with a towering headwrap, signature ankh jewelry, and a smoldering incense stick between her fingertips, she projected a powerful, mystical image of Black beauty. Even then she was an old soul who seemed cosmically aligned with the future, with a haunting, blues-inflected voice often compared to Billie Holiday’s. The sound itself, a hybrid of hip-hop, soul, jazz, and funk dubbed “neo-soul” (see also D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell) offered a countermovement to the commercial R&B of the time, one that was both soulful and socially conscious.
Longtime friend and collaborator, the DJ and producer Questlove, was spellbound by Badu at the 1996 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles. “She had on the tallest turban I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “It was like she was hiding a three-year-old standing on her head, that’s how tall her headwrap was. I was just transfixed.” As she tells it, the look was as meaningful as the music. “I remember being among an elite group of young people who were really embracing what it meant to be an African here, generationally,” Badu says. “We embraced locs and ’fros and our natural state, our fabrics and jewelry. It was a beautiful time.” Several years later, in 2008, she would help popularize the phrase “stay woke” with “Master Teacher,” a song on her fourth studio album, New Amerykah Part One, long before it was deployed by young progressives (and then co-opted derisively by conservatives). Badu talks of her enduring influence in philosophical, sometimes esoteric, terms. “I feel I’ve poked this hole in the dam. It’s this little hole and all this water is seeping through. Now all the people who have the same energy are able to experience what I experience,” she says. “It’s a rebirthing process, and I feel like I’m a midwife.”
Badu herself is in the midst of a renaissance. Like David Bowie and Grace Jones before her, the four-time Grammy-winning singer is one of those rare, rabble-rousing creatures who orbits the pop-cultural universe and meets the moment entirely on her own terms. Her imagination and joy feel especially relevant now. She’s found new ways to connect, sharing radiant backstage videos on TikTok and Instagram, where she’s a self-described “UNICORN Mutant Cobra,” and engages in lively conversation in the comments. If you’re familiar with her Twitter alias, @fatbellybella, then you’ll know she’s pretty good at giving relationship advice, too. Her musical collaborators cross genres and generations, from hip-hop (A$AP Ferg) to K-pop (RM of BTS) to new-wave R&B (Teyana Taylor).
“One thing I brag about all the time is that my sister is probably the only artist I know who easily sells out arenas despite not having put out an album in almost a decade,” says sibling Koryan, or Koko for short. “And to me this moment feels like her re-blossoming.” Koko once sang backup for Badu’s band but these days acts as her sister’s right hand. “Her left hand and right hand,” says Queenie, cackling. “And whatever hand that feeds her!” With a trucker hat pulled over striking waist-length platinum-blond braids, Koko carries herself like a woman who means business. Badu’s turning point, she explains, came when the pandemic brought touring to a halt. The pivot was swift and effective: the launch of Badubotron, a streaming platform hosting concerts from Badu’s home that could be viewed for the nominal fee of $1. These attracted more than a hundred thousand fans enamored of Badu’s elaborate costumes, wild performances, and otherworldly DIY sets. In one of her shows, Badu and her band appeared to perform inside huge inflatable bubbles. Badu World Market, the singer’s popular online merch store, also went live. “We just kind of came together as a family and it was like, Oh, we actually have a company right here,” says Koko, whose son, Malcolm, and daughter, Diamond, also work for brand Badu. “Everyone stepped up.”
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