A Q & A with Erykah Badu
By Roberto C. Hernandez
As everyone’s favorite soul sista, Erykah Badu has made significant marks on popular culture beyond her critically acclaimed music. Her 1997 musical debut, Baduizm, scored her a Grammy for Best R&B Album, and she further cemented her crossover appeal by joining the Cypress Hill-helmed Smoking Grooves Tour that same year. Then came forays into film: a supporting role in The Cider House Rules, an appearance on Dave Chapelle’s Block Party and, more recently, a controversial, message-heavy music video (“Window Seat”) filmed in March in which Badu strips nude as she walks the streets of Dallas near the site of JFK’s assassination.
In this interview with CULTURE, Badu (a mother of three) speaks about her latest album, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), her slot on the revived Lilith Fair and (of course) her views on cannabis.
You’ve used the symbol of the ankh in many of your recordings. Tell me what it is about this ancient image that fascinates you?
It means life. It means completion of life, the circle of life, the evolution of life, the revolution of life. I used that word on my very first album, Baduizm; it was imprinted on the CD. The ankh was a staple in my life at that point and had always been the thing that’s synonymous with me as an artist—so much so that people had the ankh tattooed on their body. And when I say Return of the Ankh, it’s a return to that time, the way I felt at that time. It was my first album, there were no expectations, no one had any of me and I didn’t have any of myself. It was just a very free and beautiful time for me. I feel like that again.
It’s been 13 years since Baduizm was released. What’s different between you as an artist then and now?
I just know a little bit more useless information (laughing). I’m wiser, of course. I’m more detached from things, meaning I don’t expect the same results that I used to expect. I’m more accepting. I’m in a place where I’m very present. I was very curious at that time, but I’m very present now.
Do you think a music career would have been easier to start now or back then?
I’m not sure, because people who have the level of success that I had at the beginning were rare even then, back in 1997. When I read things about the time period, I learned that I was the highest-ranking debut artist on Billboard at the time. I think it was just something very special happening for me as a human being at that time. I haven’t had a year that successful again. It was that time period, that timing . . . I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know that you could fail or any of those things. Right now, I imagine that even with the same confidence and spirit and innocence, I don’t know if it could be the same again. It’s just something you didn’t know, but you’re really grateful for. In fact, I don’t even think about it.
You’ve got a lot of touring coming up, shows with Maxwell and the Lilith Fair tour.
This is my second round with Lilith Fair. I’m a huge supporter of Lilith Fair. I was one of the first artists on that tour [in 1998] with Sarah McLachlan and Bonnie Raitt. It was a beautiful thing. It was the first time I had camaraderie with artists of like minds. They happened to be women as well, but we were all feeling the same way at the same time about our art, about our children, about our men, about our world. It’s always a good thing to do. Healers need a retreat for healers. Barbers need a retreat for barbers. Women need a retreat for women.
Was it that distinctive that Lilith Fair featured an all-female lineup?
It is different. Women behave differently, men behave differently altogether. It’s a spirit of pride and you’re among people who appreciate your work and your body and your effort and your language, your compassion, your queen-ship. You are among people who really appreciate those things.
Looking forward to seeing any specific Lilith Fair artists?
I’m looking forward to touching each of them, embracing each of them because I understand and feel what we go through as women. I’m not a feminist. I’m a humanist. But I definitely come from a woman’s perspective. I appreciate everything that we have to go through, especially as mothers and as women and as artists. I forget and think, “Oh, we’re all artists, too,” but it’s just that we are all very hardworking human beings that have to juggle so many things. I don’t know of any other species that could do this the way we do. Evolution’s kind of a joke. If it was true, women would have sprouted two arms by now because of everything we have to do. I’m a mother of three—one being an infant who is still breastfeeding—and I don’t miss a beat or a step. I’m not a woman who has a nanny and 25 assistants. It’s me and a couple of close family members who help us stay in line and bring me some baby wipes. But you know it’s a big job and when you take the responsibility to do all of that you know what you’re taking on. And women rarely complain about it. We just do it. We don’t know how to do it either, but we learn and accept the role and the pain and the joy and the prizes and the stretch marks, everything. Those are all the prizes that we accept and it’s good to have people who understand and appreciate that.
I read somewhere that you’re vegan. True?
I am. I eat like a vegan. We don’t have a whole vegan lifestyle, where we shun every animal product or piece of clothing that has animal skin. We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years, a vegan for 10 years. We’re not trying to win the Vegan Awards for Best Vegetarian Family, but we’re definitely very mindful and healthy. We don’t eat sugar or dairy or wheat to a large degree, and those things that are unhealthy.
I see you’re touring with rapper Lupe Fiasco? What stuck out to you about this particular artist?
His personality. He opened for The Roots about a year ago here in Dallas and I had the chance to meet him backstage. He was just very smart and very caring, very friendly to my daughter who was with me. Very talented. Peculiarly intelligent. I just want to see him be everything he aspires to be. And I don’t mind sharing my platform with him and introducing him to a difference audience. I don’t know him very well, but we’ll get to know each other and we’ll probably be fast friends because he’s an incredible writer and stylist.
?uestlove of The Roots is also doing some dates with you. He and you have a very special relationship, correct?
He’s my brother. We were born the same year, but he’s like a big brother to me in this industry. He knows his way around. He’s got an instinct that is like that of a bat in the dark. He is wise and he knows what I should do and shouldn’t do. He’s a genius. He knows statistics like no one else. He told me in 1997, when I didn’t get Best Artist [for the Grammy Awards], he said, “Good—I’m so happy for you!” and I said, “Why?” “Because everyone who ever wins Best New Artist never shows up again. Fiona Apple. Lauryn Hill.” He went down the list and then he says, “Hey, you did a new video. I’m worried about you. Everyone who does a new video doesn’t ever do the next album. Read the statistics.” He just knows the statistics. He’s just crazy when it comes to that kind of stuff. He just knows.
Sort of like baseball statistics?
Yes, he knows all of that stuff. He probably knows baseball statistics too. I wouldn’t doubt it. He’s a genius, he’s wise, he’s incredible, and then he’s a human metronome when it comes to the drums. I don’t leave home without him.
The things ?uestlove is saying sound a lot like the “And Introducing . . . Curse.” Every time a new actor is introduced in a film with “And introducing . . .” during the opening credits, you never hear from them again.
Oh my shit. Did you know they introduced me like that. “And introducing Erykah Badu” in The Cider House Rules. That’s why I can’t get another fucking film. Are you kidding me? They didn’t tell me about that. [?uestlove] didn’t say nothing. And I haven’t done another one yet. Now the curse is broken now. Thank you.
So, what new film projects are you cooking up?
One we’re getting funding for is Bobby Zero. It’s one that stars myself and Mos Def.
Drama or comedy?
Dramedy. It’s in that genre. An art film, art-house film. I’m definitely into those kinds of things. I’m a snob when it comes to anything commercial. I’m sensitive about my shit. And there are a couple of other things. I get scripts every week. It’s just that I’m one of the laziest artists in the world. If it looks like work, I repel it. Procrastination is living and I feel like I’m at the beginning of my career, my acting career. I did theater growing up all my life. I majored in theatre in college, acted all through high school and elementary school. [Acting] was just not attractive to me, but it’s becoming attractive again because film is a whole new world. I think that after I decide to stop getting pregnant, then I’ll move into that world. And then I’ll be able to do it.
Two years ago, fashion designer Tom Ford named you as the face for one of his new fragrances. Anything new in the works?
Tom’s people just called to exercise their option and use me again for a year. That’s exciting for a 40 year old, huh?
I read something online that said that you had plans to come out with your own line of rolling papers? Can you confirm?
I don’t know anything about that. I plead the Fifth . . . Those were not rolling papers. Those were, ah, papers used to put around hair rollers. Hair rolling papers. Rumor dispelled.
Speaking of rolling papers, medical-marijuana issues and legalization efforts are a big deal here in California. What are your views on cannabis in society?
I have a couple of friends who have dispensaries. Medical marijuana really helps a lot of people because it’s an herb. I don’t agree with the abuse of anything. Did you know that tobacco is a far, far worse poison? There are 4,000 chemicals in tobacco, many that are known causes of cancer.
Do you think cannabis should be regulated instead of being illegal?
I think people should have the right—like you’ve given people the right to choose the amount of alcohol they consume, the amount of terrible cigarettes they consume—I think people should have that right [to consume cannabis] as well. Each year, 1 in 5 deaths in the United States is due to smoking cigarettes.
And how many people died from cannabis? Zero.
You sound like a supporter.
Yeah, I definitely am for political and philosophical reasons.
What are your philosophical reasons?
My political philosophy with cannabis is that I need a minimal amount of government in my life to tell me what I can and can’t do within the confines of my home, whatever my needs may be; whether it be to treat a terminal illness or for recreational purposes.
Let’s start with those who are sick first. Let’s aid them. I would have thought that the government would have found a way to make money off this by now. I think that’s the issue right now.
It sounds to me that you think consuming alcohol is a true dangers.
Sixty-six percent of men who are regular drinkers and 42 percent of women who are regular drinkers are severely addicted—and it can be inherited. You can’t inherit weed smoking. But you can inherit alcoholism. It’s not the health risk of it is what I’m trying to tell you. So there has to be something else that we’re not being told. And I also believe that people have the right to choose what to do if it’s not causing harm to anyone.
Have you ever partaken of cannabis?
But I didn’t inhale. Write that down.