New York (AP) — Erykah Badu has unintentionally occupied the role of culture shifter and influencer for 20 plus years, well before it became a trendy, social media descriptor. Her impact has vibrated throughout music and fashion, and the “Green Eyes” songstress sees it clearly.
“I can hear my influence in music. I can see my influence style,” explained the four-time Grammy winner. “I hear my words resonated all over the world…So yeah, I can see it.”
That cultural cache may be why her collaboration with Italian fashion house Marni has been so anticipated. The Marni x Erykah Badu capsule was released in select U.S. Marni boutiques last month. The 42-piece collection features women's ready-to-wear garments, including dresses, accessories and footwear, accented with handmade leather patchwork, heavy wools, bold sequins and lush velvets. Badu, 52, who is known for her creative and eccentric style, was hands on in all aspects.
“I’ve worked the same way in every area of my life; on stage I’m doing sound, I’m doing lighting, set design, costume, hair, makeup,” said Badu, whose 18-year-old daughter Puma modeled for the campaign. “I’m involved in everything. I am a creator. I am a visionary…we put those things together and came up with something really creative.”
Claire Sulmers, CEO of the influential style blog Fashion Bomb Daily, says Badu's versatility has made her a muse for designers.
“She is a trendsetter, but she’s always marched to the beat of her own drum...she can work anything, from a designer you might find at a flea market, to a runway,” said Sulmers, who called Badu an icon. “I think that is what can be attributed to her collaborating with brands because a lot of these brands that might have been under the radar or off the radar, now they’re like, ‘Whoa, there’s this beautiful woman who is an amazing artist, who also has an amazing style, and we want to work with her.’”
As Badu enters the fashion industry and launches other business ventures, the singer-songwriter is keeping her feet firmly planted in music with a tour on the horizon. In a wide-ranging video interview with The Associated Press, Badu discussed her businesses and creativity.
The line between entertainer and philosopher is often blurred when conversing with the “Next Lifetime” artist. When asked what makes her happy, she mentions her diet; when questioned about the creation of her classic records, she brings up the latest theories on the formation of the pyramids.
Her aura has a warm, but intense gravitational pull, and there’s a long-running joke that one can’t look into her eyes without falling into a trance — a myth Badu embraces. She has embarked through life with a creative fearlessness.
“If I’m a little nervous or afraid, I feel brave because of the confidence,” said Badu, who has served as both a birthing and end-of-life doula for the past two decades. “That has always driven my creativity and art. So, it’s easy to be a non-conformist, especially when you feel confident that there’s no such thing as losing because even those moments are lessons. I take all the information and use them to reinvent myself each day.”
Badu has helped bring babies into the world for friends, family and even celebrity mothers like singers Summer Walker and Teyana Taylor, stating the relationships happen organically, and she only agrees if she can dedicate the time. There’s no website or phone number to request the “Love of My Life” singer's doula services, at least not yet.
“(If) the money gets tight, then we’ll see,” she joked.
A champion for Black women and free thinking, she’s not only in an era of reinvention, but expansion. She’s entered the cannabis industry partnering with Cookies, arguably the world’s most recognizable legal marijuana brand. Her idea for a line first formed in the early 2000s, but it became a reality about four years ago after researching the budding mainstream industry.
Badu oversaw everything from the marketing to the packaging for her “That Badu” line, which includes pre-rolls packaged to resemble tampons.
“Everything you see from her line is her. She came up with the design. She came up with the concepts,” said Berner, founder of Cookies and mentor to Badu on the industry. He said she inspires other women "to get in the (cannabis) game…women love Erykah Badu. They look up to her. They respect her.”
Draped in Afrocentric garb including statuesque headwraps and ankh jewelry, Badu teleported into the music scene in 1997 with her debut album, “Baduizm.” It earned her a best new artist Grammy nomination and a best R&B album win. A pioneer of the '90s neo-soul movement with contemporaries like Maxwell, D’Angelo and Jill Scott, Badu crafted soulful classics like “On & On,”“Tyrone,”“Bag Lady,”“Didn’t Cha Know” and “Window Seat.” Her last official project was 2015’s “But You Caint Use My Phone” mixtape.
“I’m always working on new music. I don’t know when I’ll put it out, but I’m waiting for the right time,” said the 2018 Soul Train Legend honoree. “I like to feel necessary for my real audience. My real audience is trees and wind and rain, air — ancestors and things like that.”
Badu says music is the star that her other businesses orbit around.
“Everything is vibration and sound, from the sound of the birds that I’ve heard since I was a child… (to) the clothes I wear — the clothes in my Marni line all have bells on them,” explained the Dallas native, who still resides in the city. “So, if I associate everything with music, it’s very easy for me to create...there’s a variety of things I listen to throughout the day, from wind chimes in the morning to Brent Faiyaz in the afternoon to Bach — I mean, there’s just so many different things. I just love music and frequency. It is my therapy.”
One of her most impactful musical contributions didn’t come from a hit, but from the lesser-known “Master Teacher Medley” on 2008’s “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” album. Produced by Shafiq Husayn, that song is largely credited with reintroducing the term “stay woke” — with collaborator Georgia Anne Muldrow chanting those words — to a new generation.
“From the time they started using it for Black Lives Matter (social protests), it was out of my hands because it kind of doesn’t really belong to us anymore,” said Badu, who describes the phrase as a person’s heighted awareness of everything going on around them.
However, when conservatives made the term a political lightening rod, Badu decided to speak out.
“It got a little out of hand. That’s why I had to say something about it, because people were starting to use it as a weapon,” she continued. “If it gets into the wrong hands…I’ve gotta interfere and bring it back in.”
Badu, who has an upcoming Funko Pop! figure that sold out during pre-order, is prepping for a highly anticipated 25-date tour kicking off this month. Yasiin Bey, the hip-hop star formerly known as Mos Def, will join her for the “Unfollow Me” tour.
“I just want people to follow their own heart,” said the active social media user, giggling at the cheekiness of the title. “It’s about your journey.”
As Badu, who will appear in the upcoming film “The Piano Lesson” starring Samuel L. Jackson and John David Washington, continues her own odyssey, her outlook is one of gratefulness and optimism.
“When I open my eyes in the morning, I say, ’Still here! Got another chance today do some good (expletive), create some great (expletive) — be challenged by people and make the right choices. Another chance to discriminate between things that are useful in my brain…(and) thoughts that are not,” she revealed. “That’s woke. That’s awareness — knowing that there is adversity, but also using the tools that you have to navigate through your world.”
Gary Gerard Hamilton is an entertainment journalist for the AP who told Badu he loves “Next Lifetime” so much he wishes he wrote it. You can follow him on all social platforms at @garyghamilton.
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