In conversation, singer-songwriter Erykah Badu, the subject of a May 29 Westword profile, sounds regal and all-knowing even when her words seem to defy space, time, logic and just about everything else. It’s a neat (and fascinating) trick, which she demonstrates throughout the Q&A below.
At the outset, Badu mulls the conflict she name-checks in the subtitle to her latest disc, the impressive New Amerykah, Part One (4th World War), likening it to internal battle as well as confrontations between people across the globe and the powerful forces that often oppress them. From there, she touches on a case of writer’s block that turned out to be nothing of the sort; the gusher of material that ultimately forced her to break her first studio collection in half a decade into two halves -- New Amerykah, Part Two (Return of the Ankh) should hit stores later in 2008; her dedication to the album format in the face of the one-song-at-a-time digital revolution; her belief that hip-hop is a more powerful medium than either religion or the government; a shout-out to tourmates the Roots, whose drummer, Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, is also featured in a Westword Q&A; her disinterest in criticizing artists who make substance-free music despite her devotion to the opposite approach; the routing of her current tour, which was configured with energy fields in mind; and a memorable 1997 performance at Red Rocks, which she calls “a baptism.”
Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand that, for you, the phrase “fourth World War” that you mention in the title of your new recording refers to the war we fight within ourselves. But what for you was the third World War?
Erykah Badu: It’s going on right now. It’s actually the planet’s war. All the disasters and things that are happening at the same time as all of the tragedies. It kind of feels like the whole world’s at war right now.
WW: And the bombardment seems to be coming from all sides: natural disasters, political problems…
WW: Is there anything we can do about this war? Or are we defenseless?
EB: Well, the things that happen naturally will happen. But we can do some things to avoid the other stuff. We can stand together as people who accept each other as people and not as races and things – and stand up for one another. Stand up for what is ultimately right, and that is to divinely love each other. And that’s not what we’re taught. We’re not taught that. We’re taught to compete and to fight, and everything we do has to be accomplished with some type of battle, some type of war. After all, this country was founded on war. So we need to stand together, even though there are those of us who say we don’t want it. And it’s most of us. Mothers whose children are going off to fight, and a lot of the different activist groups who feel strongly about this, and who all feel the same way: Well, form one group. Come together. Like the documentary The Fourth World War [released in 2003].
WW: Is there a war going on inside you as well?
EB: No, I don’t feel that.
WW: Do you feel peaceful, then?
EB: I feel at peace, but I know what’s going on around me. And I don’t think you can sit and write about it and discuss it intelligently if you’re at war with yourself.
WW: Is that one of the secrets to your work – that because you’re not conflicted about how you feel and what you do, you can move forward without being slowed down by those warring instincts?
EB: It seems that way. I never have a strategy. I don’t have a plan. I am the plan. It happens naturally and creatively, just like the new album. I was talking to you about the documentary earlier. The director of it is Rick Rowley, and I’ll tell you a synopsis of it. It kind of touches on the extremism of people’s resistance to occupation. In that sense, it gives you one side of the confrontations that take place in the world – and the side that it gives you is the people’s side. There are people all over the world who’ve stood together and demanded not only freedom but balance – for their people, for their children, for their families. Whether it be Palestine or places in North America or Mexico or Argentina. Just different places. It was more of a visual piece than one that gave us information. But it showed different rallies or different ways that people stood against occupation on their land, and one that impressed me the most were these people in Mexico. They stood together, men, women and children. They just sang songs in Spanish, and I recognized the word “one” and the word “love.” And the military stood barricading this place where they wanted to be: It was their farmland. And eventually, they backed the military up, calmly and peacefully – men, women and children who looked exactly like the military. They all looked alike. They threw mud at them at one point, the people did. And you saw the soldiers standing there with mud on their faces, still, unmoved, but with tears coming down their faces. And eventually they backed up. Somebody said, “Fall back!,” and they fell back. The people won. Now, we never see the other side of what’s happening. We only see the people’s side. But it was inspiring enough for me to call my album New Amerykah, Part One (4th World War), because I see the fourth World War being people against wrong. All the people together. The one people against wrong. That’s pretty much the story behind it.
WW: When some artists take five years off, the album they return with sometimes feels a bit tentative – but nothing could be further from than truth when it comes to your album. Have the songs on the recording been percolating for a long time, and you’ve just been waiting for the right time for them to come out?
EB: I guess (laughs). Have we talked about writer’s block?
WW: We haven’t talked about writer’s block.
EB: I thought I had that around 2002. But what I found out is that it was just a downloading period. It was just time for me to be still and collect data and wait and breathe and grow. And suddenly, it came pouring out. I just want to encourage other artists and writers. There’s no such thing as writer’s block unless you’re on some kind of deadline (laughs).
WW: So you learned you need to be patient and wait for the right information to come – and it will come when it’s ready.
EB: Yes, and it’s happening all along – but it happens as a process. Steps.
WW: There’s a second part to the album, which will come out later this year. Did you want listeners to have a chance to digest the first batch of the material, rather than hitting them with too much at the same time?
EB: Yeah, I did. I wrote so many songs when everything came pouring through, and I never want to put out just a collection of songs. I always want to put out an actual project. A movement – and when I say “movement,” I mean like in classical music. Something that’s a body of work that projects the same image. I separated the stuff I did into these parts. New Amerykah, Part One is the first part I wanted to introduce. Instinctively, I guess we’re in a political year, and this is the most political part of me. And I don’t have any answers. It’s just my point of view when I’m standing on an apex having a paradigm shift every thirty seconds. I’m looking around and everything is going on, and these are my observations. And then part two is very emotional. It reminds me a lot about what I felt during [1997’s] Baduizm. Probably that group is from some of the first songs I wrote after everything came pouring through. It was just the natural instinct of what I felt. That’s how I wrote Baduizm, I remember. It was very natural, the flow. Very loving, very generous. Unselfish. That’s what part two is. I call it New Amerykah, Part Two (Return of the Ankh), and the reason I call it Return of the Ankh is because I remember 1995 through ’97, I wore this ankh, and it was very important to me that I studied Kemet at that time. I was taking a class and learning about ancient Egypt, and the original name of ancient Egypt was Kemet. And the ankh was a focal point for me, because that word resonated with me the most. It means “life,” and all the degrees of it mean “life.” The top portion represent the womb, the arms of it represent the children, and the shaft part of it represents the male. It’s a beautiful thing, reminding us of the cycle of life and the things that are really, really important. And that’s why I called it The Return of the Ankh, because it’s the return of that feeling I had during that time, ten years ago. I don’t know if the songs sound anything like those, but I definitely know that’s the feeling I get.
WW: We’re in a day and age when many people prefer to download tracks one at a time and the art of the album is getting lost as a result. For you, is it important to keep the idea of a grand statement alive? To stress that you can make a broad statement that lasts more than three minutes?
EB: Yeah, it’s very important. And in my first video, for “Honey” [a bonus track on Part One], I subtly introduce that again by using album covers as a means to remind people of the beauty that is within an album and a project. Artists work so hard to create these projects. They’re not meant to be 99 cents per track. They’re meant to be listened to back to back. That’s how I create them. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us as an industry at the rate that we’re going. But it doesn’t look too promising unless we stand together and fight that – fight the things that people are being fed to separate the music like that. It’s very discouraging when you’ve worked so hard on a record. And even the reviews I hear sound like they’ve listened to the songs one at a time, and not all together. I come from a place where Earth, Wind and Fire would make an album, or Joni Mitchell, and I’d listen to the whole thing. My favorite album, Dark Side of the Moon, was meant to be a whole piece, just like mine. There’s no way you can separate that. It all goes together. And without that kind of sequence, it doesn’t really make any sense. That’s the only thing that bothers me when people listen to these things – like my album or a Roots album or a Mos Def album or a White Stripes album. If you don’t listen to it from beginning to end, there’s only going to be so much room for critique. It discourages me, the potential of that.
WW: One of the songs on the new album is “The Healer,” and in it, you say that hip-hop is bigger than religion and it’s bigger than the government. Do you mean that literally, in the sense that hip-hop is more influential than either of those things? Or do you mean it more figuratively in the sense that it’s an empowering form of music that can touch people in a more profound way than almost anything else?
EB: Both. I’ve traveled all over the world, and I’m a student of religion and philosophy and music and science and quantum physics and people and anthropology and geology. And in doing all that, collecting all of this information, I find that everyone prays differently, at different times and for different things. But everywhere I go all over the world, from Japan to Mexico to Africa to Argentina, people nod their head to the snare and the kick in the same kind of way, whether they know the language or not. They feel it and they zone out to it. They become part of the culture of hip-hop. Because rap is something you do, but hip-hop is something you live. Rap is only one part of the hip-hop culture. It’s the graffiti, it’s deejaying, it’s two turntables and a microphone, it’s the dance, it’s the dress, it’s the look of that tribe. And there are members of that tribe all over this planet. It’s traveled so far and so wide, more than anything. That’s what we have in common. And it is bigger than religion. We don’t have the same religion. We don’t have the same political beliefs. But that we have in common, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and so have others. It can’t be denied.
WW: You mentioned the Roots earlier, and they’re artists, like yourself, who are trying to push the music forward. But it seems to me that a lot of hip-hop artists don’t seem to be doing that to the degree you are. Is that frustrating for you? Or do you feel more like, “It’s fine for people to choose whatever they’d like to do within this musical culture, but I want to do something more”?
EB: Yes. The latter. It’s fine whatever anyone wants to do. It’s not everyone’s responsibility. It’s not something we have to do. It’s something I want to do, and I’ve been blessed with so much creativity in every area of my life. My religion is art. Functional art – my clothes. It’s all about the presentation. With my food. It’s just something natural in me, and I know there’s something behind that. Something is pushing me to do this. It’s not just me by myself. And I acknowledge that. I don’t know if it works the same for everyone. But it’s a process that I guess every artist has to go through – to figure out the “why.” And this helps me to figure out the “why” – by being socially conscious. Direct.
WW: Speaking of the “why,” I wanted to ask about the Vortex tour. I understand the itinerary was chosen in part to include cities that have natural energy fields near them. Is that the case with Denver as well?
EB: Oh yes. Most definitely. The air is different, the people are different, especially in Boulder. And when I went to Red Rocks for the first time and performed in that amphitheater, I experienced joy in performing, and I imagine that’s how other artists feel.
WW: I saw that show [a July 21, 1997 date in which Badu shared the stage with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, Cypress Hill, the Brand New Heavies, the Roots and Foxy Brown]. It was very clear from your performance that you felt that way.
EB: Yeah. And it rained. It was a baptism of some sort. It felt really good, and you don’t feel that way everywhere you go – and there’s a reason for that. Energy is as real as telephone signals or television waves. It’s as real as that. And finding out more about vortices, and what happens with the people who are around them, I wanted to acknowledge that and make myself a part of it. Just borrow a little of your energy for a while and keep doing what I do, because I love it immensely. I don’t take for granted where I am and who I am at any time. What better place to be than to be surrounded by people who feel the same way you do.