Erykah Badu is closer to a cultural phenomenon than mere singer-songwriter. From her very first release, 1997’s groundbreaking, Grammy-winning “Baduizm,” the artist born Erica Wright in Dallas has cultivated a more evolved persona, with her easy neo-soul sounds, spiritual awareness, exotic head wraps and boho attitude inspiring an entirely new movement, both in music and fashion.
The Queen of Neo-Soul – and the woman who inspired ex-flame Andre 3000 to write OutKast’s hit “Ms. Jackson” – returns to the Jazz in the Gardens festival for a set at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
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She talked to Miami.com about her artistic evolution, her fascination with the study of physics, and some of the controversy that her artistic choices have brought along with her commercial success.
What attracted you to this festival?
It just looked like a fun event for me to have a therapy session.
What can we expect from your set?
I don’t know. You can expect whatever you want, but I’m a performing artist more than a recording artist. I do this eight months out of the year, for the past 18 years, and my shows are pretty spontaneous. I don’t have a new hit album out, so I don’t know really what I’ll do. But since it’s Jazz in the Gardens, I would assume that I’ll give them some of the more melodic things I’ve done over the years.
Will we hear anything new?
You never know – I usually create onstage as I go, and some of those things some would call improvisation become future songs on albums. You know, we record everything, and as I listen back, sometimes I can interpret what I’ve done into a new song.
In addition to music, you’re a style and fashion icon. Was that a goal from the beginning, or did it just sort of happen?
It just sort of happened. I consider myself an artist more than anything, and any kind of art – visual or music or anything – I seem to gravitate toward, and have an eye for and a love for. And it’s all therapy for me – it’s just what makes me feel good. I would consider fashion functional art, or wearable art.
You grew up in a very creatively nurturing environment. Do you think your artistic drive would have developed without that?
I don’t know – maybe not the same way. I think I’m kind of built this way: This is the way they made me, whoever “they” are. And I do think my environment played a big part in paying attention to my gifts, and honoring them and pushing me forward toward them. But I think I still would have been who I am. Maybe not with all of the same elements.
What’s your earliest memory of being infatuated with something artistic?
Hmm. I think it was getting my hair braided at a very young age, when I was about 7 or 8 years old. The braiding studio I went into was a dorm with all of this ancestral African art, and the aroma was oils and incense, and it was just a different environment from the outside, where I was from. I’m from the ‘hood, pretty much, and so it was a culture clash for me, or a culture explosion for me to see such a different environment. Right in my neighborhood, but inside four walls. And I kind of knew that, “OK, this is a bit different from what was going on around me.”
Were there any singers that you emulated or idolized at an early age?
Yeah, I used to listen to records of Stephanie Mills and Chaka Khan and Deniece Williams and The Emotions, and I would pretend to sing background or sing like them. I remember emulating their style and the way they looked, which led to my style.
When you were writing and recording “Baduizm,” were you aware at all of the “neo-soul” movement that you were part of starting?
Not at all. I was just doing what I felt was good, and expressing myself in the best way I could, and never compromising the vision along the way.
Were you prepared in any way for the explosive success of that album?
I don’t know if “prepared” is the word, but I quickly accepted what was happening, because I so strongly believed that I would be successful.
People call you the Queen of Neo-Soul, but you’ve said that you’re uncomfortable with that – why?
Well, I’m really honored to be considered the Queen of something, or a person who started some wonderful movement or revolution, but I don’t like to be categorized, because I’m ever-evolving. So that would be the only reason. I don’t think I have one song in my catalog that sounds like another one. But I accept the honor and am very grateful, and do not take it for granted in any kind of way. It’s much bigger than I am. I believe that I just poked a hole in the dam, and all of these other artists had an opportunity to flood through the industry that were often unheard, or a little to the left, or not mainstream enough. So I feel honored to represent them and others who were coming along after.
You majored in theater at Grambling State University, but minored in Quantum Physics, which might surprise some people. What sparked that interest?
Well, it was Physics – Quantum Physics is a subcategory. I always liked science, and the supernatural, and together that makes Quantum Physics – the things that we can’t see, the smaller subparticles. I was always an inquisitive kid – what makes this tick, what makes that go, why does this add up to this? – it’s just a part of how my brain works. I’ve always wanted to see things from a microcosm viewpoint as opposed to a macrocosm viewpoint – I just wanted to know how things worked.
You stripped naked in Dealey Plaza in Dallas where JFK was shot for your video for “Window Seat.” Do you still get flak from that, and are you glad you did it?
I would hope I’m getting flak from that still, because the purpose of performance art is to create dialogue. It doesn’t matter what kind of dialogue you create – it doesn’t matter if people are for it or against it, as long as it creates some kind of movement in the world. That dialogue soon becomes inspiration and motivation. I would never ask anyone if they liked it or disliked it – my question is, how does it make you feel? What does it make you want to do? And I think that’s most important.
You also got criticism for singing “Happy Birthday” to Swaziland’s leader, who is accused of abusing human rights. What would you say to the critics?
I can sing wherever I want, wherever people need me. I’m not affiliated with any political groups in any way. I feel sometimes that some of these groups use artists to push their platforms, and I was just caught in the crossfire of that. It didn’t involve me one way or the other, because I’m still going to sing anywhere I want to sing, as long as I have a passport, free to move throughout the world.
You’ve given back a lot. Where do you think your philanthropic side comes from?
I don’t know – I think this is just how they made me. This is just part of who I am. I think that my career as a musician is a job, and it’s just the circumstance that my spirit is in. My spirit is still gonna do it. I think that being of service is one of the greatest gifts that one can give to his fellow man, and to himself. Whether I was a shoeshine girl or a Frisbee teacher – it wouldn’t matter. I would still have the same insides – my nature would be the same.