Words Anyiko Owoko Photos Paul Munene/Quaint Photography
Erykah Badu’s debut concert in Nairobi, Kenya, was thrilling and undoubtedly the best Nairobi has experienced in the recent past. The last song of her two-hour set, Call Tyrone, was met with thunderous applause just a few minutes to midnight 12.12.12 – Kenya’s 49th Independence Day.
Badu embodies artistry; the American singer-songwriter is also a record producer, video director, activist and actress. In person, she speaks softly yet consciously, at times coming off as a tad shy. On stage, however, the first lady of neo-soul transforms into a fierce vocalist and performer.
In 2013 she celebrates two decades in the music business – the results of which include five studio albums, four Grammys and several worldwide tours, not to mention three children. ARISE caught up with the star before her Kenya performance to talk music, motherhood and why she stripped down in her controversial video for Window Seat.
You mentioned that your music and performance is therapeutic, in what way?
Music is almost like the fifth element, it brings about emotion and change in many ways. The frequency of music is specific; each note has its own vibration that can be measured. Certain notes, tones and melodies make us feel a certain way, some we connect with and others we don't, maybe because of the rhythm inside of us. I write lyrics according to what the music makes me feel.
What defines your adventurous sense of style in your music and image?
My sense of fashion and music go hand in hand. My taste in humour, fashion, music and film are all in the same category. I like to hear what I like to feel and see, I just gravitate towards things that I get attracted to aesthetically; it's the art of creating an experience for people to share.
What’s your connection to Africa?
About three generations back my family was brought to America from Africa, that’s my first connection to Africa. As Africans living in America it’s hard to trace our roots. We want to belong to Africa in some kind of way but because our birthright is not in place we sometimes have to create our own history, communities and tribes to identify with.
One of the communities I am involved in is the Kemetic community [the study of Egyptian writings]. I was originally named Erica. When I became a recording artist I wanted to have a name that would have some kind of vibrational frequency that could connect me to my past and future. I chose to change the spelling of Erica. Ka means [in Egyptian hieroglyphs] the inner self that cannot be contaminated.
How do you balance your music career and motherhood?
My first album [Baduizm] came out February 1997, second album Live came out November of the same year, and the same day my son was born. I spent the whole of my first pregnancy working at the beginning of my career. I had to breastfeed on tour and create a home on the tour bus – I don't know this music business without my children. And being a doula [an assistant to a mother giving birth] I have to be like water, always going out of the way to help. But when I am on stage I am a different kind of servant, I am the mother and the audience is helping me give birth.
Tell us about the artistic direction you took while shooting your Window Seat music video?
Window Seat video was performance art, that's how artists use music as activism. In the tradition of Josephine Baker, Yoko Ono, Nina Simone and other women who used performance art, nudity played a big part because it demonstrates the bareness of the subject. My issue was group think; it affects all spheres of life from politics to media.
I shot the video in Dallas at the site where JFK was assassinated. As I took each step I eliminated a piece of clothing that represented a thought or something I had learnt, forcefully or not, here on the planet and as I was totally nude I was assassinated. In America nudity is grossly misunderstood when it's not packaged for the consumption of men. I hope a lot of people got the point but if they didn't they don't have to – they can create their own videos or complain but that's where it stops, you cannot censor art.
Having played a leading role in the rise of the neo-soul sub culture, how do you keep up with the changing times in the music world?
We all evolve along with time. As an artist I keep up with it. Music is like weather; in order to predict the weather you have to know it. I am music, the people are music. Where the people go, that's where music goes.
Erykah Badu performs at LA’s Club Nokia on December 29 and Oakland's Fox Theatre on New Year's Eve. For more info visit erykah-badu.com