Erykah Badu discusses her nonprofit work in Dallas and a collaboration with Givenchy in Document's Spring/Summer 2014 issue.
For our tenth anniversary edition, we revisit a selection of stories from Document’s archive—celebrating a decade of championing the independent creative spirit, and honoring the cultural icons who will shape our future. This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2014 issue.
When Erykah Badu’s first album, Baduizm, debuted in ’97, the musician’s poetic lyrics and soulful rhythms captivated audiences around the globe, and instant classics like “On and On” and “Next Lifetime” were born. As the face of Givenchy’s Spring 2014 campaign, the neo-soul artist brings a stoic beauty to Riccardo Tisci’s inspired designs. Badu discusses her style, her storied music career, and her organization Beautiful Love Incorporated Nonprofit Development, which cultivates creativity in underprivileged youth.
Nicholas Weist: You’re known for your music and as an artist, but also for your style. How do you think fashion relates to your music? Do you see it as a complete creative practice, or are the two mutually exclusive?
Erykah Badu: I take the same approach in all genres of art, across the board. It’s intuitive. In music, it makes for a good platform to take time and really mold a piece the way I need to mold it. When it comes to fashion, I create a functional art that moves.
Nicholas: Do you work with a stylist?
Erykah: No, I don’t work with a stylist.
Nicholas: That’s rare.
Erykah: It’s fun. It’s fun to put those things together, visually.
Nicholas: In your performance looks and in your music videos, you combine fashion from many different eras.
Erykah: Yes, different periods, different cultures—it’s just the way my mind works. My music is that way as well. There’s a foundation but the inspiration comes from everywhere. I’ve been influenced by so many things.
Nicholas: Are there a couple big ones that you can name, or anything that’s been on your mind recently?
Erykah: Let’s see…I’m inspired by Earl Sweatshirt. He’s a really honest writer, and he’s unusually intelligent. I relate to that—he inspires me across the board. His music inspires me and reminds me to maintain honesty in the things that I do, to have an absence of fear. Listening to Earl Sweatshirt’s music is like therapy to me.
Nicholas: Your music has always had a higher message, maybe more so than most pop music. Could you talk a little about that?
Erykah: I don’t know why, it’s just what I feel inside, the thoughts that I sing about. It’s just my truth. [Laughs.] Sometimes my emotions can be mistaken for messages.
Nicholas: You’ve also indicated in your music that you privilege the voice of the individual. It’s an important message for young people—that one doesn’t need the validation of the group.
Erykah: It just works better for me to discriminate between which thoughts are mine and which come from elsewhere, before I even talk about them or express them—it helps to keep me focused on my path. I strongly believe that the more positive my vibration is, the clearer my message will be. I keep my negative thoughts from infiltrating my pathway and my dreams. Other people’s thoughts are none of my business.
Nicholas: Have you found it difficult to be uncompromising in your musical integrity?
Erykah: I don’t find it difficult, but others may. [Laughs]
Nicholas: And what about in your style? You’re so fashionable but your looks are totally unique. Has that ever presented difficulties?
“It’s about accessories more than anything, because it’s how you accessorize yourself that gives you your own unique style. That’s what I like about houses like Givenchy. It’s easy to pull from. With Givenchy you can accessorize to build anything, any look.”
Erykah: I could do a few more sit-ups and my waistline would be less difficult. [Laughs.] I don’t know… I’ve been doing it for 17 years now, so of course I’ve seen pictures and thought, “Oh my god, I wish I would’ve never worn that.” Yeah, but I did! And it was probably because it was my favorite thing at the time—my clothes always have some kind of emotion attached to them. I just love expressing my joy and my mind through what I wear, or how I cook, or how I dance, or how I write or perform a song—how I move.
Nicholas: You’ve shared a little of that with the world through your Vine account, which I have to say I’m a huge fan of. Do you enjoy making those videos?
Erykah: I love it. It’s such a fun tool: it enables me to create a small film from anywhere.
Nicholas: Do you feel like you’ve accomplished most of your dreams, or are there some left to explore?
Erykah: I don’t know if I’ll ever accomplish most of my dreams—I have so many! I feel like I haven’t done anything. What have I done? I’ve just made a few records.
Nicholas: Do you have a favorite moment from making those records? Or a time from when something you really wanted to manifest finally happened to you?
Erykah: I remember when I signed with Kedar Entertainment through Universal Records. It was my first record deal and it’s the one I still have now. At that time, there had been a couple of opportunities I was almost given, but at the last minute the giver came back and told me it couldn’t happen. I would be very understanding, but very disappointed because it was almost there. And this particular time, when I was getting ready to sign with Kedar, a similar thing happened. He received my demo and saw some promise; he felt an energetic connection to me, and was interested in signing me and wanted me to open for D’Angelo, whom he was managing at the time. I was like, “Yeah, it’s in my city, where they would come through. This is my chance—for the whole city to see it.” But he called at the last minute, saying he didn’t think it was a good idea after all. That it was going to be “too difficult, technically,” and this and that. For the first time in my life I said, “No. This is going to happen. We’re going to do it and there’s nothing that’s going to stop it. There will be no technical difficulties that will interfere with it. I’m doing this.” I felt very strongly about it, and the stronger I felt, the stronger he felt. That’s the moment I learned that the more you believe in yourself, the stronger the vibration touches someone else, and things begin to happen the way you dreamed that they would.
Nicholas: You still live in Dallas, but have a place in New York City as well.
Erykah: I lived in New York for maybe a year and a half, from ’95 to ’97, but I live in Dallas. My whole family is there. I have an apartment in Brooklyn—I guess I call it my shrine. I go there to create and recoup, or hibernate sometimes, but my home is in Dallas where I live with my children.
Nicholas: What is it about New York that allows you the freedom to create?
Erykah: It’s just that little box in the middle of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. [Laughs.] Most of the time I go I don’t even leave that apartment. I have just enough: a little bed, a little kitchen with two pots. I make some tea and I look out the window or just lay down.
“Now my record deal helps me to do things for free or give more time to my community than I could otherwise.”
Nicholas: It sounds lovely. When you get dressed up to perform or make a Vine, what comes first: the feeling or the fashion? Do you wake up and say, “Today I’m gonna look this way?” Or do you experiment with clothes and put different things on?
Erykah: I go through phases of stuff. I have a pair of blue pants that were my favorite for a while and were a part of my show uniform—every night, you know. Or my favorite jewelry, it’s just what I’m feeling at the time. Or the metal or the stone that’s helping me right now. I’ll incorporate them into anything I wear—but I think it’s about accessories more than anything, because it’s how you accessorize yourself that gives you your own unique style. That’s what I like about houses like Givenchy. It’s easy to pull from. With Givenchy you can accessorize to build anything, any look.
Nicholas: Can you describe the process of working with Givenchy?
Erykah: I was sitting at home one day and I got a call that Riccardo Tisci was considering me for the face of the Givenchy Spring/Summer 2014 campaign, and I said, “Are you kidding?” and that was the end of the conversation. I’m a really big fan. I have a Pinterest, and if you look there you’ll see the things I really like and adore, have crushes on, and there’s a lot of stuff from Riccardo’s line on there. I think we share a sensibility about art—we pull from the ancient future. He has an interesting approach to weaving the contemporary with the couture, and blending tribes and collections. It always seems to work. I thought it was cool how he wanted to blend Africa and Asia because they relate to each other in so many different ways.
Nicholas: What do you think you bring to Givenchy?
Erykah: I think that when he wanted to bring more attention to the lack of African American presence on the runway, he also wanted to bring attention to the lack of a sensibility of African and Asian art. Art, period. I bring the staple of my culture. I solidify his vision and what he is trying to manifest, make it a crystal or solid thing because of the relationship I have with my culture and what my music means to him.
Nicholas: Whom do you dress for, when you get dressed in the morning?
Erykah: People that like to dress!
Nicholas: What do you think is the job of an artist?
Erykah: I think the job of an artist is to be honest and fearless.
Nicholas: I understand that you also do some philanthropic work in Dallas.
Erykah: I have an organization called BLIND [Beautiful Love Incorporated Nonprofit Development], so named because even though my interest is in the Black community, because that’s where I grew up and that’s where I’m most skilled in fixing things, it doesn’t end there. I think giving is a blind act that should come from a part of me that sees no discrimination (that’s why I called it “blind”). We mainly focus on putting music, art, dance, theater, all forms of art, back into the community, so the community can put it into the world. I had the opportunity, as a child, to grow up in a community center where I was exposed to theater, music, art, and computer science; things that I would have never had the opportunity to even meet had it not been for those people taking time out of their schedules, helping us as children to travel all over the world while sitting in a gymnasium. That’s what I did before I was a musician, before I was a recording artist, I was a teacher and a community leader. Now my record deal helps me to do things for free or give more time to my community than I could otherwise.
Nicholas: Have you had some important teachers in your life?
Erykah: I come from a long line of matriarchal women, and my greatest teachers were my mothers. My first, my birth mother—her name is Queenie—she gave me a powerful medicine when I was a child. She told me that, “I was the best,” and it helped me so much. My second mother is my maternal grandmother. Her name is Thelma. She also gave me a very powerful medicine; she made sure that I knew my role as a young lady and as someone with moral structures and principles. She taught me that if I was going to be involved with anything, whether it be spirituality, music, or some skill, that I have to practice. Things are useless without practice.
My third mother is my paternal grandmother. Her name is Viola. She gave me my sense of knowing why, or knowing why it was important to ask why. She made me understand that I don’t have to believe everything I hear. She gave me the courage to investigate things and not take things at face value or judge people by what I first imagine them to be. My fourth mother, my godmother, she passed away a couple years ago—her name was Gwen. She was the theater director over at the gym where I grew up and learned about all those awesome things I told you about already. She was the one who taught me terms like “upstage” and “downstage,” all those technical things about the art of what I do—how to breathe what I see, how to move. They were all her tactics, not anything learned or given to me through a theory, but rather by her natural abilities. My fifth mother is Mother Nature—the things I had to learn on my own, the understanding I had to come to and still have to come to as a young woman, as a responsible mother, a responsible granddaughter and child. She teaches me willpower, honesty, and the things we need to heal ourselves from moment to moment.
Nicholas: What would you like to pass onto your children? What role would you like to fill for them?
Erykah: I’m learning from them! Everyone says that, but it’s true. You learn more about yourself from them than from any other lesson, because you’re responsible for them. You are there to protect them, not possess them. I tell them, “Watch me and you might learn something.” [Laughs.]
Nicholas: Do you get dressed up together? Do they have a favorite outfit of yours?
Erykah: The girls just like to be in the shoes. They like to scuff up the floors and walk around in high-heeled shoes that are too big for them, all over the house. My girls are very fashionable. They have a very good eye for marrying style and fashion. I don’t just mean in a little girl kind of way—they understand the “less is more” theory, they understand the symmetry idea. They wouldn’t wear a chunky shoe and a…chunky skirt. [Laughs.] My nine-year-old daughter is very creative and colorful and trendy. And I have a daughter who’s four, who’s dainty and princess-esque. I still get to dress her like my little accessory. I think I have one more year to do that, then she’s going to get her own ideas—so I better move quickly!
Nicholas: Did you come from a stylish family as well? Did you learn anything about fashion as a kid?
Erykah: Oh yeah, all the women in my family were very creative. My mom was the Diana Ross of our clan. She was always up-to-date, and always knew what to do and what not to do in a fashion sense. I was the bohemian in my family, the “this is my favorite shoe and I don’t care if it has tape around it” kind of person. The tape could become a fashion statement. Or a political statement. [Laughs.]
Nicholas: Do you have a fashion philosophy?
Erykah: I think it’s about your smile and your smell.
Nicholas: And the rest is accessories.
Erykah: Yeah, the rest is accessories.
This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2014 issue.