Unto Thee, O Erykah! The Year I Found Badu
I: THE DARK AGES
Before I found Badu, I’d been listening to hairy weirdos twiddling their amps for a decade, and I’d had enough. I got into spangled ladies filling stadiums with dancey-pain. I’d landed at Alicia Keys via Whitney –> Mariah –> Beyoncé and then stalled out, repeating Alicia Keys’s excellent Unplugged for weeks (minus the Adam Levine intrusion, which is like a child’s piano recital). But something was missing, I knew. Religious people might say I was “searching.”
And I was. For different needs, I called upon a hundred different saints. Annie Lennox, Saint of Transformation. Linda Perhacs, Saint of Winter Melancholy and Lentil-Eating. Florence, Saint of Howling Ambition. Beyoncé, Saint of Stomping While Smiling. The Raincoats, Saints of Whispered Rage. But we don’t always know what we need, and so I kept searching for the one woman who could tell me all things.
I should note here that I knew of Erykah Badu, of course—I heard her in the background pretty regularly, because my boyfriend loves her. Too doo-be-doo for me, I shrugged. I thought he was trying to trick me into jazz.
A lot of my extended family is Born-Again Christian, by which I mean they are evangelical and can identify the single moment in time that they were saved, when they suddenly believed. I don’t know their unique stories—it seems wrong for me to ask when I’m not truly open to it, I guess—but I have noticed that others’ such moments of revelation frequently coincide with narrow escape from a car accident. My moment, too, was in the car.
The album was Mama’s Gun. We were at a Shell station off I-75 just north of Cincinnati a few days after Thanksgiving, and I was sitting in the car while the gas pumped. My boyfriend had gone inside for coffee and a pee. I was alone with her, the thin warble meowing from the glovebox.
My eyes are green
Cause I eat a lot of vegetables
It don’t have nothing to do with your new friend
You know that weird druggy teenage thing where everything looks suddenly brighter—you were sitting in a Waffle House, but a second later you’re in an Edward Hopper painting? The whoosh where the moment or song becomes stupidly beautiful, ballooned with significance? This was it, my epiphany.
Erykah, I thought. I can hear you!
Do you remember the first time a piece of music swept you up? For me it was Dire Straits, “Tunnel of Love,” and I was nine years old. When I was a teenager, I got the whoosh all the time, Smashing Pumpkins to Chaka Khan to Leonard Cohen. But that feeling gets fainter and more elusive as we get older, or at least it has for me. I used to wonder why my parents listened to the same music they listened to in high school, and now I understand.
So now when I get that whoosh, I tend to freaking focus until it collapses under my scrutiny. The three-hundredth time I heard the clattering hooves that open “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” I was flabbergasted. I delved into the Four Tops catalog, chasing the feeling, but it was just the one song, and the chills faded. That’s why this thing with Erykah and me was different—this was one sticky whoosh, and I felt it with nearly every song.
But it’s more than the music: as Great Aunt Gertrude would say, I’d finally found my church home. To believe in Badu is to trust in yourself and know you will make mistakes, to extend kindness wherever you can without confusing it with meekness or have-to-ism, to do only what you can do and to do what only you can do. Doo-be-doo-be-doo. What would Badu do?
I’d been practicing my newfound Baduizm for about three months when she came to the Masonic Temple in Detroit. There were hundreds of people in line, many women in high heels and wool coats and lipstick, older couples on dates. I, too, had dressed up—for Erykah. A comedian was warming up the crowd by imitating the noises made by different varieties of vagina upon being entered by his penis. We waited and waited. Erykah Badu is not known for her punctuality. Like any great cosmic event, everything has to line up exactly right for her to appear.
Words cannot adequately express this event. She keeps a little electronic drum kit by her mic for soloing. She wore amazing pants. She extended bits and outros from her albums into huge, sweeping arrangements, and then she did some Slick Rick. She pointed at us and curled her finger, summoning us into her purple brain cave. I was overcome.
IV: THE FIVE TENETS OF BADUIZM
“As a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred,” the writer Charles Baxter told the Atlantic in 1997. So am I. And while I’m not great at belief, I’m super at ritual, and I have often treated certain songs as hymns and prayers, tributes and prescriptions in equal measure. Now, I shall preach/prescribe Erykah Badu to all of you.
1. Pack light. The central teachings of Baduizm are in “Bag Lady,” which warns us that the baggage we’re dragging around is going to get in our way. We “can’t hurry up” because we’ve “got too much stuff.” One by one, she calls us out: (Psychological) Garbage Bag Lady, Gucci Bag Lady, Booty (Body Issues) Bag Lady, Nickel Bag Lady. You there, what baggage are you dragging? Erykah says let it go. The video for this one is my particular talisman against needless fretting. Erykah would probably interject here: “Rebecca, what fretting do you need to do? You know what I’m gonna say.” And I do: “Let it go let it go let it go let it go.”
2. If you don’t want to be down with me, then you don’t want to pick from my apple tree. And if you don’t want to be down with me, you just don’t want to be down. We’re never going to please everyone. You’ve got to say, hey, people: these are my apples—super tart, thin-skinned, and they get mealy if left in the fridge too long. If you don’t like these apples, go find some other apples. You know? Further: Bibically, apples represent unwanted knowledge, so don’t come eating of my knowledge apples if you don’t want to hear it. Go find some other, dumb tree. Go find a banana tree.
3. So can I get a window seat? I don’t want nobody next to me. I’m writing this from a coffee shop in my hometown, which I am visiting for holidays, listening to “Window Seat.” Being here makes me loony and prickly. I texted a dear friend who also grew up here to ask about the best coffee shop for computing. “I just don’t want to run into anyone from my youth,” I wrote, at the exact moment that she texted me, “I’m getting in tomorrow, let’s hang out!”
4. I need someone to clap for meeeeeeee! Mrs. Nabakov, Mrs. Kafka, Mrs. Dali, and the many Mrs. Cezannes all cheering their husbands on, holding them up. Sometimes lady artists are uncomfortable declaring themselves Artists, or they (we! fine!) apologize for the art we put into the world (hoo boy, guilty!). What could be more gauche, more unseemly, than asking for an audience? Because this song seems directed to a romantic/domestic partner, her demanding his attention, energy, and audience for her art is revolutionary. Lee Krasner, can you hear me? I want to squat in the dirt next to your grave and play you this song.
5. Push up the fader, bust the meter, shake the tweeter. Just have fun, everybody.
V: LET THE BADU INTO YOUR LIFE
Now that I have Erykah in my life and can’t remember how I got along without her, it seems odd—negligent, really—that my friends who knew the truth of Badu didn’t try to convert me. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine discovers that Puddy is Christian, but he doesn’t care that she isn’t. “I’m not the one going to hell,” he shrugs.
I can’t let you all slip through the cracks.
Ready to be entered by the spirit? Ideal conditions: you’re making dinner, glass of wine in hand. Turn the stereo to “too loud” and play “Penitentiary Philosophy.” Do some assy dancing alone in your kitchen as you scramble your eggs.
Haters got you down? Do “friends” keep telling you that you look tired? Did you not buy any holiday presents because fuck this mall-hell bullshit and you tried to make six-dozen homemade truffles in seven subtle flavors and that was a mistake? Did you just generally flub the dub? You need “On and On.” Deep breaths, both birds flipped, “Goddammit I’mma sing my song.”
Heartbroken? Turn out all the lights and make some orange spice tea. Put either a shot of whiskey or ten drops of marijuana tincture in it. Listen to “Next Lifetime” until you’re crying (but in an okay way) (or, if you were already crying, until you have stopped).
Having trouble saying no? “Every time we go somewhere, I gotta reach down in my purse/ To pay your way, and your homeboys’ way, and sometimes your cousin’s waaay!” “Call Tyrone” is your portal if you are on too many committees and you love both My Morning Jacket and TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Watch Jim James and Erykah jam against freeloaders for eight minutes here.
Speaking of TLC: We’ve all startled our colleagues (or students, whoops!) by launching into “Unpretty” all of a sudden, right? Look, it’s a very important song for girls to hear, but you know it’s not enough because it’s still about pretty. We need “Cleva.” I fantasize about teaching my someday-daughter this song, that she will grow up knowing it deep in her brains and bones.
Previously: Manly Me
Rebecca Scherm is a writer in Michigan.