Erykah Badu doesn't think she's old enough to be anybody's godmother, and the first time somebody asked her to fulfill that role (Solange, because of course) she said, how dare you. Badu was onstage at the Brooklyn Museum on Tuesday night, an event that's part of the Red Bull Music Academy, a series of shows and lectures happening this month in New York City. She was talking about Twitter when that came up — her reluctance to get on there, her lateness to computers (Jay Electronica gave her a Mac in 2003) and her initial resistance to a $0.99 price point for digital songs. But being like that — intermittently shocked that so much time has passed, too respectful of the old ways to jump on any bandwagons (or allow our bad manners to fly) and indelibly female — made it feel like she is all of our godmother. I saw the Dalai Lama speak once, and the feeling in the room was similar. We gathered at the appointed hour, partly to pay our respects and partly to find out what this near-mythical figure was like in person.
We didn't really know what to do with ourselves. Badu took 16 questions from the audience and received one woman who right away admitted she didn't even have a question. This lady got on the mic to give thanks and stayed on it, drawling, cracking everybody up but refusing to bring it on home until Badu gently teased her and finally invited her to come on up and sit next to her on the couch. No one could believe her luck. We rode for this woman the whole time, five minutes that felt like an hour, terrified that Badu would snap, reveal something sharp and business-like at her center or a weakness that would allow some administrator-type to put her interlocutor in her place. But she didn't. It was majestic, the way she handled a gloriously awkward and hilariously genuine moment, the way she patted the couch as a summons, and shouted "Next caller" to resume her duties.
Badu received all the love, the gratitude, the trembling and the inanity with grace. She told us she's a doula now. Her exact words were, "I occasionally catch babies. Sit with people in hospices." And what she did Tuesday night was right in that vein. "I enjoy being the welcoming committee and the ushering committee. There's not many words that you can say. 'Cause I don't know where they came from or where they're going," she said. We, strangers, didn't press for details and she just kind of held our hands.
Her fame, her name, her style is predicated on a connection to other people. She works in groups — from the Soulquarians (which she announced is getting back together) to Frequency to Edith Funker — her children are present in our understanding of her, her language and tone is classic girl talk and she appears open and flexible and soft. She fights the good fight, and we're pretty sure she's on our side.
She takes care of herself and figures what feels good to her will feel good to us too. She was talking about what a really good DJ can do: "You can remember how something smelled when you hear certain songs. It's big therapy," she said. She's a singer, a songwriter, an artist and more. "I'm a holistic health practitioner — certified — Reiki master, a DJ. A face-melting DJ. Cold."
Much of what she said Tuesday night was expressed simply but received profoundly. She answered the questions of Chairman Mao, an eminence in the hip-hop world himself, having co-founded the influential and indefatigable Ego Trip magazine, for about an hour, and those of her audience for another 30 minutes. The crowd hooted and cosigned and mhh-hmmed. She admitted she didn't have an easy time with her 40th birthday a couple years ago: "Not trying to front on y'all — I did wild out. I was kinda feeling a way about it. Because you're supposed to be old when you're 40. Especially with women." But she doesn't feel the way they tell us middle-aged feels. Mao asked her how she has evolved since she began her career 15 years ago. "Too soon to say. It feels like yesterday to me," she said. "I don't know anything. I'm more confused now than I've ever been in my life, but I have more faith than ever."
Badu does things that 40-year-old women don't often do — like appear naked in music videos. The story of shooting the video for "Window Seat" was the story that fully endeared her to a crowd already hanging on her every word. "I was holding my stomach in so tight [riotous laughter] that I wasn't even singing. With each step I was trying to tighten my calf [she's laughing as hard as we are]. It's amazing what we think about in this kind of moment. I'm not thinking about the police," she says. What she was thinking about was getting her clothes back on.
"The van is supposed to pull right up — and I know that cause we were in the car talking about it. And I heard the man say, specifically, 'The van's gonna be right there.' And so we finish, fade to black, and he goes, 'Done!' I'm running. This way, toward the van, naked," she says. "But the van is over there. And the sliding door for the van is not on the side that I'm running to. So I'm running around." She got up and ran around the couch she'd been sitting on, all hunched over, still chuckling. Her audience completely lost it.
"It was horrible. I think it may have been the worst thing I ever — [the] way I felt while I was doing something I was scared to do. Like, this is not right," she said. "Why has God forsaken me?"
Telling this story, Badu used the word "we," drawing us close to her: "It's amazing what we think about in this kind of moment." She said her video was performance art in the spirit of Josephine Baker or Nina Simone or John Lennon, and that she was trying to pull focus to groupthink. Defining the term, she named Irving Janis, the researcher who coined it, and used the example of Jesus and Barabbas. This is a lofty "we": we who see our little flaws, we who get naked anyway, we who make art that receives loud and divergent responses.
"There were people who wanted me in jail," she said. "There were people who wanted to bulldoze my albums. All of those reactions were the right one, because the idea of art is to create dialogue."
What does Red Bull — a company that sells an energy drink — want with her? As a public figure, she promises that being kind of weird doesn't mean you'll be cast out. She explicitly said that on Tuesday: "Don't live anybody else's dreams but yours. And two wrongs don't make a right, but it'll damn sure get your money." If a drink could make that come true, we'd all buy a case a week.
And what does Erykah want with us? There's the nice answer: "It's actually a very selfish act, creating. When I'm creating I'm trying to heal. I'm trying to feel good, feel better. When it reaches y'all — that's why I stayed in the music business. I appreciate it." There's the cash — after all, she's got kids. "They're one of the reasons I do what I do," she said. "So that they can continue to live the way they live."
And there's the truth. Which is out of her control, too. "The hard reality is that, even though you give birth to it — human or music — it still doesn't belong to you. It's something you have to nurture and mold but it doesn't belong to you," she said. "It's some big girl shit. It really is. You have to let stuff go. It's hard."