LOS ANGELES — About halfway through our conversation last month, Erykah Badu declared that she was 48, feeling it necessary to remind me. She did it gently, but in a way that made clear what she thought of my line of questioning — about empathy, generally, and when she decided to reject anger.
It’s easy to think of Badu as ageless. In person, her bright eyes, smooth skin and famously fluttering voice — restrained in conversation, though the occasional vowel sound answers a higher calling — project youthful tenderness.
As an artist, she may be even more remarkably undated. Alone in a cluster of R&B stars who emerged amid late ’90s exuberance, she became a folk heroine by insisting on her self-worth, sold millions of albums that spawned hits and passed from one era of pop music to the next with little depreciation of her credibility. For more than two decades, she has spent the majority of each year performing for converts around the globe.
Badu, who has always been the primary architect of her own legend, will extend it Friday with “What Men Want,” a gender-flipped remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romantic comedy. Badu’s character is a cartoon version of herself. In her own wardrobe and makeup, Badu plays a flowing-haired, incense-burning spirit-guide-cum-small-time-weed-dealer with otherworldly comic timing and a tenuous foothold on the terrestrial plane.
In the real world, of course, she is no possessor of mystical powers. Just a mortal, like the rest of us. One who, as she made clear, doesn’t spend much of her time thinking about when or how she became who she is. “I’m 48,” she said, when I asked about deciding not to be angry. And it was as if I had asked an ocean when it decided not to be a stream.
I wanted to know about empathy because Badu has made it headline news. The singer has recently been accused of spreading compassion in reckless and upsetting directions, pausing a concert last month to announce that she was “putting up a prayer” for R. Kelly, the R&B hitmaker who faces mounting allegations of sexual misconduct, including with underage girls. She went on, amid wails from the audience, to make a blanket call for healing, asserting that “everybody involved has been hurt and victimized in some kind of way.”
It wasn’t the first time that Badu had espoused a fundamentalist interpretation of unconditional love. A year ago, she sparked a conflagration on social media when she told New York magazine that she “saw something good” in Hitler. At various points in recent years, she’s felt compelled to express empathy for high school teachers who are sexually attracted to their female students; Bill Cosby; and slave masters, among others not commonly thought to merit a surplus of charity.
At a time when the reckoning after #MeToo has revealed moral decay lurking in what can feel like every corner of public life, Badu’s stubborn forbearance has drawn forceful condemnation. She spoke to me about her critics, her popularizing (and losing control of) the expression “stay woke” and why she says she can’t judge anyone, including people who have hurt her directly.
As for her age: She’s 47, as it turns out. But that’s just like Badu — never one to let mere reality hold her back.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you end up in this film?
One of the producers called me and wanted me to read for it. And the director, Adam Shankman. But I learned yesterday that Taraji Henson [the film’s star] had a little bit to do with it. When I was brought up, she told them, “Go to her Instagram, check her out. She’d be good.”
Well, it’s a psychic who is spiritual and has mystical powers and makes tea.
A caricature of me, yeah. I’m the candle, tea queen.
How much of it was as written, and how much of it is you?
Seventy-five percent is improv.
O.K.! Did you like improvising?
Of course. My background is theater. I majored in theater at Grambling State University. I started acting when I was about 4 or 5. My first job was working for Steve Harvey at his comedy house.
I didn’t know that.
Yeah, my first love is comedy.
What’s your level of interest in recording music these days?
I’m very interested, I just don’t have anything to say. As a songwriter, you have to kind of have something to say, something to record, something to ignite a conversation. I don’t have anything right now. I guess I’m uploading information. After that, we’ll see.
I wanted to ask you about the idea of “wokeness,” which was popularized by a lyric in your song “Master Teacher” but has taken on a life of its own.
It’s being used against me.
How do you feel about the way it’s being used?
It’s not none of my business. I get it. I didn’t intend it any kind of way, so when I say “I stay woke” — I actually walked into a session [to record that song] of Georgia Anne Muldrow and Sa-Ra already saying, “I stay woke.”
So, when we say that it means we just pay attention to what’s going on around us, and are not easily swayed by the media, or by the angry mob, or by the group. You know: Stay focused, pay attention.
The popular meaning is a little different.
Is it? What is the popular meaning?
I think people use it to mean enlightened in a kind of moral way, or cognizant of how power works.
Of how power works?
How people in power maintain power and oppress marginalized groups. For instance, in Black Lives Matter …
Oh, it takes on a political context?
Well, yeah. I think in that context it means, “This is how they do us.”
That’s part of it, but it’s not all of it. Stay woke just means pay attention to everything, don’t lean on your own understanding or anyone else’s, observe, evolve, eliminate things that no longer evolve. That’s what it means. Stay conscious, stay awake. It doesn’t mean judge others. It doesn’t mean gang up on somebody who you feel is not woke. That’s not evolved.
So, when people accuse you of not being woke, do you feel like it’s a misapplication?
I think it’s some kids saying those things. And I’m compassionate about it. I understand because we go through that phase. Those are phases of wokeness, where you are judgmental and you’re strong in your opinion, and you’re learning this new information, and all that’s a part of building your character. As you grow more and more, you begin to eliminate the need to judge others and to crucify others and to compete, to have a word debate. You lose those interests as you grow. It’s natural. [These people] are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing right now.
Yeah. I encourage it, argue, debate, communicate even if it’s disagreeing with me, do it, that’s what they’re supposed to be doing.
It is interesting that your response would be empathy. I think it relates to your recent R. Kelly comments, because you’ve said similar things in the past about other divisive or despised figures. Last year, you were trying to find nuance or compassion for Hitler and Louis Farrakhan. I wondered if you could help me understand where that impulse comes from.
You know what, I wrote something about that because I didn’t want to stumble through it and be misunderstood.
[She reads from a long statement, excerpted here.]
O.K. Here I go: Expressing unconditional love for both victim and accused should not be misconstrued with downplaying the fact that [the victim has] been horribly violated. Nor should it be mistaken for the intent to put the accused on a pedestal or to condone their actions. For me, life requires critical thinking on a subject. Critical thinking may lead to logical solutions, but it’s a delicate process because we are all very delicate. Proper healing is the key. It takes the entire community. This mending takes practice because it’s difficult to not always be led emotionally and impulsively. Sometimes, it takes those not very close to the situation to objectively consider all factors. Restorative justice involves finding a solution that not only helps the innocent victims cope with the trauma but to also help the violator, who in many cases, has been the victim of abuse and holds them accountable and is a huge part of recovery. This thinking may help to break the cycle of abuse and ultimately help to heal the community. That’s the goal.
I’ve never instructed a group of people to do what I do or to follow me in any kind of way. It’s O.K. to disagree with me, no problem, but you cannot censor how I feel. I encourage people: If you have an opposing opinion, use it, don’t be afraid. I think that’s a bigger crime than anything — to go with the group when you know it’s not how you feel. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of following our hearts, that’s what love is.
I’m curious about what you mentioned earlier about phases of wokeness. Can you tell me about the phases you went through?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I remember in college we used to debate every day about things. Sometimes, violent debates where we insulted one another. It’s only because we were trying to build an ego or a self. We needed to define ourselves, and you’re supposed to do that. Once you learn how to have nonviolent communication, you learn how to sway the energy in a different direction, to move the conversation in a direction where love is involved.
What were those arguments about, do you remember?
All kinds of stuff. Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King. Michael Jackson. You know all those kinds of debates. We learned new information, and then we’d form an opinion, and you’d have an opposing group.
At what point did you, as you say, start to channel the energy in a different direction?
I don’t remember when things changed, but when I found out that evolution wasn’t a destination and that I just had to decide to see things differently, then everything was different. I changed the perspective. I don’t remember exactly what age, but I do remember it happening. I remember saying, “Oh I don’t have to believe everything I think. Oh, I don’t have to see things this way. All I have to do is decide to and have the desire to see things differently.”
Given the blowup online after your comments on R. Kelly, would you handle things differently if you could do it over again?
There’s no way to predict what people are going to use to sell magazines or papers. So that means that I would have to be watching what I say for the rest of my life. I’ve died on many hills.
What do you mean?
I keep coming back. I believe in love. Being misunderstood, that’s little stuff, and I don’t really mind being a problem that may lead to a solution. I can be misunderstood for a while, but love is not difficult to misunderstand. Love looks like compassion, forgiveness, kindness and consideration, nonjudgment, creativity. And fear looks like denial, hate or pain. I’m sorry, not pain, but to cause pain, jealousy, envy, hunger for power. Being afraid of not having enough or not being seen as enough or not being as good as something else or someone else, that’s what causes all that.
I think a lot of people struggle with the idea that they should reserve judgment in a case where someone is credibly accused of, or is guilty of, heinous crimes or harming people.
I think if you choose to see things on both sides, then it’s not very difficult, but if you do not, then you won’t. Choices could be made because of fear, pain, misunderstanding, but it’s a choice. I mean, I don’t want to insult anyone because some people do see things from both sides, but they still decide to feel the way they feel, and it’s O.K. People just don’t agree sometimes. It doesn’t make them any less intelligent, they just don’t agree.
But what if you find the other side of the issue appalling?
See, for me personally, I don’t judge that. I don’t personalize things, even things that happen to me, I can’t judge that. The laws of the universe will take care of it, definitely. That’s the way it works. Those are the laws.
It’s something I struggle with in terms of wishing I could still listen to R. Kelly, who I was a fan of. But now I have sort of a visceral reaction to the music. It feels tainted.
You say you can’t help feeling that? Well, I mean, you’re supposed to, that’s who you are. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But then I don’t know what to do, right? Like do I …
What do you mean? You’re doing it.
Well, what I’m doing is I’m not playing his music, and that makes me sad.
Because I enjoyed it, it meant something to me.
Oh. But it makes you sick.
That’s the conflict.
I understand. You could be an empath. That’s empathy for pain, that’s what you have. It’s a beautiful thing.
Well, it’s hard to live that way in practice sometimes.
Yeah, it is. I mean, it’s a challenge every single day. But we have to live moment by moment and try our best. That’s it. Don’t feel guilty about who you are and how you feel. I just try every moment to be conscious and cognizant and fair, not only to others, but to Erykah.
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