Erykah Badu – Interview

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What’s the title, Mama’s Gun, mean?

Most of the time, you don’t even know your mamma have a gun, you know? And when she pulls it out, and shows it to you, it’s something serious. And the way life is to me right now, we’re at a very detrimental time. Our sons and daughters are going to need something to take with them for protection. So they can put my album in they holster, or on they lap, or on they seat. It would be a better thing to have, you know? So that’s the explanation.

Was there anybody you sought out to work with?

Yeah, some people I did. Steve and I worked together a lot for the food drives that they have every year, that the Marley’s have every year, the Marley’s birthday parties. They’re like another family for me, an extended family. I mean, I love his voice, and I think it should be heard basically.

What was the concept behind Bag Lady?

Uh, I wrote “Bag Lady” a few years ago. After Baduizm, in ’97, so about two and a half years ago, right after I finished Baduizm, when I started my live show. I actually started writing it because I was inspired by my own personal growth. You know, I was happy I was able to assess things a little bit better. And I figured out that the reason I couldn’t get through the day as well as I can now is because I had too many things on my mind, on my plate, you know, for one person to have. So I started to eliminate some of the things that were too heavy to carry and unnecessary. So that’s where the words came from. Actually, it started with a melody I was humming, and usually the words find they place, they be waiting to get on a song. So they just kind of come through me some kind of way. I mean, they can use the album for whatever they need or what they want. Hopefully my music is medicine, some type of antidote for something or some kind of explanation or just to feel good.

You’ve been out of the public eye for a couple of years now, and since then you’ve got people like Macy Gray in your step. Do you feel this album is some kind of proof to that?

Naw. I just have company. My friends. You know, any artist who feels the way I do, I get on their record, too. Let’s make it happen. Nothing to prove. I’m only in competition with my last level. It don’t have nothing to do with music or anything. And the last level is hard competition, the last place you were. There’ll never be another Baduizm, another Erykah Badu, another Macy Gray. We were all born, and we all came to the music business with everything we had. Some of us just don’t get a chance. Now there’s a lot of other people like myself, indeed, who are getting heard worldwide. That gives other artists a chance. So we basically represent the artists who are still often unheard. It’s a good thing. We’re all friends, inside the music and outside the music. I mean, we don’t sound anything alike, we don’t approach our music anything alike, but we come from the same genuine place. We want our music to be real and we don’t want to compromise our art. Whether we talking about something serious or talking about partying, we don’t want to compromise the music at all.

You don’t see any competition between yourself and someone like Jill Scott?

Naw. I mean, we help each other. She wrote lyrics on “You Got Me”. We talk all the time. I think what makes people think that is because of things people write. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the artist. We don’t feel like that at all. Sometimes if we’re feeling weak at the moment, and I’m reading Jill Scott is like Erykah Badu, or Jill Scott reads that, as humans you feel like, ‘Awww…’ and you get mad at the artist. But you have to remember, it’s all a formality. It’s just the way the music business is. So we try to encourage one another. ‘Come on, don’t fall into that,’ you know?

What does music mean to you?

Hmmm. Nobody’s ever asked me that. What does music mean to me? I don’t think I would really be much without it, without it coming through me. It’s my means of communication, my means of growth, my means of transportation from one point in my life to another. It’s how I express myself. What singing means to me, I never did consider myself a singer, I just let people watch me feel music and how it comes through me. I’ve worked on it and practiced a lot. I mean, music, I dance to it, and singing is just one way of getting it out of me.

In the lyric sheet, there are initials by the song titles, like HESI, SUMPTH. I mean, what do those mean or stand for?

Oh, those are words. Hesi, the word hesi is beside the song “Kiss Me”. And what a hesi is in Egypt or Kimet is like an affirmation. Like something you say over and over again. Like if you keep saying ‘I am brave, I am brave, I am brave,’ eventually you will become brave, because some people do say that you speak words into existence. And that’s what a hesi is, to speak a word or a sentence or a phrase over and over again. And the song, where I say, ‘I want somebody to walk up behind me and kiss me on my neck,’ is a hesi. Because you say it over and over again, and it’ll happen. There’s a hidden meaning. It’s just not that simple. This word, P-T-A-H, that’s ptah, body. In Kimet, ptah is a figure who is known as the body. Somebody to walk behind, behind is where all the energy lies. “Kiss Me”. In Egypt, have you seen those Dobermans sitting on each side of them? They’re called ampu. The lips of ampu protect and discard all negative energy. So that’s the kiss. ‘Kiss me on my neck.’ In Kimet, the neck is the throne for the head. ‘I want somebody to walk behind me and kiss me on my neck,’ put energy behind me, put me back on my throne, and breathe on my neck. And breathe, that’s the first action of life. And that’s called shu, or ast. It’s just a hesi that’s saying, ‘Alright, I’ve lost my way, and I need to be on my throne again. I need the energy to come in and be behind me.’ And I didn’t want to say that on the song, so I said it in a more understandable way.

Is this album a new you?

Well, not the new me…

But the newer version of you, since Baduizm. Can you explain a little more how perhaps you might be a different person?

I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. I have a two-year-old son, and I see him every day, so I can’t see really how tall he’s gotten. But other people can. I can tell I’m in a different place than Baduizm, but I don’t know exactly how far.

I mean, did Baduizm change you as a person? Do you see the world differently now?

Oh, yeah, I see the world differently now. Actually, when I first had the baby, I was breast-feeding him for two years straight. So we were together for two years of his life, every single day, all hours of the day. So I was two people, and I eventually morphed back into one. Now he’s like a part of me. He’s very independent as a result of it, and I was worried about the opposite. I was very worried that he was going to be so attached, since we were together every day, but I guess it made him feel comfortable, you know, ‘She’s around all the time, she’s here for me.’ It made me feel like a very responsible person. You know, tidy, you know, and now my health is better, because I’m now responsible for someone’s whole reason for being. That helped.

So where did you pick up the Egyptian we were talking about earlier?

Oh, I just studied. I’m a Pisces, and I’m very interested in metaphysics, science, spirituality, and the occult, or anything like that. I’m not satisfied with the explanations I get from tv or from school. I mean, it just seems like, no, not that it seems, but there is so much more to the universe and to us. So I just studied, and memorized. I might go out and look for information like that. Sometimes people will give me books, more so now than before. You know, being in the entertainment business, people will think they know you and what you’re interested in. I’ve gotten so many books and paintings and cards with ankhs, candles, and incense that I’ll have enough to read until at least a hundred. I’m interested in it, and I feel that it’s good to share information.

According to spirituality, are you getting inspired by a certain religion?

Uh, all of them. Just existence, period. I know that they are all one in the same. Personally, I don’t choose any particular religion or symbol or group of words or teachings to define me. That’s between me and the most high. You know, my higher self. The Creator. But I do learn a lot from each thing, because everything is necessary. We’re all here for a reason, not just to group up with your own group. I’ll have more information next album on that.

Is there an anthem on this album that’s speaking to women?

Some would say the whole album. Some would call me a women’s liberalist. I mean, I don’t think so. I think I’m speaking from a woman’s perspective, and I just happen to be a woman. I know more about women’s issues than men’s issues. And I’m speaking to brothers on there, too. There’s a song called “Time’s A Wastin'”. But, I mean, the album’s for everybody, really. But I do have more practice with women’s situations than men’s.

The song “Booty” seems to be a continuation of “Tyrone”, sort of like a “No Scrubs”.

Yeah, but mine ain’t no bad-man song. You know what, Tyrone, I just made that up on stage, just divine humor or something, just clowning, acting a fool. But “Booty” is particularly dedicated to those people who are cheaters or those who are untrue, unrealistic. You know, I say in the lyrics, ‘Your booty might be bigger, but I can still pull yo’ niggah, but I don’t want him.’ And I say I don’t want him, I don’t want him if he ain’t made no arrangement with you. And I see so much of that every day, where it’s either we’re supposed to be monogamous or we’re not. I mean, whatever the rules are in your relationship, you should go by that, that’s what I’m saying. And I’m not saying it should be either way, but it’s gotta be one way or the other. You know, if you make a decision, a pact with someone, your friend, you should say, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ and you should stick to it.

What’s the most personal song on the album?

They all are. Each one I had to take a lot of time on and make sure everything was right on it before I let it go. That’s why it took so long. I mean, I was producing, as well as writing, as well as singing, and directing the video, I mean, all things I chose to do. And every time I would complain, people would say, ‘Well, you said you wanted to do it all!’ and I’d be like, ‘I know, I know.’ It was a one-woman show this time, but it was great. It was a good experience. And I got it all done! I got it all done. It wasn’t on time. But it was on time, you know what I’m saying?

Now you wrote and produced and sang all of this album. Was it simpler or more difficult than Baduizm?

Definitely more complicated. I mean, I was the one calling the shots, but I had a lot of people who were involved with playing music and coming up with ideas, and helping out and adding to the project. All the creativity had to come from me, which was very hard. So if I had studio time booked, and locked out for a week to finish the album and I had no ideas, I mean, the day I mastered the album, I had just finished two songs. I just came straight from the studio to master it. I didn’t get to hear it or critique it or anything. So it just came that day. It’s kind of hard, doing it all yourself. When you don’t have, like, a lyric writing team and all that.

So what was the inspiration for “Penitentiary Philosophy”?

“Penitentiary Philosophy”, when I think of the title, Mama’s Gun, I saw the album artwork, I just felt like that should be first. The reason I wrote that song, the music came first, of course, it was a session that James Poyser, Ahmir Thompson from the Roots, Pino Palladino, and I were in. Three peeps and me, we were just clowning around, and we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s do this…’ and I freestyled the lyrics. The first draft was very close to what you hear now. I knew the reason for the song but I didn’t know what it meant yet. I just found that out. “Penitentiary Philosophy”, we lock ourselves into our own philosophies, our own religions, our own walks of life, and if we fail, we condemn ourselves and then we get sick. I think that if we can find a way to clear our minds free and be a little freer and not lock ourselves into things, because I think we’re afraid of change. I think a lot of people have lost respect for the individual, you know, the individual, the person who doesn’t conform. It’s a jail. It’s like, if you don’t be this way when you go to work, so and so is gonna talk about you. If I don’t do this, someone was like, ‘We live a commercial every day for the world.’ It’s unnecessary. And I’m tired of doing it. So I wanted to write a song about it.

I like that song, “Time’s A Wastin'”. Who’s it for?

Who is it? Everybody. It’s for all of you. Yeah.

Did anyone inspire that song?

No, not especially. I mean, no lovers, or no people who I think are down and out. I have a brother who’s eighteen years old, and maybe it was him. He’s the closest example of a young man who has idle time and doesn’t know exactly what to do with it. Time’s a wasting, keep on drifting, ain’t no telling where you’ll land. Where you running to? Where you running from? Kind of find out what you wanna do. You know, it’s important. Especially to young brothers. It’s almost like a lot of black people in America, a lot of young black men, are born with this cloud over their heads. It’s their penitentiary cloud, this philosophy we all have, that it’s harder for us. There ain’t no heaven, there ain’t no hell. It’s just weak or strong. Times of weakness, it feels like hell, times when you’re strong, it feels like heaven. So you gotta just focus and take out all the demons in your range. There’s nothing else you can do, just move forward, and quick.

We saw your acting debut in The Cider House Rules and I wanted to know if there’s more acting on the horizon?

Perhaps. If it’s a good role. (laughter) I would love to. I like it.

Well, how did you get the acting down? What made you interested?

Oh, I been doing it all my life. Anything that had to do with art I been doing all my life. It was a gift. It’s nothing I work real hard at doing. What I work hard at doing is staying on a path of being kind and showing and proving that I’m a good person to society. That’s hard. The talent, that’s a gift. I just came here like that.

How did the role come about?

Well, I have an agent who saw my videos and thought that I’d be good in movies. She’s often sent scripts, and I told her the kinds of roles that I liked. I like period pieces. And she’s like, ‘I got a good one for you,’ and she described it and I went and auditioned for it, not thinking if I was going to do it, whether I got the part or not, because I was more interested in Seven’s education at the time. Every day was devoted to that, and I didn’t really want to sway from that. But once I got the role, and I learned that the director did not know who Erykah Badu was, I felt an ego boost. ‘Oh wow, I can act!’ I did it, and it was wonderful. I was new again. I never thought I had an opportunity to walk in and not have people expecting things. I walked in and they didn’t know what was gonna happen. Just like when I walked in here today, y’all had all kinds of expectations. But walking on the set, they’re like, ‘Who is that? We don’t keep up with that music. Who is she? She better be good.’

What makes you furious, and what opens your heart?

What makes me furious, not just because we’re in an interview, but I don’t like when writers take your words and put them somewhere else, in the wrong context in their own article about you. Because it’s personal, it’s your personal life, and you’re giving your time to help another human being further their career. And they write anything they want about you and I think it’s mean. That makes me furious, and I see that happen to other artists, and I’m very sensitive to it. What opens my heart is, oh, so many things, but one in particular is when my son wakes me up in the morning, nudging me and saying, ‘Mommy, mommy!’ That opens my heart. So many other things as well. Good tea. And the kind of warm energy you get from people when they don’t expect you to be a superstar for everybody all the time. Where you can just sit down and not sign autographs for everybody. That makes me feel warm, and appreciated, not like I’m some workhorse or some thing. Some people come up and ask for an autograph and don’t even look at me. They’re like, ‘Here, do it.’ That don’t bother me, but it doesn’t open my heart.

+ charlie craine