If you’re talking about musical legends from the past 20 years, it would be wrong to omit Erykah Badu – the queenly singer-songwriter, born Erica Abi Wright, who changed the musical landscape when she released her debut album in 1997. A glorious, Grammy-winning union of laidback jazz, hip hop, sass and pre-millennial wokeness, ‘Baduizm’ led to the birth of neo-soul. And the Texan’s influence went on to touch a new generation of singers, including Janelle Monáe, FKA Twigs and Amy Winehouse.
These days, Badu is much more than a singer-songwriter. The 47-year-old mother of three is also a DJ, actor, producer, fashion icon and visual artist. She’s no stranger to controversial debate, either. Never one to sugarcoat her thoughts, Badu has aired some pretty polarising opinions on everyone from Bill Cosby to Hitler.
When Badu’s not causing a Twitter storm, she’s devoting her energy to raising a family, helping mums give birth (she’s a qualified doula) and touring her epic stage show. Ahead of her headline slot at Field Day in Brockwell Park, we caught up with Badu to talk about how R&B has changed, dealing with trolls and what it’s like to have such diehard fans.
What’s a typical day like for you at the moment?
‘Waking up at 6am, getting the kids up for school, working and going to the gym. I’m a caregiver for my grandmother, too. If I get a chance, I write lyrics to instrumentals for an album that’s taken me eight years.’
Does that mean new music is coming soon?
The suspense! A lot has changed since your first album. How do you think soul and R&B fit into the music industry now?
‘In America, it’s all fused together a little bit. It’s evolved into something else. I think it’s still soulful, it’s just another frequency of it.’
Is it easier to do your own thing now that everyone’s trying to be different?
‘I guess weird is normal now. But they still see me as the head weird girl. People still always acknowledge me as that.’
Your diehard fans look like they’re worshipping you at your shows. How does that feel?
‘It feels very comfortable. It feels… good. I feel like I have a great responsibility and I’m very careful with it. Human beings are very delicate and I know why they feel the way they feel. They’re reflecting the way I feel when I’m performing with them and for them. I meet it where it meets me. It’s a beautiful thing.’
Does the attention ever get annoying?
‘Every now and then. But I understand that too. I just take it all as it comes.’
You first came to London in 1997 to perform in Brixton. What stood out for you about that gig?
‘The culture! I felt like I just came back from travelling a long way for my family and the family was there to welcome me back into the tribe. They understood exactly what I was saying, why I was saying it, how I was saying it.’
What was your first impression of London?
‘It was a brand new world for me, coming from Dallas, Texas. Everything was happening for me very quickly so I didn’t get a chance to download everything in real time. It took a while. Now, if I look at 11 years ago, I can look back at it on YouTube. But it was different then: we didn’t have the internet to lean on to watch or critique.’
What do you make of that shift?
‘I didn’t start becoming reluctant about things until I saw it back. Because in real time you don’t have time to process or think about it, especially when you’re continuously moving. You don’t really feel the effects of it until later. Now I can see stuff immediately: I’m looking at it and I’m living it and I’m watching it. I’m the audience and I’m the performer at the same time. Back then you were just the performer creating a moment and that moment went away for ever.’
You’ve been back to London loads since that first visit. What do you get up to when you’re over here?
‘I go record shopping. I like to go shopping for 45s. I like to people-watch and ride the train. I just like to be in the city and explore.’
You’re an avid Twitter user, and you’ve delivered your fair share of clapbacks, but you’ve also been criticised. Do you still enjoy social media?
‘I love it. It’s a great equaliser. It gives you a chance to have conversations. It gives you a chance to dictate, if you want to do that, and a chance to perform – and not respond or explain. You can choose to do whatever you want on these platforms. It feels empowering.’
How do you deal with negativity and trolls?
‘I understand. I can choose to engage, but I never take it personally. A lot of times those are kids! I like to joke with them. I never get mad, though. I always laugh with them, even if it’s at my expense. It’s funny to me because I was a kid too – sometimes they’re trying to get attention, and if they’re lucky enough, I have time.’
Speaking of spare time, you’re a doula on the side. What’s it like helping women give birth?
‘It’s beautiful. It’s like being the welcoming committee. It’s a pleasure being there, to help a mother and father create a space they dreamed of, to bring the life they created into the world.’
Do you have a long waiting list?
[Laughs] ‘No, not really. I only take two mothers a year – that’s all I can handle.’
How do you choose them?
‘Randomly. I met a mother in a restaurant once. We were talking and our energies intermingled and we felt good about the conversation.’
Finally, which three songs of yours would you recommend to someone going to Field Day who isn’t familiar with your back catalogue?
‘Baduizm 101! They would be “On & On”, “Other Side of the Game” and “Green Eyes”. I feel really good when I sing them. And if they wanna know who I am, I would like them to see me doing what I love the most.’
Erykah Badu headlines Field Day on Fri Jun 1.