redbull music academy: erykah badu discusses meeting andré 3000, working with j dilla, “groupthink” & her love for janelle monáe

May 1, 2013

Last night at Brooklyn Museum, the Red Bull Music Academy hosted A Conversation with Erykah Badu, a talk that began as a chronological narrative of the Texas-born vocalist’s experiences with music and quickly expanded into a conversation about her songwriting process, raising her children and her tendencies as a self-proclaimed “lazy artist.” “I hate to work” she told the audience. And despite such an affirmation, the 42-year-old singer has six albums under her belt, has homeschooled all of her children amongst her music endeavors, occasionally works as a doula, is a certified holistic health practitioner and is currently studying to be a midwife.

Review by Justin Allen
Photos by Alex Kusak Smith

“Brooklyn is heaven” she began her description of the Burrough she cites as her creative platform, elaborating on the Afrocentricity she encountered when first arriving here in the late 90s. She recollected on her early experiences in New York City with great detail. “It was 1997. My single came out Februrary 7th—‘On and On,’” she recalled the debut of her first album Baduzim, a development of a 19-song mixtape she’d handed out as cassette tapes at South by Southwest which grabbed the attention of Mobb Deep’s Manager at the time. “I heard it in New York in a club and met André 3000 that night.” The crowd laughed in unison. “No, that’s a year before. Let me back up,” she corrected herself. “Two years earlier I met André at the club and they played the song ‘On and On.’ Two years later, Februrary 7th, ‘On and On’ came out on the radio. February 11th, I got pregnant.”

Jovial and inspiring, Badu sported a wide-brimmed hat, grey sweats and red sneakers—an appearance as at ease as her demeanor. Even when recollecting on her studio time with the late J Dilla, she colored her memories with a genuine specificity. “He ate a lot of candy,” she remembered, also describing his technicality, a student of engineering, in everything from his music production to the meticulousness with which he would organize cans of soda in his refrigerator. This same adoration she showed toward her recent collaborator Janelle Monáe, an artist from whom she admittedly differs musically, but with whom she possesses a deep understanding. “We call each other twin,” she says with a child-like smile. “She’s the first person to really appreciate my heart.”

Such detail allowed the evening to surpass the expectations of a standard question-and-answer format into a vibrant narrative of the multiple dimensions of the songstress’s psyche and creative sensibility. One of the most impactful moments came when she described the theory of “groupthink,” the inspiration behind the provocative music video for her song “Window Seat” in which she disrobes while walking down a block full of pedestrians. Coined by sociologist Irving Janis in 1972, she cites, the term describes the hesitance of individuals to express their thoughts or ideas if they counter or contradict those of the larger group, even if they know the ideas of the larger group are wrong. “It’s because we want to be liked, we want to be loved, we want to be accepted, respected…we’d rather have peace than say how we really feel” she explained. “It seems like one of the biggest crimes we can commit on society, because we don’t evolve that way. We just stay in one place and everybody gets sick.” Erykah Badu is an artist that is forever evolving.