This is part four of a four-part series on Erykah Badu’s massive role in communicating and normalizing Black feminism and Afro-futurism in contemporary discourses. Check out parts two, three, and four.
From her debut in 1997, Erykah Badu and her music have empowered people across intersections of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. ‘Baduizm,’ her personal philosophy, is based in empathy and honesty and impacts the way she carries herself as well as the way she makes music.
In a contemporary music landscape where authenticity comes from materialism and misogyny, Erykah Badu’s realness and empathy create a space for artists to express themselves in a genuine fashion. Whether it be expansive production styles or out-of-the-box lyrics, artists after Badu came up have been more willing to represent themselves without having to pander to widely-understood stereotypes or norms.
Presenting her Dallas upbringing and culture with such honesty, mixed with an innovative genre-bending approach that accounts for southern hip-hop, R&B, funk, and soul, Badu exposes black feminism and afrofuturism to the world in an approachable fashion. Many of the world’s most successful artists today give credit to Badu’s music as an enabler for their creative processes. Badu’s trailblazing nature has forged a space for artists to establish their identity within the realms of neo-soul, R&B, and hip-hop. This series seeks to pose Erykah Badu as an artist that has created a space for future musicians to understand and express their lived experiences without being forced into playing out stereotypes.
While Erykah Badu’s music and philosophy have evolved massively over time, her dedication to furthering ideas of black feminism and afrofuturism have remained constant. Bursting on the scene with lead single “On & On” in 1997, Badu became a star in the realms of R&B and neo-soul, with a measured, emotionally evocative approach.
Her beautiful delivery was a perfect hook, and thought-provoking lyrics have kept fans engaged for the following decades. She portrays a soul aesthetic with lyrics like, “If we were made in his image then call us by our name.” The motif of time runs through the song: “On and on, on and on, my cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone.” Scholar Marlo David speaks on the song from an afrofuturist perspective:
“In keeping with the alien tropes identified by Eshun, the lyrics of Badu’s song can be imagined as her exhortation to a group of futuristic blackfolk, seeking to escape from an alien plan(e)tation to which they have been abducted somewhere in a future time and future space. Fashioning herself as a resistance leader in the liberation movement, Badu sings to her audience to clarify the necessity of flight from their captor.”
Grounded in this identity-specific reality, “On & On” and many more of Badu’s tracks emphasize a better future for minoritized folks. “Tyrone,” another song released in 1997, takes a new view — one dedicated to empowering women to cut toxic men out of their lives. The song’s refrain goes, “You better call Tyrone, but you can’t use my phone.”
It comes after a verse where she sings about how he’s not respecting her and is always asking her for money, not only for himself but also for his friends and family members. In this relationship, this man isn’t taking care of her, so she says he better call Tyrone and have him come get his belongings from her place so she can move on in her life without him. The song was received well by fans and critics alike, albeit not to the rocketing success of “On & On.”
Erykah Badu’s 1997 was truly groundbreaking and set her up for a long-lasting career. We’ll continue to explore her music in the next few installments of this series, which will approach later releases such as Mama’s Gun, The New Amerykah (1 & 2), and But You Caint Use My Phone.