Badu, Erykah

▪ 1999

      By 1998, just one year after the release of her phenomenally successful debut album, Baduizm, singer-songwriter Erykah Badu had become one of the fastest-rising American recording artists. The phrasing and emotive qualities of her smooth, jazz-inflected vocals were sometimes reminiscent of the style of Billie Holiday, an artist to whom she was often compared. Badu's follow-up album, Erykah Badu Live, debuted at the top spot on the pop charts. The combined sales of the two albums exceeded three million copies, and both efforts were certified as platinum. She then went on to capture two NAACP Image Awards, four Soul Train Awards, an American Music Award, and two Grammys.

      Badu was born Erica Wright, the eldest of three children, c. 1971 in Dallas, Texas. Of her adopted stage name, Badu explained, "I spell [my name] with a 'y' because it stands for origin and 'kah' is [ancient Egyptian] meaning 'inner light that shines and cannot be contaminated.' . . . Badu . . . means 'to manifest' in Arabic." Never formally trained in music, Badu majored in dance and theatre at Grambling (La.) State University after graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. She dropped out of Grambling in 1993 to pursue a singing career and formed the group Erykah Free with her cousin, while also working as a waitress and a drama teacher to support herself. In 1995, while opening for singer D'Angelo, Badu was singled out of the band by Kedar Massenburg, who was just starting his own record company. He offered her a solo contract, which she accepted because she felt that she would receive more individual attention at a smaller label. In January 1997 "On & On," Badu's first single, was released and quickly became a hit. The next month Baduizm, for which she wrote all but one of the songs, was released, and the album solidified her popularity.

      Distinguished by her elaborate Afrocentric attire, in particular her signature head wraps, or geles, Badu lit a candle and incense onstage to focus herself before beginning each performance. With a sound built upon the roots of her heritage, she cited among her early influences Miles Davis, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. A spiritual person whose lyrics concentrated on the more positive aspects of life, Badu said, "I never get tired of writing inspirational words." She spoke of the need for artists to have a plan and said of her own, "I'll start as a singer, so I can be individually recognized . . . then I'll go on to acting, because everyone wants to see a recording star on film. Then after film, I'll direct . . . write movies and have my own corporation . . . and ultimately a whole arts foundation." It was clear that Badu was well on her way.

ANTHONY L. GREEN

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Universalium. 2010.

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