A Southern Gul, Southern Genius Feeding Her Own Meter
Though I am ostensibly a U.S. Citizen (some days it feels tenuous as hell), I also have a Crunchy Nation green card, which means my Twitter feed was full of earth mother goddesses, headwraps, and the like drooling over Erykah Badu’s new video for “Window Seat,” the lead single from her album, New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh. They think it’s genius; they are probably right. Erykah Badu makes the best music videos ever.
I had a (non-crunchy) friend tell me that if Erykah Badu started an army she’d enlist. Erykah Badu is, it seems, magical. How many other (black) women in the entertainment industry possess agency and respect enough to publicly disrobe in a way that we, as viewers, would find liberating–and not commodifying? (Magic!) Seeing Ms. Badu in full art mode, I’m inclined to abandon pacifism, and declare war on whatever enemy Ms. Badu deems worthy of some militaristic wrath. How can I not want to be down with someone who seems to be so unequivocally herself in world that relies on stereotypes (name a rapper), caricatures (name a rapper), and recycled product (Gaga, meet Madonna) to sustain itself and titillate us?
I’m sure the blogosphere is bursting with a myriad of responses to the video, analyses especially concerned with the symbolism of Badu removing her clothes and whatnot. What struck me, however, was the scene Badu creates in which to disrobe: she revises the JFK assassination to do it. Badu pulls up to the curb in a Lincoln (another assassinated President) with the suicide doors, foreshadowing her figurative death and implying that what she’s about to do is the result of her own hand(s). After walking through part of downtown Dallas, Badu is shot on the Grassy Knoll, the space where witnesses, including Abraham Zapruder, watched the assassination; it’s also the foundation for one of the prevailing JFK conspiracy theories.
What does it mean that Badu reinvigorates a popular American myth (of Camelot)–and its subsequent conspiracy– for this individuality-saving exercise? Especially, if I may take it there, since 2009 reminded folks that the “Age of Obama” was not going to be Chocolate Camelot remixed 2.0. More specifically, though, lack of understanding and group think may not be the only reasons for assassinating Badu, as she kind of suggests at the end of the video. The JFK assassination effectively ended and jarred folks out of an idealized image of the presidency. Camelot died right on that white X. How often have Badu’s fans not lacked understanding, but actually refused to understand the nuances of her as an artist? So many of the folks who embraced the genius of this latest endeavor only really dig Badu when she’s burning incense, and only enthusiastically await this new album because of what the subtitle promises: a (sonic) return to the ankh.
What’s so dope about Erykah’s shows is the motley audience she attracts. I’ve been to Badu concerts with my mama, my white homegirl, Rachel, and the homie Maegs (a crunchy role model if there ever was one). And we’re all there for different reasons. Some are waiting for “Tyrone.” Others want Badu the revolutionary. Many more wait for Badu to articulate their heart break with a cappella version of “Green Eyes.” Everybody, on some level, fucks with Badu, but how many of us have learned to fuck with all of Badu? We are reluctant to accept her evolution–hence the tattoo. Yes, we love “Window Seat,” but don’t we hate “Jump up in the Air” just because Weezy was on it, and not because his verse was lightweight disappointing?
Above all, the assassination at the end of “Window Seat” reminds me of Badu’s generation of soul singers, their survival, and our roles in their symbolic, public deaths: Maxwell (he didn’t disappear for all those years just because he wanted a vacation, I’m sure), D’Angelo, Lauryn. Near that pantheon is Dave Chappelle, and perhaps to a lesser extent Aaron McGruder. What Badu’s video harkens, for me at least, is some of her peers’ efforts to fully express their artistry, themselves as individuals. That, of course, is an implicit suicide mission, resulting in public assassination and their subsequent disappearance. (What happens if the puppet decides to cut its own strings?) The public, then, is left with nothing to do but masticate on conspiracy theories. We endlessly speculate on the how’s and why’s of Lauryn’s mental state and D’Angelo’s junkie status. And in the process of investing in this myth (of the neo-soul, conscious icon) we kill them, and their humanity…softly.
Maybe Erykah is magical. She survives. She time travels. She dies; we witness her rebirth. She endures in ways her peers haven’t without, in my understanding of her, compromising in the way that others do. (Will the real Common please stand up?) It’s fascinating to watch an artist maintain her integrity in public. Makes me want to jump up in the air–and stay there.