Vogue The Second Coming of Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu likes to wear clothes that make music when she walks—it’s why today she has strings of bells strapped to her ankles. She also has a tangle of amethyst crystal pendants thrown over her paint-splattered overalls, gigantic silver rings on each finger, rubber bangles stacked up to her elbows, and a red beanie pulled over her hair. Standing on the porch of her South Dallas childhood home, a modest white clapboard house where her mother still lives, she’s serving a look that’s part shamanic priestess, part artist at work. This is a Tuesday in mid-December and the area has been under a tornado watch all morning, unusual for this time of year. But now the clouds have parted, and the normal sounds—birds, traffic—of the tree-lined neighborhood are filtering in. “I grew up listening to these trucks and cars pass by,” she says, motioning toward the freeway, her tiny flip-flop-shod feet jingling as she approaches the door. “The vibration is familiar, soothing, like wind chimes.”

The door opens and out bounds the welcoming committee: an excitable snow white Malt-Tzu. “Hi, Tyrone,” she purrs, petting the puppy, named after Badu’s most enduring single from 1997, a hilarious freestyle about a deadbeat boyfriend. Badu’s mother is Kolleen, goes by Queenie. “Once you meet her, y’all are going to forget all about me,” the 51-year-old Badu says. In other words, if you want to know where Badu got her trademark irreverence, her mischievous wit, it’s best to come here and call on Queenie.

Born Erica Abi Wright, Badu was raised by a circle of women—Queenie (who’d separated from Badu’s father when Badu was a girl), and also her grandmothers Thelma Gipson and Viola Wilson, and godmother Gwen Hargrove. They were all educators and caregivers by trade who used humor to navigate life’s ups and downs. “I thought Richard Pryor was my daddy for a long time,” Badu deadpans. “It’s the only male voice I heard in the house.” The family has lived in Dallas for decades, and it was in this near-100-year-old home that the singer-songwriter picked up her ear for music: Chaka Khan, Pink Floyd, Phoebe Snow, Prince, and Rick James. All were a running soundtrack for game nights and birthday parties. “It was a little-girl factory,” Badu remembers.

Today the place is relatively quiet—her younger brother, Eevin, and younger sister, Koryan, have yet to arrive—and Queenie is holding court. “My mother was the historian, she kept every article,” Queenie tells me, referring to her mother, Thelma, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 93. “Every day she would cut out clippings and paste them into different frames.” Several of those lovingly assembled collages of Badu memorabilia hang on the rose-colored walls alongside family photographs, including pictures of Badu’s three children: Seven, 25, the son she shares with OutKast member André 3000; Puma, 18, her daughter by rapper The D.O.C.; and daughter Mars, 14, whose father is the hip-hop artist-producer Jay Electronica. There’s also a sizable portrait of Queenie herself, resplendent with her Cleopatra-style honey blond bob.

She’s recalling the surprise of Badu’s first appearance in the newspaper: a street style picture of her 14-year-old in the lifestyle section of the Dallas Morning News. Badu was an avid theater kid then, and amateur dancer, and was dressed for the photographer in pajamas rolled at the waist and a men’s suit jacket. (Badu would have her first real headline-making moment in 1994—a solo deal with Universal Records—after she opened a D’Angelo show in Fort Worth with her cousin Robert Bradford as a hip-hop duo named Erykah Free.) “I mean, if you saw her then you might have thought she found her clothes rummaging through a donation bin in the church basement,” says Queen­ie. “She dressed outrageously. And she had this high-top fade.” In Queenie you can see Badu’s meticulous approach to self-​presentation, in her black leggings and striped shirt accessorized with chunky tortoiseshell glasses and a necklace of amber and turquoise stones. “I know now that it was her style,” Queenie says. “She always was a trendsetter.”

From the moment Badu floated onto the scene with her genre-defining 1997 album Baduizm, the iconoclastic star has made personal style a radical calling card. In that era, standing tall on platform shoes with a towering headwrap, signature ankh jewelry, and a smoldering incense stick between her fingertips, she projected a powerful, mystical image of Black beauty. Even then she was an old soul who seemed cosmically aligned with the future, with a haunting, blues-inflected voice often compared to Billie Holiday’s. The sound itself, a hybrid of hip-hop, soul, jazz, and funk dubbed “neo-soul” (see also D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell) offered a countermovement to the commercial R&B of the time, one that was both soulful and socially conscious.

Longtime friend and collaborator, the DJ and producer Questlove, was spellbound by Badu at the 1996 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles. “She had on the tallest turban I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “It was like she was hiding a three-year-old standing on her head, that’s how tall her headwrap was. I was just transfixed.” As she tells it, the look was as meaningful as the music. “I remember being among an elite group of young people who were really embracing what it meant to be an African here, generationally,” Badu says. “We embraced locs and ’fros and our natural state, our fabrics and jewelry. It was a beautiful time.” Several years later, in 2008, she would help popularize the phrase “stay woke” with “Master Teacher,” a song on her fourth studio album, New Amerykah Part One, long before it was deployed by young progressives (and then co-opted derisively by conservatives). Badu talks of her enduring influence in philosophical, sometimes esoteric, terms. “I feel I’ve poked this hole in the dam. It’s this little hole and all this water is seeping through. Now all the people who have the same energy are able to experience what I experience,” she says. “It’s a rebirthing process, and I feel like I’m a midwife.”

Badu herself is in the midst of a renaissance. Like David Bowie and Grace Jones before her, the four-time Grammy-winning singer is one of those rare, rabble-rousing creatures who orbits the pop-cultural universe and meets the moment entirely on her own terms. Her imagination and joy feel especially relevant now. She’s found new ways to connect, sharing radiant backstage videos on TikTok and Instagram, where she’s a self-described “UNICORN Mutant Cobra,” and engages in lively conversation in the comments. If you’re familiar with her Twitter alias, @fatbellybella, then you’ll know she’s pretty good at giving relationship advice, too. Her musical collaborators cross genres and generations, from hip-hop (A$AP Ferg) to K-pop (RM of BTS) to new-wave R&B (Teyana Taylor).

“One thing I brag about all the time is that my sister is probably the only artist I know who easily sells out arenas despite not having put out an album in almost a decade,” says sibling Koryan, or Koko for short. “And to me this moment feels like her re-blossoming.” Koko once sang backup for Badu’s band but these days acts as her sister’s right hand. “Her left hand and right hand,” says Queen­ie, cackling. “And whatever hand that feeds her!” With a trucker hat pulled over striking waist-length platinum-blond braids, Koko carries herself like a woman who means business. Badu’s turning point, she explains, came when the pandemic brought touring to a halt. The pivot was swift and effective: the launch of Badubotron, a streaming platform hosting concerts from Badu’s home that could be viewed for the nominal fee of $1. These attracted more than a hundred thousand fans enamored of Badu’s elaborate costumes, wild performances, and otherworldly DIY sets. In one of her shows, Badu and her band appeared to perform inside huge inflatable bubbles. Badu World Market, the singer’s popular online merch store, also went live. “We just kind of came together as a family and it was like, Oh, we actually have a company right here,” says Koko, whose son, Malcolm, and daughter, Diamond, also work for brand Badu. “Everyone stepped up.”

The latest member of the family to join the team is Badu’s daughter Puma, who seems the most likely to carry on the Badu mantle. Listen to her covering her mother’s songs on TikTok with your eyes closed, and it’s almost impossible to tell their voices apart. In person she’s shy and soft spoken, dressed in a distressed oversized black-and-white sweater with spiral curls peeking out of her bonnet and framing her face. She and boyfriend Sean have been serving as Badu’s personal assistants for a little over a year, which means, among other things, ensuring Badu has the 15 to 20 trunks of clothing and accessories she needs on tour. “I don’t know how other family workplace dynamics go,” Puma says, “but it’s like a real job, and I have to buckle down and do what I need to do or else word is going to get to the CEO and I’m not going to get paid. You know what I mean?”

Badu isn’t the office-dwelling type, but for the past year and a half she has kept a creative working space on the other side of town, just a few minutes’ drive away from the lakefront ranch she’s lived in for the past 25 years (and which is currently under renovation). From the outside, the modern loft-style house is hardly the bohemian retreat I’d imagined—though Badu’s dove-gray Porsche is parked in the driveway with the license plate SHE ILL.

Inside, it’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave of tchotchkes and objets d’art, with Buddha statues lining the staircase, African masks hanging on the walls, and Indian marigold garlands strung in the windows. Badu greets me at the door in a dramatic silk Libertine caftan printed with amusing pictures of monkeys in space suits and leads me past her recording studio to the living area, where two larger-than-life Malian brass busts have glowing sticks of incense sprouting from their heads. The fireplace casts shadows on vintage furniture, including a throne-like peacock love seat and a retro-​futurist egg pod chair. In the corner, an upright piano is buttressed by a stack of vintage Louis Vuitton trunks. “Alexa, play wind chimes,” says Badu, setting the mood.

I can’t help but ask if Badu keeps any of her legendary wardrobe here—and this prompts a tour. We begin in the kitchen with a zippered black Junya Watanabe Commes des Garçons biker jacket casually draped over a barstool with the tags still on. “I can’t decide whether to keep it or not,” she says, smiling coyly, even though the conceptual curved shoulder looks as easy as a slouchy cardigan on her—it’s a no-brainer. I’m reminded of how the fashion world seems to be catching up to Badu: Her counterintuitive approach to layering amid extreme proportions, her magpie eye for vintage, and the impulse to upcycle or customize just about everything she wears feels in step with our current moment. “The first thing you always see is her, and then it’s like, Oh, my God, that’s what she has on!” says her friend Thom Browne who has dressed her for several occasions, including the Met Gala in 2021. “It’s just that aura of true individuality, true greatness, and superstardom.”

It was only last September that Badu took to the global Fashion Week circuit in a real way. At Vogue World in New York, she made her runway debut in a plaid ERL suit layered over a Bode tunic, her neck dripping in her own eclectic jewelry. At the Tom Ford show a couple of nights later, she accessorized a pair of his glitzy rhinestone Aladdin pants with a faux-fur headdress. Then, after a pit stop in London for Burberry, and in Milan for Bottega Veneta, she pulled out a dazzling array of outfits for Thom Browne, Rick Owens, and Off-White in Paris. She ended her circuit at Valentino, where she reinvented the Italian brand’s popular Barbie pink, deftly pulling a hoodie up from under her marabou-feathered coat and piling on a gigantic hat.

To hear her tell it, Badu only really came to understand the world of fashion late in her career. “I didn’t know all the houses and names of designers until I was in my 30s or 40s,” she says. “What I had was a good understanding of look and shape, the way I did with paper dolls when I was a child.” She rarely works with a stylist, does her own hair and makeup on the road, and still loves the thrill of the hunt when trawling local vintage stores. “For me, it’s about seeing things coming together, like making a cake from beginning to end,” she says.

Marni’s creative director Francesco Risso found himself mesmerized by her process as he put the finishing touches on the capsule collection made in partnership with the singer. “I’ve worked with celebrities in the past, and there are times that you struggle with them because it’s so much about the body, or how it looks in a picture. With Erykah, it’s a completely new world,” says Risso, recalling the moment he found her in a hotel room in London experimenting with the first samples. “I was blown away seeing her playing with clothes, just jumbling everything up. It’s just so innate. With her, it’s not just about making music. She’s iconic because what comes with her is a lifestyle, it’s a complete world.”

It all began when Risso, who’d long admired Badu from afar, invited the singer to be his date at the Met Gala last year. The outfit he made for her was a glorious Technicolor dreamcoat, a throwback to a patchwork dress that Badu designed herself and wore to the Grammys in 1999. The updated version was comprised of hundreds of swatches of fabrics from the Marni archives, and proved to be the perfect springboard for their collaboration.

Settled into a pile of floor cushions in her meditation room and flicking through a look book on her iPad, Badu describes the Marni collection as something of an audiovisual experience, what she calls “mystical instrumental wear.” She zooms in on a pair of gold leather boots to better show me the little gold bells that are studded on from ankle to knee. On a matching gold leather handbag, the same hardware has a tambourine effect. Even the party dresses in the collection come embellished with jumbo sequins that rustle while you walk. “A lot of this stuff has stories,” says Badu. “The high hats, of course, the towering thoughts.” She pauses on a particularly arresting outfit on the screen: a belted patchwork leather trench worn with a matching knit topper that was inspired by one she was made to wear for an educational YouTube skit before she was famous. “The funny thing is I embraced the hat and made it into something wonderful, because it’s something I once dreaded.”

Badu’s 2023 to-do list is seemingly endless and written in all caps on a board that hangs in the kitchen, lest she forgets—this month, for example, she’s dropping a collection of smoking accessories and her own blend of marijuana. Tonight, her thoughts are preoccupied with creative labor of a different kind: R&B singer Summer Walker is pregnant with twins, due any day now, and Badu will serve as the 26-year-old’s doula. “I’m kind of antsy, walking around making sure I have all my things,” she says, pacing between the sink and the stove. This marks her first multiple birth and also the first time that Puma will assist her in this role. “Puma is a very giving person,” she says, pausing to gather her thoughts. “I really like the lady she’s becoming.”

When I ask how many babies Badu has helped bring into the world, she shrugs: At this point, she’s lost count. It’s been over 20 years since the singer, who is also a certified Reiki master, was first inspired to become a doula after assisting on the labor of a close friend. Now each year she makes time for at least one or two expectant moms, some of whom are friends, others women she meets in passing. “It’s a passion thing for her, she’s really invested,” says Teyana Taylor, who asked Badu to be her doula after the pair worked on music together in 2020. It was Badu who noticed that Taylor’s now two-year-old daughter, Rue, was showing signs of distress a few days after she was born; Rue was subsequently rushed to the hospital and kept under surveillance for a week. “Erykah just felt it,” says Taylor. “She just knew.”

Motherhood might be the thing that comes most naturally to Badu. As a young girl she dreamed of having seven children—and in fact, Badu was a mother almost from the moment she was famous. She became pregnant with her first child about a month after Baduizm was released, and gave birth to her second the same day her sophomore album, Mama’s Gun, dropped. “I had to breastfeed the whole time,” says Badu, who would also homeschool her children from the back of a tour bus. She jokes that while her male musician friends were busy scoping the audience for groupies, she was looking out for babysitters.

That irrepressible spirit didn’t go unnoticed by her peers. “Now we take it for granted because we see so many female entertainers with children. Before, it was the kiss of death for your career,” says her friend Maxwell, who came onto the neo-soul scene a year prior to Badu. “She actually proved that you can really thrive, that being a mother didn’t have to hold you back.” Still, as a woman with three children to three different fathers, who has never been married, Badu has faced her fair share of scrutiny and gossip. In the early aughts, hip-hop blogs were full of snarky commentary about her so-called mystical power over men. (There is a YouTube tutorial called “How to Erykah Badu a Man.”) “It was like we were Mormons or something, like all the daddies were living at the house in the same period!” she remembers, throwing her hands up. The real story is that Badu has an amicable relationship with all three of her children’s fathers—she has been a doula for Puma’s father, The D.O.C., and his now wife twice. They’re all highly committed and involved co-parents, a happy blended family.

On the topic of her current relationship status, Badu plays coy. When I ask her if she has a romantic partner, she simply says, “I can’t say.” (Most recently, she has been linked to a Dallas-based artist who goes by the name of JaRon The Secret.) At this point in her life, she’s more prepared to play agony aunt than she is to bear her soul. When I press her on the point, she pulls up a note she sent to her sister, Koko, shortly before officiating her wedding on a beach in Belize last fall. If I want to know her thoughts on what a successful relationship should look like, it’s all here, she tells me: acceptance, patience, honesty, joyful togetherness. Read aloud with her slow, deliberate cadence, the message comes across like an incantation: “We shall have a long, long life as one or two. One faith, one practice as one or two. Transparency. Hand holding. A whole lot of laughs. Confidence through the fears. Years and years and years…Letting fruitless things go and fruit will grow. And a nice-sized joint. Easy breaths.”

A couple of days later, as I’m on my way to the airport, I receive a text message from Badu: a collection of photos that includes images Queenie took on my visit, plus a couple of goofy selfies of the singer with her kids. This is Badu at her most playful, the doting mother, auntie, and loyal sister who isn’t afraid to act silly for a picture. If she wasn’t so exquisitely dressed, with bells on her feet, you might not recognize her as a star.

I text her back: I’ve heard Summer Walker is about to go into labor—how’s it going? She responds with a smiley face emoji. Pictures of Badu and her daughter Puma and the heavily pregnant Walker are all over In­­stagram. I wonder aloud how Puma’s doing on her first assignment as a doula’s assistant. But really I needn’t worry. If she’s anything like her mother, she’s bound to be a natural. 

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