DALLAS DIVA: Homegrown soul siren Erykah Badu on how AIDS and closeted sexuality affects Big D’s black community
By DANIEL KUSNER
The same way Detroit claims Diana Ross and Madonna as hometown heroines, Dallasites can proudly declare Erykah Badu (a.k.a. Erykah Wright) as their own supreme homegirl. Raised on the South Side and a graduate of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Badu is a haunting R&B chanteuse who’s forever being compared to Billie Holiday and constantly appearing in fashion magazines for pulling off some funky-ass headgear.
The 30-year-old Grammy winner and Cider House Rules star is lending her gorgeous voice and transcendent stage presence to benefit AIDS Arms LifeWalk on Aug. 27. Badu is also leading off the 5K walk, which will be held downtown on Oct. 5.
“Oh, I’ll have on my little tennis shoes and everything,” she giggles after also telling me that she’s pigeon-toed.
But community work is nothing new for this mystical ebony goddess.
“When I was 14, I was a junior counselor at the YMCA-Park South. And that’s where I found out that I had a gift for teaching,” she says without sounding like a raving egomaniac. “I love to counsel and help. And I don’t always say the right things, but I try to say the real thing.”
When it comes to AIDS, Badu doesn’t pretend to be clairvoyant or omnipotent. But it’s a heavy issue that affects her viscerally.
“I was a young girl when I watched my uncle deteriorate and die of AIDS in the ’80s. There were so many myths back then — how it spread throughout the world. When I visited Africa this past year, I just saw so many people dying from the disease. Children’s parents who died and now they’re orphans. And it’s not only in Africa but all over the U.S. And since I’ve been working with AIDS Arms, I’ve learned that Dallas has over 12,000 new cases a year,” she says.
With this alarming news, it’s refreshing to hear Badu discuss links between closeted sexuality and AIDS, instead of sweeping the still-controversial topic under the floor.
“I’m surprised at how many closeted gay or bisexual men there are in Dallas. I think that’s one way AIDS is being spread. By being secretive and not by being up-front with sexuality — for both men and women,” she says. “Then in the black community, a lot of brothers go to prison, and they do what they have to do to survive. And they come out, and the women are waiting for them, and they carry on with their lives. That’s another way [AIDS is spread]. There are just so many ways, and it’s becoming such a prevalent disease that people are becoming used to it. And that’s not a good thing.”
Known for her empowering lyrics steeped in Egyptian philosophy, Badu doesn’t see any conflicts between sexuality and spirituality.
“I have many gay friends and many people who are honest about their sexuality. Sometimes people venture off and do different things, but they shouldn’t fear judgment. To me, it’s not that kind of a world. It’s about being happy and about coming as you are. And that’s what the Bible says. It says come as you are,” she says.
But no one wants to trip over a soapbox when hearing Badu perform. For her, Dallas gigs are always special. But she’s kinda of tight-lipped about upcoming movies or even describing the flavor of her new music.
“I read scripts all the time. I just happened upon “Cider House Rules.” I have to find what’s right for me because I love performing, but I also want to have some kind of meaning for the things that I do. If I find one that helps me do both of those things, then I’ll jump on it,” she says.
This week, Badu is in New York shooting a video for the song “Love of My Life,” a track from “Brown Sugar,” a new film about hip-hop and romance starring Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan.
“I’ve written over 25 new songs,” she says. “But [my albums] just kind of happen. I think critics describe it better than I do. They give their opinions of what it is, and that’s what it becomes.”
“Just come out to the show,” she pleads. “I’ll start putting energy out there. So just come get it. Feel good. Because it’s not going to be the same as it was last time. And if you came the night after that, it won’t be the same as it was the night before. When I perform, it’s always different.”
MOTHER EARTH: Erykah Badu performs a benefit concert for AIDS Arms LifeWalk on Tuesday at the Gypsy Tea Room.