Does Erykah Badu have a center? A core from which all the things she means to us--the lifestyle she promotes, her modes, manners, and themes--emanates? Or is she just an onion--a cluster of codes and layers with nothingness at the center? I'll get to that question at the end of this article, but first I want to determine what it is we mean when we say "Erykah Badu."
Badu's primary attribute is projecting the image of the natural black woman. In her songs, like "Cleva," from her excellent third CD, Mama's Gun (2000), she speaks about not wearing makeup or expensive clothes, letting her kinky hair do its own thing, and having her "ninny's sag down lo," like those wooden fertility statues made by West African mystics. Indeed, if you were to plant some of this natural Badu in your garden--in the manner that super dub producer Lee "Scratch" Perry used to plant tapes and records in the garden in front of his famous Black Ark studio--the next day you'd expect to find a full-grown baobab tree with a thousand paradisiacal birds flying and singing through its Afro-like branches.
This is what her music, videos, and appearances at music award events communicate to us. But what are these messages that, as a collection, come to form and mean this primary code of "natural black woman"? We must first begin with her name. Erykah Badu's real name is Erica Wright, which she now describes as her slave name. Her revised first name, Erykah, recalls, at least in terms of appearance, ancient Egypt, with its pyramids and life along the river Nile. In the word "Erykah" we arrive at the first Afrocentric code in a series that makes up a significant part of Badu's lyrics and persona.
Her second revised name, Badu, is more sub-Saharan than Egyptian. That is to say, it has a Bantu ring to it, like the word "imba" ("house" in Shona--a Bantu language). According to legend, "badu" was a sound young Erica Wright liked to make while scatting. This is something she still does to this day--for example on Funkmaster Flex's The Mix Tape, Volume Three, Badu scats "badu, badu, badu-dada" over Mobb Deep's "Hell on Earth" instrumental.
Hoping it meant something more than a sound effect, I asked my father, who is a bit of a scholar when it comes to Bantu languages, if "badu" was an actual African word. After careful consideration he failed to determine its meaning. (He did, however, find an approximation of "badu," being "badura," which means "separate.")
Though it means nothing specifically, it does mean something in general: sub-Saharan Africa. And what sub-Saharan Africa means is "authentic black." "Badu" is the emptying out of all that is Euro and the filling up of all that is Afro.
These primary Afri-can codes in her name are matched with or continued by essential codes of Southerness (as exampled by her remake of The Color Purple on the video to "On and On"), soulfulness (which was inspired by soul singers and musicians, like Curtis Mayfield), hiphop coolness (she was discovered and produced by Kedar Massenburg, who at the time managed D'Angelo, the king of hiphop cool), and jazz hipness (which has its roots in the voluptuous woman of all women Billie Holiday, whose phrasing Badu shamelessly replicates--then again, Holiday shamelessly imitated Louis Armstrong's phrasing).
These are the codes that make up Erykah Badu, but is there a center to all of this? A thing within her that generates the life of this pop form that we, the adoring consumers, recognize as Erykah Badu? Of course there isn't! You will never find a true Badu. If you remove her African head wrap, blow away the smoke from the incense she burns during her performances, and arrive, finally, at her naked body, even that (naked Badu) would constitute yet another code for "natural black woman." And what more do we want from an R&B star than that? A vacuum which issues Afro codes that go on and on and on and on and on.