Erykah Badu’s freedom songs

March 14, 2008

IT'S BEEN four and a half years since Erykah Badu released her critically acclaimed Worldwide Underground EP. Now, with New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), it seems the Dallas-born soul singer is making up for lost time.

4th World War is the first of three full-length albums the artist plans to release this year. The news couldn't come a moment too soon. At a time when female R&B is dominated by artists like Beyonce and Rihanna, whose music seems to proudly tout the model of "sex-appeal-before-substance," Badu's music has always been intelligent, diverse, deep and shown an uncompromising willingness to speak truth to power.

All of these are characteristics that seem to come at a premium in modern music, and over the years they have earned Badu a loyal fan base. But perhaps what fans have missed the most during Badu's absence has been the musical legacy she represents.

The video for her playfully groove-based single "Honey," leaked onto the Internet this past November, highlights this legacy. In it, Badu holds up iconic albums from Diana Ross, Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire, De La Soul and others. In each case, the cover-art has been altered to feature Badu's face singing the lyrics of the song.

In other words, Badu consciously sees herself as building on the best traditions in African American music. With the help of such producers as Madlib and 9th Wonder, 4th World War doesn't just integrate these traditions, but does so extremely well. Soul, R&B, funk, the beats of hip-hop and rap, all are woven together into an often mind-bending eclecticism.

Furthermore, Badu has culled each genre's latent tendency of rebellion and outspokenness. As a result, 4th World War is easily Badu's most political album to date. The opening track "Amerykahn Promise" kicks off with a funky bass-and-guitar line plucked straight from the '70s and used as background for the sideshow that is Amerykah, a humorously backward country of big promises and little pay-out. The song is blatantly tongue-in-cheek, featuring a deep-voiced authority figure demanding that folks "respect their country."

While "Amerykahn Promise" plays with up-tempo humor, most of the album shows off a thoroughly serious and contemplative side. "My People" features a slow-yet-confident beat accompanied by confidently righteous lyrics that are almost gospel-like in their repetition and use of call and response: "When they start throwin' fire (My people, hold on)/Chant chant chant you down now (My people, hold on)/Oh you got to hold on and on (My people, hold on)."

To be sure, Erykah Badu has always made clear her opposition to inequality and injustice. This hasn't exactly made her popular in a music industry that keeps the politically conscious at arms' length. Music journalists poked fun at the head wrap she wore in her early career; some have harped on about her "inflated ego" and her "arrogance."

Thankfully, none of this has fazed her desire to speak out. During a concert in Tel Aviv, Israel this past January, Badu made a brave statement by hanging a specially made banner onstage featuring the word "peace" in both Arabic and Hebrew. Not stopping there, she spoke out against the Iraq war, and declared her affinity for Palestinian hip-hop over its Israeli counterpart. "[Palestinians] use [hip-hop] as a form of liberation, as a form of pre-resistance, as a form of therapy."

Most controversial in the run-up to the concert was her support for Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, who she pays tribute to in her song "Me." When Tel Aviv journalists confronted her about Farrakhan's history of anti-Semitism, she simply stated "he's not anti-Semitic, he loves all people."

Indeed, 4th World War was released on February 26th, the Nation of Islam (NOI) holiday of Savior's Day--though it should be pointed out that the 26th is also Badu's birthday. Badu is not an NOI member, and has insisted that her music is her religion. However, in a country riven with open racism, she clearly identifies with anyone who puts themselves in opposition. This is what motivated her to give her time to the Millions More Movement in the fall of 2005.

For all the controversy, though, Badu clearly stands on her own two feet when railing against society's many injustices. This is most obvious on "Soldier," the pinnacle song on 4th World War. The song is a pulsing, flowing groove accented by a gentle flute track. In it, Badu's soulful voice expresses both sympathy and solidarity with those affected by and fighting oppression:

"To my folks in Iraqi fields/This ain't no time to kill.../To my folks on the picket line/Don't stop till you change they mind/I got love for my folks/Baptized when the levy broke/We gone keep marchin' on/'Til we hear that freedom song..."

Though it would be easy to see this as simple platforming, 4th World War goes much deeper. The best points on this album are when the politics and the music become one and the same. When Badu uses her musical prowess to deliver a much-needed message, both become more powerful and poignant.

Badu has already proven herself a fiercely relevant artist. If the second two parts of New Amerykah are as good as the first, then she may prove to be one of the most important artists of 2008, and the musical tradition she stands in can only be strengthened.

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