Erykah Badu’s Complicated Relationship With ‘Wokeness’

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Badu. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for FYF

February will mark the ten-year anniversary of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One. A prescient, even prophetic, album, its single largest contribution to our political vocabulary comes on the song “Master Teacher,” which includes as part of its hook the mantra “I stay woke.” The refrain revitalized the pro-black meaning of the word woke — a usage introduced in the mid-20th century — for a new generation. It was claimed by Black Lives Matter activists whose prowess at organizing online sent it soaring around social media. It was then picked up, shorn of the verb, and transformed into a term of approval, most frequently used by young people interested in acknowledging and even remedying various forms of structural inequality. Among that cohort, wokeness has become something to strive for and to perform. Acknowledging your privilege in the workplace as a white person or a cis male, for example, is a way to demonstrate that you’re woke, that you get it.

But Badu puzzled many people last week by seeming not to get it. In an interview with this magazine, she spoke sympathetically about Adolf Hitler, Bill Cosby, and one of her heroes, Louis Farrakhan. The remarks caused an uproar, and though some were willing to grant her the benefit of the doubt, others dismissed Badu immediately as problematic (which is, to some degree, the opposite of woke). That the artist who pushed woke back into circulation could ignore and even violate the codes of conduct that have emerged around the term speaks to Badu’s iconoclasm: Though she’s long been a charismatic role model, she’s too unpredictable to be a comfortable spokesperson for any set of beliefs.

Badu has never expressed a lasting desire to disappear into, or even nurture, the Black Lives Matter movement. Her relative disinterest is part of her consistent pattern of inconsistency (something she might attribute to her slippery astrological sign, the dual-natured Pisces). One obvious example: Though the singer has consistently expressed a distaste for politics, the first New Amerykah is an explicitly political album. There’s even a stump speech. A song called “Twinkle,” which directly precedes “Master Teacher,” is nearly seven minutes long, and its coda is given over to a monologue lifted and adapted from the 1976 movie Network. It’s Howard Beale’s “mad as hell” speech. Badu updates it slightly, but the essence is unchanged. The rant ends with an appeal to emotion:

“I want you to get angry! I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to write to your senator because I won’t know what to tell you to tell him. I don’t know what to do about the recession and the inflation and the crime in the street. All I know is, that you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, damn it! My life has value!’”

The inclusion of that fiery speech links Badu to a type of political figure we’ve become familiar with here in the good old United States, the kind we tend to refer to as populists. Beale’s speech is often posited as a kind of Ur-populist diatribe, generalized enough that, with a couple of tweaks, it could speak to anyone frustrated with the status quo. During the 2016 election, Beale was evoked over and over in reference to both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, despite their obvious differences.

With her charisma, her emotional appeals for change, and her cutting sense of humor (she’s often referred to as “enigmatic” or “mysterious,” descriptors that when applied to women often just mean “funny”), Badu is using the vocabulary of populism throughout New Amerykah Part One. Her dismissal of politics — “I don’t believe in any of that shit,” she told Vinson Cunningham in an interview for the Fader — only increases the sense that she’s authentic. And, after shitting on other leaders, she’s prone to positioning herself as one. On the song “Me,” Badu disavows authority figures; on the track that immediately follows, “My People.” she seizes the pulpit, calling her brothers and sisters to arms in the fight against inequality. The album’s popularity ensured that these messages were widely heard. It was Badu’s most influential album since her 1997 debut Baduizm, and it introduced her to a new generation as a fiery political role model.

The dogmas of political movements can outrun the figures who fire the starting gun, particularly when those figures have a tendency to take sharp turns. In his Fader profile, Cunningham noted Badu’s tendency to take what he characterized as “surprisingly conservative” positions. Those included her focus on the ills of black-on-black crime (a Fox News obsession) and her calls for women to dress more modestly. “That she has taken up the tools of current-day virality to spread, and defend, unpopular stances is a paradox that strangely befits her,” Cunningham wrote. “Art, for Badu, begins with the individual voice, however heterodox.”

It’s her insistence on the centrality of the individual that puts Badu at odds with the doctrine of wokeness, an essentially collectivist system of beliefs that asks people to recognize how structural factors inform discrimination. One of the most important documents of contemporary wokeness has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning magazine story “The Case for Reparations,” which used the history of housing discrimination in Chicago as a gateway to explore how governments at the local, state, and federal levels worked to disenfranchise black people long after emancipation.

That essay and others like it helped illuminate an old idea for people who had never considered racism from a historical perspective, who grew up believing in an unending march toward progress, an arc of history that bent inevitably toward justice without them necessarily having to do anything. Coates and other writers and thinkers including Michelle Alexander and Jamelle Bouie, helped awaken young white progressives specifically to the fact that they were participating in a racist system, even if they bore no ill will toward people of color. Their individual views were beside the point.  Structural bigotry was, of course, old news to many, many people. But for others, it was a revelatory, even revolutionary, idea, one that has helped seed two of the most important social movements in 21st-century American life, movements whose very names gesture at the collectivism that informs them: Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

The zeal driving collectivist movements like these is familiar to historians (and to Badu, who last week name-dropped the sociologist Irving Janis when explaining her fear of any kind of groupthink). In a review of a new book by Yuri Slezkine about the Russian Revolution, the historian Benjamin Nathans points out that revolutionary political movements are often interpreted in explicitly religious terms. Theology becomes a kind of Rosetta stone that allows us to understand the shared tendencies of all revolutionaries.

The Russian revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, were avowed atheists. And yet, it is easy for Nathans to draw links between their behavior and Christian practices. Their self-criticism is compared to confession, their socialism to a crusade, and the cult of Lenin to the veneration of saints.

The analogies apply just as well to the rituals and goals of wokeness. The word itself suggests a religious awakening, a conversion from ignorance to wisdom. Acknowledging one’s privilege comes to sound like confession. The struggle for justice for black people killed by the police, the struggle to drive out the abusive men whose actions drove their female colleagues out of the workplace, these look like righteous crusades. The adoration of thinkers like Coates (something about which he has expressed profound discomfort) resembles a kind of hagiography. And finally, the disapproval expressed toward those who have not given themselves over to the doctrine, who have not yet found the light, is reminiscent of condemnation, or, at its most severe, excommunication. These rites will always discomfit individuals who worry about losing their distinct selves, even to groups whose missions they agree with.

It’s unclear what role traditional religion plays for American progressives at this point, but it’s safe to say that religious leaders no longer carry the weight they once did. We’ve outsourced their duties to celebrities like Erykah Badu, who has offered herself up as a spiritual guide. But we’re also less willing to be led, period. Though Badu is unlikely to be excommunicated, her comments will lead many people to take her less seriously from now on. Famous revolutionaries either become martyrs (Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc) or see their legacies develop into something more complicated (Lenin, Castro). That’s an indication of how difficult it is to maintain a revolutionary stance, an essentially public posture. We hunger for celebrities to reveal themselves, asking for a window into their private selves. But if what we see when we look in meets with our disapproval, we shun them. Erykah Badu was equally open about her views in the ’90s; not much about her has changed. But we’re in one of history’s plastic hours, and those who refuse to pick a side are often accused of standing on the sidelines, or, worse, joining the other team by default.

New Amerykah Part 2 begins with a parable about a wall. But it’s not a populist polemic. The wall that Badu envisions herself overcoming has been erected by a single person. The album continues in this vein: private, personal. The violent red and black of Part 1’s cover is given over to a dreamy purple, and the songs are about love, longing, desire, and peace. Badu described the record to The New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh as “‘creative, artistic, flowing, watery, feminine.’ In other words, it was a counterpart to her protest album, and possibly also a remedy for it,” Sanneh writes. There’s that Pisces again.

Yuri Slezkine, the author of that book about the Bolsheviks, argues that the Russian Revolution ultimately failed because the Soviets were unable to devise a way to make their private lives as radical as their public posturing. “No one really knew what a communist family should be, or how to transform relations between parents and children, or how to harness erotic attachments to the requirements of revolution,” Nathans says, describing the historian’s argument. “The Soviet state went to great lengths to inculcate revolutionary values in schools and workplaces, but not at home. It never devised resonant communist rituals to mark birth, marriage, and death.”

Being woke is inherently public, inherently social. Amanda Hess compared it to a kind of merit badge in an exploration of the word for the New York Times, writing, “It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.” But we can use the interpretive keys provided by Nathans’ historians to understand the limitations of such performances, and understanding those limits should increase our tolerance for figures like Badu. We cannot ask our iconoclasts to be iconoclastic only when convenient for us.

By the way, if Badu is a populist, she makes it clear who her people are beyond any doubt in the album’s first proper song, “The Healer.” In its opening moments, she rattles off a list of deities, concluding it with “hip-hop.” “It’s bigger than religion,” she sings. “It’s bigger than the government.” By this, she doesn’t mean the genre of music, but hip-hop as the cultural voice of African-Americans. She’s drawing on an old idea, one that is explicated on her friend Yasiin Bey’s first album as Mos Def, Black on Both Sides. Joking about how people are always asking him where hip-hop is going as if it’s some unknowable giant living in the hillside, he explains on “Fear Not of Man” that “we are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody, we are hip-hop. So hip-hop is going where we’re going.”
Erykah Badu’s Complicated Relationship With ‘Wokeness’