Interview: Erykah Badu On Maintaining The Integrity Of R&B With The Soul Train Music Awards
The legendary entertainer helps bridge the gap between yesterday and today's soul artists.
In any form, R&B brings an energy like no other. With little institutions honoring the genre's many sounds, The Soul Train Music Awards has kept a unique tradition strong for 30 years.
Since the late Don Cornelius' birthed the series in 1971, the award show followed in 1987, giving the world distinct insight into the village of soul. Hosts have included the late Luther Vandross, Monica and Erykah Badu; all students-turned-leaders of the genre.
In recent years, Badu has brought her own flavor to the show by making it digestible and enjoyable for the social media generation. For Sunday's (Nov. 26) ceremony, the singer continued to bring the laughs with her Irma Irvin character, futuristic outfit changes and digs at No. 45. But the most important moment was her first. "This is for Kap," the singer said after taking a knee.
It's no surprise the moment took over the digital space. It reminded many of the deep connection soul music has to the Civil Rights Movement. The show also gave audience artist combinations never imagined like Daniel Ceasar, Ledisi and Kirk Franklin's rendition of "Wake Up Everybody," and Jessie J, Ro James and Luke James' ode to Legend Award winner, Toni Braxton.
VIBE chatted with Badu before the big show where she shared the importance of The Soul Train Music Awards, R&B's evolution and more.
You bring a lot of hilarity to the Soul Train Awards. What should fans expect?
Erykah Badu: What's really cool is sitting in the writers' room writing these things, and conceptualizing them. Seeing them back is exuberating for me. It gives me so much joy and energy to see back what we've done and that it turns out funny.
Also, the Soul Cypher. I'm always excited about that because it's something that I created. It came from seeing the Hip Hop Cyphers. I was like, ‘Who got the vocalists?’ I'm happy about the four artists (Fantasia, Bilal, Faith Evans, Mali Music) who are going to be a part of the Soul Cypher and like you said, the little in between vignettes that I've created keep the show funny.
Were there some that you weren't able to do that you can share?
You know what, there's a lot I'm not able to do. I mean, I have become the Queen of ‘CUT!’
I saw you perform at Soulquarius earlier this year and it was so funny to hear the jokes in between songs. Do you look at yourself as a comedienne sometimes?
I know comedy is my coping mechanism. I wouldn't look at myself as a comedienne, because comedians take that title really serious. I started out in comedy with a gig as Steve Harvey's personal assistant because I gravitated towards comedy. I’m a Richard Pryor raised child. Everything funny has to be measured by Pryor. If it's not that kind of funny, it ain't funny to me.
I would think I have pretty good comedic timing and all those kind of things. But, it's a lot of work to be on stage here and be a comedian. It's a little different from standing in front of an audience singing. So, you have to be really natural and honest, you know. I'm honing my craft.
Now that you’ve been hosting the Soul Train Music Awards consistently, have you learned anything about the dynamics of awards shows?
Soul Train is tough because you got BET Awards, you have the Hip Hop Awards, Black Girls Rock, etc. I really want to brand it as something that honors the originators of this thing, or this town that we call soul music because we saw the first and physical form on Soul Train. There was no video during that time. So being a little girl singing and seeing those performances was life changing since you weren’t able to go to those concerts. I want to make sure that Soul Train maintains the integrity of that kind of music.
Do you think that traditional R&B artists can exist between the genre’s current evolution?
Well, music is the people. How the people evolve, determines how the music evolves. Music is not a stand-alone thing, it just requires us. I mean, it's our politics and our therapy. Music is the fifth element, we need it. There is always a group of people who can relate to it.
But, for me, as an artist, I just evolve with the time. Whatever is happening is what is happening for all of us. Not just for the youth, it's also happening for me. I've always had my pulse on the times. I have a 19-year-old son who makes sure that he's very active in my music. I have daughters who are listening to pop. I feel like my mothers and my grandmothers who listen to Nat King Cole, and my mother who was a 70's and 80's advocate. I mean, 90% of my audience was born in the '90s. I am to them was Chaka Khan was to me.
It doesn't look exactly the same. Value change. It's always necessary.
Let’s switch gears a bit. You had the chance to curate the upcoming Fela Kuti collection. What were some songs you fell in love with while doing that?
Man, so many. I had 20 albums to choose from. It was difficult choosing seven albums out of those 20 because none of them had ever gone to wax. It took a while because you know how Fela's music is, you’d know each song is about 20 - 30 minutes of trance music. I had to listen to all of those albums, a few of them I'd never heard before. I had to chose the ones that were sonically in this rhythm that I was in.
Coffin for Head of State was the first album I chose because it was the one I was most familiar with. And from there, it kind of set the pace for everything else. Now, that seems hard to do. But, the hardest part for the whole project was sliding liner notes for each album.
Fela was a musical activist. So, he played the saxophone as his instrument of choice, but, he also played the keys. Along with him was Tony Allen this drummer who man, he's just an amazing percussionist. He's like a human metronome. And the beats are just so cool. The drums are also included in all of the albums. It's just like trance music. I mean, with the organ. And then the wives, who were the background singers.
I try to put all of that together, with travel in every album. I think I accomplished it. And writing the liner notes is tough because I didn't know a lot about the eras or the situations in each album. So, I had to relate it to something in my life, so I took that approach because Fela Kuti was talking about Europeans and the post-colonial era, he was talking about the government having really dirty, dirty people inside of it. And who they were, and how they acted. As if they love the people, or really didn't.
He was also talking about how the government mass murdered a whole village, and how his mother was one of the people. How they carried the coffin and put it on the steps of the head of state. He used his platform to discuss these political issues in the traditional Pink Floyd, and the traditional Joni Mitchell, the traditional Bob Marley, and the traditional Marvin Gaye. And the tradition of Mos Def, Common, etc. It's just an amazing thing to listen to once I get to dig down in it.
If you were given the opportunity to do this again for another artist, who would it be?
They will probably be ... take me back to that one.
With Baduizm recently celebrating its 20th anniversary, do you ever find yourself listening to the music and learning anything new from it?
When I put out New America Part 1, Fourth World War in 2008, I see a lot of what that I recorded now. I put out an album that was really heavily influenced by people all over the world standing up against the occupation. [Occupation] is when the government comes in and takes land from you, without your permission, and people were protesting. The album really relates to what's happening right now, in a lot of different ways.
I marvel at artists who are able to tap into what's coming. It’s just an amazing thing that we are able to do sometimes. Me as the fifth element, you know, if we're really changing and we can really predict what's going to happen because we are the weathermen musicians.
Did you think of an artist that you weatherman for?
I would want to curate a Richard Pryor album.
Yeah, to bring y'all all the most unique, funny, and best political, social, relationship antics and skits that he's done. To demonstrate how often of an artist and human, and activist, and realist he is. Purest he is. What a complete human being he is.
You can rewatch the 30th Annual Soul Train Music Awards here.