The Last Word: Erykah Badu

The singer on learning from her grandmothers (and Pink Floyd), and why her midlife crisis was a party

Who are your heroes?
My grandmothers, Thelma Gipson and Viola Wilson. They're both 90. They keep me grounded. Thelma was a principal's assistant at an elementary school. She made sure my siblings and I were properly fed, even when she was really tired. Viola worked for Rockwell International, which built the space shuttles. She and I work in the yard, paint, continuously redecorate. She bought me my first piano and made sure that if I was singing about something, it was something I knew about.

What's the best advice you've ever gotten?
Thelma would say, "Don't call him. Let him call you." That set the stakes for everything in life. Don't be desperate.
 Set things in motion and then watch them happen. Let them grow.

What music moves you the most?
Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Pink Floyd. The Dark Side of the Moon is one song all the way through. I love the production of it, the composition of it, how the drums were mixed, the time-signature changes, the vocals in "The Great Gig in the Sky." Everything about it is perfect.

Have you ever tried playing it while watching The Wizard of Oz on mute?
Of course I have. It's crazy.

You have daughters ages eight and 13. What music do they listen to?
They listen to pop music. They like Rihanna and Selena Gomez. [Talks to younger daughter Mars] Oh, I'm sorry. She says she hates Selena Gomez. She likes Ed Sheeran. Demi Lovato. Lil Uzi Vert.

Are you familiar with those artists?
Absolutely. I'm driving in the car pool listening to it. I like what's happening with music. Right now my favorite thing to listen to is the Lil Uzi Vert and Pharrell song, "Neon Guts." I listen to this band from Toronto called BadBadNotGood. When I go to a Young Thug or Uzi Vert or Ugly God show, what I'm seeing is a generation with something to communicate. It sounds like mumbling to you, but it sounds like vibration to me.

You went through a wild-child period when you hit 40. Why then?
My midlife crisis was a party. I was still doing concerts and making albums and raising my children, but I took that head wrap off. Along with the changing hormones and everything changing in the air politically and socially, I had to loosen my grip. 

What was the craziest thing you did during that time?
Shit, man. I cannot tell you that, but it was definitely on my tour bus. "This is drunk? OK. This is high? OK. This is staying out all night? OK." I just naturally adapted. I never partied as a young girl; I was always performing or studying or doing something "responsible." So this was fun, real fun.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid?
Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. It was a collection of diary entries from a girl named Margaret. It taught me about talking about your feelings and the importance of journaling. Writing things down is powerful. I have about 70 to 80 journals at this point.

Are you pessimistic or optimistic about our era?
Always optimistic. I see what's happening as a rebirthing process, and labor is hard. You don't know what's going to happen. You have to wait until you are dilated to 10 before you can give birth. We at about a five right now.

What's your coping mechanism?
No matter how noisy it is, I try to connect to the stillness underneath every single thing. Searching for stillness gives me discipline, patience and immense compassion for people. I walk a lot, box, do tae kwon do, hot yoga. I do breathing exercises in the sauna. I jump on a trampoline with my eight-year-old, I go to dance class with my 13-year-old. Me and my son lift weights. I keep healthy people around me. 

What's the most important rule you live by?
Follow my intuition. It won't give me what I want. It'll give me what I need.


You once said you'd like to direct an in-flight video. Is that still a dream?
I don't want to think about what I got to do when the motherfucker crashes. My video would be more realistic: "None of this shit is going to help, but if you see those masks drop, start praying and getting right with the Lord." I would want it to be funny. At the end, I would say, "Just think positive," and say a little prayer for the pilot. Total acceptance is the best way. 

Badu curated a new Fela Kuti box set and is preparing a deluxe edition of her 1997 debut,
Baduizm.