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Musicians on Musicians: Erykah Badu & Summer Walker

Two R&B high priestesses trade wisdom on finding love, embracing their inner boss, and aliens among us
Kennedi Carter for Rolling Stone

E rykah Badu and Summer Walker are used to long phone calls. In late October, in lieu of a planned BET Hip-Hop Awards performance, they had a private catch-up that ended up veering far off topic. “We talked about the cypher for five minutes,” says Badu, “and we talked about the paranormal for a couple of hours.”

Badu and Walker are kindred spirits, both of them ranking among the most innovative auteurs in two generations of left-of-center R&B. Walker, 24, grew up listening to Badu’s Nineties neo-soul; Badu, 49, has been a fan of Walker since hearing Over It, her 2019 debut. Over the phone from their hometowns of Atlanta and Dallas, they speak to each other with the respect and intimacy of a decades-old friendship, though theirs is very much still blossoming. And when they finally meet in person for this photo shoot at Badu’s place, their warm rapport takes over the whole block, from Badu’s garden to her friendly neighbors’ yards.

Badu: So what’s going on, Summer? [Are you] supersocial, or are you a hermit like me?

Walker: I’m a super-duper introvert. Not because I want to be — I just don’t really understand human interaction. I don’t get it. So I just stay in the house.

Badu: I used to think I was the odd man out all the time, or the strange person in the group, because I couldn’t relate to a lot of the emotions that people had. It’s something I had to figure out. Remember when you would have a fire drill or tornado drill at school, and the kids would have to get under the desks? Some kids would be crying, and I’d be wondering, “What’s wrong?” I never did get hyper-emotional about things. It made me feel odd, because it’s such a hyper-emotional world. So I created my own space, my own world.

Walker: I saw a long time ago that you have a garden. That’s the goal. I could just stay at home and grow all my things.

Badu: You want to be off-grid at some point?

Walker: Yes and no. I’m scared, because it gets weird out there. But something like that, yeah. Solar-power everything, and my own plants. I want to make all my own soaps and lotions.

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Erykah Badu and Summer Walker photographed in Dallas, November 2020 Photograph by Kennedi Carter for Rolling Stone. Styling by Erykah badu. Badu: poncho by Angel Chen; boots and accessories from her personal collection. Summer Walker: bodysuit by XULY.Bët; necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings by Burberry. boots from Badu’s personal collection.

Badu: I know that you are very interested in the paranormal. I’m going to ask a super superpersonal question. Have you ever seen a UFO?

Walker: No. Thank God. Honestly, I would shit myself. I’ve seen some things that were unidentified in the sky, but I’m not going to call it anything. I’m going to say no.

Badu: Neither have I, and I’m just trying to figure out, “Why am I not good enough to be abducted by or visited by extraterrestrials? What do I have to do?”

Walker: You’re like, “I’m doing all the right stuff. I stay out late at night.” [Laughs.]

Badu: I’m making light of it, but it’s a traumatic experience for lots of people. I’ve had a few friends that have had those types of experiences, and I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps they have a gift. They have the ability to produce more of the DMT hormone, so they’re able to tap into these other realms. Because they all have the same stories, right? All over the world. Do you watch [paranormal movies] a lot?

Walker: I don’t like scary stuff. I’ve watched a couple movies that were supposedly based off real stories. It freaks me out, so I don’t really get too deep into it, the abductees.

Badu: I’m superinterested in it. Too many people have these same identical stories.

Walker: Supposedly, [aliens are] all around, it’s just that they’re shape-shifters. So maybe you did see them and have interactions. You just didn’t know.

Badu: OK, I feel better now. Thank you. Because I was feeling like—

Walker: Like you weren’t good enough for them?

Badu: Yeah. Like it’s racist, I don’t know.

Walker: What is that, species-ist? You probably definitely talked to them.

[Sounds emerge from Badu’s phone.]

Badu: I’m sorry. I’m in my car.

Walker: I thought somebody was honking at you. I was like, “You can’t drive.”

Badu: No, I drive very well, my love.

Walker: I don’t. I’m terrible. I crashed my last car.

Badu: You did? How’d you do that?

Walker: Watching a Drake video. He went to visit this little girl in the hospital and I thought it was so sweet, and then I smacked into a wall.

Badu: Tell me about how you became a recording artist. How long have you been singing?

Walker: I was singing since I was very young, but just for fun. I just started taking this seriously. It’s been two years.

Badu: Do you write your songs?

Walker: Yeah, I write them all. Well, until this last project, [producer London on da Track] got a little more upbeat pop stuff in there. But the heartfelt stuff is me. I’m not even going to ask you if you write your stuff.

Badu: I do write it. I like to have a big hand in everything. It sounds like you don’t have to do that. There are two kinds of artists, I think. There are artists who care about the process, and then there are artists who care about the end result. Then maybe there’s a third that’s in-between. You strike me as someone who cares about how [the songs] come out. Are they coming out the way they should?

Walker: Yeah. I don’t want to put out something that I don’t connect with or [that’s] trash.

Badu: A lot of the young girls are really, really, really in love with your message and who you are. How does that make you feel — that Summer, the little girl who is an introvert, touched so many people?

Walker: It’s weird. But I appreciate it. I know a lot of people [think] that I take it for granted or something, but I do appreciate it. I just don’t know how to process it.

“When I used to watch you perform a lot, I just would always say, 

“The way that you would command a room,” says Walker. “Woman to woman, I want to be like that.”

Badu: That’s OK. There are probably a great deal of us who pretend that we are relating to [success]. I like that you’re transparent about just about everything. There’s no rehearsal. It’s just who you are. And that makes you very hard to interview, too! Because you’re real, and in this industry, we’re so used to having people with rehearsed answers.

I don’t know where to go next. Can you please describe for me, in five adjectives, how you’ve been feeling during Covid?

Walker: Upset, disappointed, anxious, while still productive and grateful.

Badu: What are you grateful for?

Walker: I’m grateful that I have the resources to be able to keep up with my immune system, go buy herbs and expensive medicines and vitamins and food. Because unfortunately, that stuff is not cheap. I’m glad I can do that for myself.

Badu: That means that you’re stable enough to have choices and resources. Do you take care of a lot of people in your family?

Walker: I don’t talk to any of my family, really.

Badu: I’m the opposite; I have a huge family. I have two grandmothers, 93 years old, and they all have children. One of my grandmas just passed recently, and it was a big deal—

Walker: Oh, I’m sorry.

Badu: It’s OK, because my mom had a mom for 70 years, and that’s a long time to have a mother. I love my family a lot. They really molded my thinking. Tell me more about how you started singing. Has it been forever?

Walker: Forever. Well, to myself.

Badu: You only sung to yourself?

Walker: Yeah, for the most part. But a little bit more [publicly] when YouTube came about. I used to put my videos up when I was 15.

Badu: Is that around the age when you learned to play the guitar?

Walker: Yeah, the guitar is so awesome.

Badu: I taught myself how to play before college. But I was playing it wrong. I just laid it on my lap like a harpsichord. My hands were so little that I couldn’t really get around — those hands got to be able to stretch on that neck, and I didn’t have fingers for that, so I had to lay it on my lap and play it. I ended up playing both a guitar and a drum at the same time. I only knew about three chords, and I wrote about 12 songs.

Walker: Well, that’s me. I only know four chords and I don’t know anything else, and there goes a bunch of songs off of that. It’s funny.

Badu: It’s like your language. I learned how to sing and play on an upright piano that was very out of tune at my grandma’s house. When I sing, it’s a little sharp, because the piano was tuned very sharp, and I played on that piano so many years to myself. When I’d go out and sing, I’d think people were flat. But actually they would be singing the right notes. I still have it. I write a lot of songs on that piano.

Walker: I don’t know you or André [3000] personally, but y’all just seem like really amazing people. How is y’all friendship?

Badu: He just left Dallas, actually. He came down for my grandma’s memorial. He’s one of my best friends on the planet. When we became boyfriend and girlfriend in the Nineties, we didn’t become friends first. We were attracted to each other first. We had stuff in common, but we didn’t learn all of that until over the years. We have a 23-year-old son. Over these years, we’ve just become closer and closer as friends, as humans, as man, as woman. I care for him so very much, about his livelihood, his art, his feelings. And I’m a superbig fan of him. I’m assuming he’s also a fan of my music. We’re really close. We laugh all the time, talk about things. It’s brother and sister, it’s grandmother and grandson, it’s father and daughter. It’s so many different things depending on what the situation calls for.

He’s one of the most caring people that I know. [Our son] Seven adopted this same energy from him. They both have this look on their face as if they’re saying, “I hope it works for you.” No matter what it is. They’re nonjudgmental people.

We respect each other’s art. We’re snobs when it comes to art and literature, but I never hear him putting people down at all. He gives everything the benefit of the doubt and consideration. He wants it to work out for people.

Walker: Well, that’s beautiful.

Badu: Yeah, that’s my homie.…

You are now an employer. You are now the boss. You are the shot caller. How do you manage that? Who tells you what to do? Who keeps you on course?

Walker: Well, no one now, which is great. The only thing is, I sound very nice when I speak and I’m very soft-spoken. So people will not take me seriously when I tell them what we’re going to do or what we’re not going to do. I often have to enforce things, and I don’t want to be mean.

Badu: I like it. You keep going, you’ll become the bitch that you need to be. You just keep going. It’s difficult to be a woman and a black girl who’s a boss, who’s trying to be the controller of her world. And, trust me, there’s nothing freaky about it. If I have to give you any kind of advice: Don’t take your foot off they neck. If you feel it and you’re intuitive about it, go forward with it. You can always correct it later, because smart girls ask for help, too.

“It’s difficult to be a woman and a black girl who’s a boss,” says Badu, “who’s trying to be the controller of her world.” 

Walker: When I used to watch you perform a lot, I just would always say, “Oh, my God, look at this confidence.” The way that you would command a room, command either your band or your space. Woman to woman, I want to be like that, to have that type of confidence. I be walking into the room real small and then trying to still be the boss that I have to be. And it don’t work. I can’t wait to get to that point.

Badu: Oh, you will, girl. I ain’t worried about it at all. It will happen. It just happens naturally. You just get tired enough. You learn personalities, and, trust me, we’re not trying to win an award for being the nicest and kindest person. Because that’s not some necessary thing to be all the time. You’re trying to get your vision fulfilled, and we do it as much as we can without being an asshole.

One really important thing I wanted to tell you is I’m afraid of a lot of different things. Of moving forward, or sometimes walking onstage in a different place. Mostly when there are people that I know in the audience. I’m afraid a little bit, and it starts out that way, but I have confidence — because guess what, Summer? It always, always, always works out. And if I fast-forward my thinking to “It always works out,” then I quickly lose that fear…

Walker: The self-sabotage.

Badu: Summer, do you still have any dreams you’d like to share? I know that one of your greatest dreams has been fulfilled, becoming a recording artist and being self-sufficient.

Walker: I only had two dreams. I just wanted to be self-sufficient, like you said, and I just want a little tiny house with a big backyard, my garden. I want a pig. I want to make all my stuff that I use in the house from scratch — my lotions and soaps and all that stuff. And I just want to live humbly and happily and then continue to evolve mentally and spiritually and become smart as fuck. I want to get old and just have this big library and be hella smart. That’s what I’m working on now.

Badu: And you shall have it.

Walker: I hope so.

Badu: Did I tell you that I’m also a fairy godmother?

Walker: Are you? I’m not surprised.

Badu: I am, and you shall have everything that is for you. Every single thing you just named, you shall have it all. It’s going to be written down. The universe will conspire with the wombniverse to make these things happen for you, because you deserve them and you shall have them. All of them.

Walker: Thank you, fairy godmother.