The talent lineup at the Essence Music Festival always has an aspirational undercurrent.
Mary J. Blige, who performs Sunday night, presents her life, and those of many African-American women in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as operatic in emotional scale. When Erykah Badu performs Saturday, before Missy Elliot and Usher, she’ll present a very different but equally meaningful model of self-determination.
Badu was born Erica Wright in Dallas, but she has transformed herself into an Afrocentric icon with music that pulls from jazz, funk, R&B and hip-hop to create a sound as personal, progressive, and rooted in her culture as her fashion sense. Recently, that earned her the 2015 Ella Fitzgerald Award from the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Badu’s appearance on Essence’s main stage last year presented her in all her idiosyncratic glory. Comedian Dave Chappelle introduced her, and she came on stage wearing a hat that dwarfed Pharrell’s Grammy hat, and a bold, black-and-white print jumpsuit, a chic blue jacket and a feather tracing her left cheekbone.
Despite her exotic style, her show was grounded in the domestic realities of her life — eyesight that’s not what it was, and in “Me,” references to thickening legs.
She seemed to be reaching out with love to the women who are also living what she’s going through, with an offhandedness that made her performance seem improvised.
Singing in the Superdome takes some adjustment for Badu, whose personal muse isn’t always completely in sync with those in the audience ready to party.
“They don’t want to evolve with me so much,” she said. “It’s considerate for the artist to give the people what they want, but I sometimes don’t do that. I sometimes veer off and want to do something else.
“Sometimes, I take a chance and do something different, and they let me know immediately whether they approve or not. I can switch gears real quick — that’s another gift that I have. I know when to get the hell out of there and do something different.”
The Essence main stage lineup pulls together artists who all headline their own shows, and that causes another adjustment for many, Badu included.
“I never did the opening thing, and I always had a cult following,” she said. “I don’t work large rooms; I work small rooms, and we all fit comfortably in there and everybody knows what’s going on.
“In a festival where people come to see a lot of different people, I don’t always suit tastes, but I feel confident that people go away feeling what I have given.”
Recently, Badu’s Facebook feed has been dominated by photos and videos from Africa, including one of her rolling on Wheelies in a hotel hallway. The posts are playful, and they allow her extend her creativity beyond the album and stage.
“Social media is social evolution,” she said excitedly. “It’s like the community refrigerator that I can put my artwork on. I have so much inside of me. Now I have another outlet to get these words and things out.”
In addition to quick-sketch updates of moods and thoughts on Twitter (at @fatbellybella), she has started turning people on to songs that mean something to her, such as Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War.”
“I’m grateful to the people, and I never underestimate their ability to connect in some way,” she said. “Posting art and thoughts is a way of creating dialogue. I want them to say they don’t get it. I want them to be moved to be angry about it or to be motivated to create their own piece of work.”
The recent Facebook photos were shot during a recent trip to Kenya and Zanzibar where she recorded drummers.
Those recordings will form the basis of Badu’s upcoming album, and she has recorded drummers in Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand as well.
“I’m playing live tracks with indigenous drums, and that’s the album’s foundation,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to throw those drums into Logic and chop them up to make them sound futuristic — walking in the footsteps of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash — or, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But that’s how I start. With the drums.”
Hip-hop pioneers Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash made a big impression on Badu as a young teenager in Dallas, particularly “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which opened up a world of musical possibilities for her.
“Musically, sonically, it was an amazing piece of work. Along with that came Afrika Bambaataa with “Planet Rock” and The Sugarhill Gang with “Apache.” It was a whole era that was funk-infused and it was urgent.”
“I was impressed by rap,” she said. “It was talking songs. It was the most amazing thing, and it was social commentary.” It helped her start making music, first as an emcee and a DJ — the latter a skill she’ll exercise later Saturday night at Tipitina’s under the name DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown.