Born Erica Wright on February 26, 1971 in Dallas, Texas, Erykah Badu inherited a taste for music from her mother Kolleen Wright, who introduced her to multiple genres of music (Joni Mitchell, Parliament-Funkadelic, Pink Floyd, Phoebe Snow, Chaka Khan). At the tender age of four, Badu began singing and dancing in productions at the local Dallas Theatre Centre. It wasn’t until her acting debut in the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Center’s musical production of “Really Rosie,” directed by her godmother Gwen Hargrove, that Badu realized she was a natural performer. “I played Alligator,” Badu says, “and at 6 years old, I got my first standing ovation. I knew I wanted to bring people to their feet from that point on.
Badu stayed true to her artistic leanings and enrolled at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts in the late ’80s. Tomboyish and a bit of a class clown, Badu devoted most of her time to perfecting her dance form, studying the techniques of Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, as well as practicing ballet, tap, and modern dance. Badu also sharpened her Hip-Hop skills, freestyling on the Dallas radio station 90.9 FM KNON under the name Apples the Alchemist until she eventually changed the spelling of her name from “Erica Wright” to “Erykah Badu,” “kah” being Kemetic (Egyptian) for a human’s vital energy or “inner-self” and “ba-du” after her favorite jazz scat-sound. But later, Badu would discover that her chosen name holds a far deeper meaning.
Badu enrolled at Grambling State University, where she majored in theater and minored in Quantum Physics. She left in 1993 to pursue music full-time. During the day, she taught drama and dance at the South Dallas Cultural Center and worked as a coffeehouse waitress. At night, she recorded and performed songs like “Appletree,” produced by her cousin Robert “Free” Bradford. In 1994, her 19-song demo caught the attention of aspiring record executive Kedar Massenburg by way of the SXSW music festival. Massenburg signed her to his upstart label Kedar Entertainment. The company eventually merged with Motown/Universal and Badu started opening for D’Angelo, prepping the world for the massive Neo soul movement to come.
The New York Times described Badu’s groundbreaking debut, 1997’s Baduizm, as “traditional soul vocals, staccato hip-hop rhythms and laid-back jazzy grooves.” Yet, hindsight reveals that Badu’s debut was more than just an album, it was the introduction of a new lifestyle. The music evoked speakeasies, incense, head wraps, and boho coffee shop culture all in one easy breath. Propelled by the lead single “On & On,” the album went multi-platinum, winning her two Grammys for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Album. Badu topped Rolling Stone’s Reader’s poll for Best R&B Artist, and Entertainment Weekly named her Best New Female Singer of 1997.