Artist Project: Erykah Badu

How Did Erykah Badu Impact The NeoSoul Genre?

To me, Erykah Badu is one of the most influential artists in the Neo-Soul genre. She has such a unique and intriguing sound and style, that truly no one else can match. I’ve always found myself clinging to artists that smoothly combine funk, jazz, and soul smoothly, and Badu is definitely one of the pioneers of this category in my mind. She had truly shaped the new soul era/Neo-Soul genre to the T and her legacy of music style and physical activism continues to influence artists today.

Take Badu’s style of music. She blends a myriad of genres, with strong concentrations of improvisation. I remember watching one of her freestyle videos where she’s leaning on a concrete wall around a group of men, and she’s devouring her audience with interesting harmonies, jazzy rifts, funky melodies, and a mesmerizing voice. The lyrics she uses, much like many of her songs, are so reflective and introspective to her as a Black woman. Everything she writes is truly touching and representative of themes Black women artists and artists in general should explore: love, social consciousness, justice, and spirituality. 

Diving deeper into her improvisation skills and techniques, it is evident that not only do her freestyles contain these attractive elements of surprise, but so do her albums and other works. Many of her songs feature longer versions of instrumental sections where you can just hear the music and her band speak. She never depends on the electronic production that many artists in the soul genre use. Instead, she uses instruments that produce spontaneous and unpredictable beats, that eventually formulate warm and cozy, soul jazzy feelings to her music. Her techniques of improvisation have even influenced other artists of the neo-soul genre, like Jill Scott and D’Angelo, to incorporate extended instrumental sections into their works. Because of her unique usage of this technique though,  it is always easy to recognize her and separate her from other contemporary artists. It is also very easy, and very rewarding, to feel her story through her music, and even find similarities between her works and the soul icons of the past like Minnie Ripperton and Nina Simone.

Her individuality in her music style is also representative of her individuality through her physical activism. Through not only her impact on neo-soul music, but her eclectic fashion sense, she represents the African Diaspora and range of identity in Black artists, and most specifically, Black women. She often wears African inspired prints, head wraps, hairstyles, piercings, designs, makeup and jewelry to inspire herself, fans, and artists to embrace themselves. She urges her community around her to explore and be confident in their race, gender, and spirituality. Badu is truly a visible beacon of physical empowerment for all Black youth, just like me. 

In addition to her physical outspokenness, she encourages vocal outspokenness through political activism. She has always been a vocal advocate for social justice and equality, especially for Black women and people. In her music and even through her media platforms, she has spoken out about police brutality, systematic racism, the importance of spiritual well-being, and gender inequality. An example I remember seeing a TikTok snippet was about her Million Woman March in 1997. I was able to watch a video of her speaking from this march of 1997 on Youtube and experience her performance for a crowd of over a million Black women in Philadelphia. Through their gathering, they demanded political and social change for women of color. In 2017, Badu also organized a protest in her hometown of Dallas, Texas to address the pertinence of protecting unarmed Black teenagers. Even in some of my favorite songs by her, like “On and On”,“Tyrone”, “Window Seat”, and “Bag Lady” she advocates the importance of justice and well-being within oneself despite the conflicting and powerful forces around us.

In conclusion, both Badu’s music style and activism has impacted the genre of neo-soul and its audience tremendously. Her sound and style have influenced many artists today, like Snoh Alegra, Summer Walker, and Teyana Taylor. Her legacy continues today and will continue forever as her concepts of exploration and experimentation with instruments, lyricism, and jazz-inspired chords set her apart from any other creator. 

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