Erykah Badu, the Dallas artist and pop culture’s reigning eccentric aunt, is on the cover of The FADER’s new Producers Issue. Soon after she opened up her home to FADER contributing writer Vinson Cunningham this spring, Badu became embroiled in a social media storm, surrounding her reactions to an article about hemlines in schools. Over the phone from her home last night, she spoke about the incident, its backlash, and how she approaches her relationship with her 1.7 million Twitter followers.
ERYKAH BADU: The first thing I look at when I read an article is the angle the author takes when approaching the story. Does he or she want to lead the readers to believe one thing or another? He or she will use quotes supporting their views, so it doesn't often give the whole story. In the [Newshub article about hemlines at a New Zealand high school], I was able to see a 360 degree point of view that wasn't actually presented by the author, so I wanted to express my opinion. I agreed with some parts of the article, and other parts I did not agree with.
There was a student in the article—she was interviewed on video—who I sympathized with. She said she's just coming to school to learn, not to be sexualized. And I agreed with that. I'm sure that there were more interviews and more angles but since I didn't see them in the article, I presented them on Twitter. I then went a step further and began to explain the biology and sexual nature of human beings. I wasn't trying to make one particular point. Like I said in my original tweets, it's a man and a boy's responsibility to control himself. I said it's deviant behavior to prey on young women and children. But I also said that in nature, men are attracted to young women. As bad as it sounds and as much as people don't want to look at it like that, it’s true. But that doesn't mean I support the behavior of choosing to act on such impulses. People are like, "Where did you learn this?" And I'm like, "I learned it in science class, in elementary school."
And it sparked anger. I was reporting, I was not supporting. It's possible to understand the psyche behind behavior without condoning the behavior. I don't have anything to apologize for. I don't mean to take anything back. It's not about me clearing my name; it's about defending nuance. It's about having conversations that aren't marginalized to just one perspective. It's about being able to dissect a situation and not necessarily agree with it. I understand that it's a very sensitive subjective. Expressing our pain and anger for something can make us very delicate. I'm very sensitive about it now—more than before. My whole objective is to create a dialogue. That’s always my main goal. But a dialogue about lengthening hemlines in a high school environment turned into: "I'm in support of slut-shaming, rape culture, and child molestation."
“It’s beautiful to free your body if that’s what you choose.”
People were, as they should be, emotional in response. It's an emotional subject. I understand that this is a very layered subject. We pulled back one [layer], then we pulled back two, then we pulled back three, then we pulled back many. I welcomed the conversation but it turned into a blaming session.
On the internet, there has to be a villain. The original conversation was pretty broad but then it got smaller and smaller and it became just black-and-white: either you're for rape culture or against rape culture. I don't know how rape culture got into the conversation; it was a term coined by feminists in the '70s that suggested that people have normalized sexual deviancy, especially sexual assault. But my conversation was originally about lowering hemlines in the school environment. People chose to read what they wanted. I saw a lot of groupthink. A lot of people people hadn't read the [original] article, hadn't read my tweets or anything. They were weighing in on rape culture and other subjects but lashing out at me.
The response was overwhelming. I agreed with most of the points, but they didn't apply to my conversation. People were expressing a lot of intelligent points about rape culture and how lowering skirts would not stop rape or stop men from being attracted to women. I agree with that. I was like, “You’re preaching to the choir!” However, I believe that it is not shameful to dress appropriately in certain settings—it's helpful, not shameful. When we go swimming, we wear swimsuits. When we go to dance class, we wear dance clothes. When we're in a professional setting where there's a dress code, we dress within code. There's nothing shameful or demeaning about that.
I believe that anyone, father or mother, grandmother or grandfather, wants to protect their young. That's the way it is. Like I said in my original tweets, I want my daughters to be able to wear whatever they want but I want them to be aware of their surroundings. In giving them enough information, they can make informed decisions. What young women and girls have to deal with at an early age is alarming.
“The whole world to me is kinda like a private joke between me and God sometimes, and that’s how I treat social media, too.”
The patriarchy has demeaned women so much that it's warped our sensibilities. We will find ourselves defending ourselves against our own children's sacredness. If we believe that choosing to cover the body is only designed to protect us from male consumption, then we will naturally fight against it. It's always a choice. I prefer a longer skirt as opposed to a shorter one in a high school setting, but that's not to take the responsibility away from men. I think it helps contribute to a professional setting. That's girls in a high school setting. Adults, however, can do what they choose.
It's beautiful to free your body if that's what you choose. It's a beautiful thing. My video for "Window Seat" is a great example of that. The irony, though, is that it was done in proper context, in the name of groupthink, as a piece of performance art. In performance art, nudity is often used to shock the audience so that they can see the subject of protest. It was done in an inappropriate place on purpose. It was meant to be a shocking thing.
I can never really anticipate what's going to happen with Twitter, but I felt successful because the conversation had been started, and the dialogue went on for days. That's my goal when engage with people on Twitter. Sometimes it's therapy for me. Most of the things I want to say, I write on Twitter. I like when people weigh in. It's important to have the conversation. I can multi-task so if it's an important dialogue, I’m [scrolling through my mentions]. It's no longer just Twitter. Now it's our community trying to face an issue. So I like to be present in those situations.
I can take the weight of being lashed out at on Twitter. Sometimes I have to switch gears and take on the role of a patient elder, because I think a lot of people see me as an elder. I'm clear with my thoughts and very generous with answers when people have questions. Along the way I try to encourage civil dialogue. And when it becomes very emotional, I have to be patient with that. I really enjoy writing and being able to get words out of my mind in a clear way, and I get to do that when I go on Twitter. I can push send knowing that I've clearly communicated what I was trying to say. I just pretty much tweet spontaneously. I view myself as an artist and an intellect, a sociologist, a self-scientist—meaning that I test my own theories by having conversations with others. It’s part of my job. It’s who I am, it’s what I do.
Being on Twitter, it sometimes feels like when I'm trying to talk to my kids—not that the people I debate with on Twitter are kids or below me—as a parent or an elder that's been here for a while and they have a rebuttal. You can't get angry. You have to breeze through it and find humor in it. The whole world to me is kinda like a private joke between me and God sometimes, and that's how I treat social media, too. The studio audience in my head is always cracking up.