Erykah Badu live is medicine, a qi balancing treatment, a grounding experience. It makes perfect sense for her to enter the stage twirling to the theme music from Wonder Woman, her kermit green coat floating around her knees. She retains an innocence about her, something rare and timeless and sweet.
You just can’t help but smile.
I feel a nudge to my right and it’s none other than LA’s beloved Reggae Pops. With his eyes twinkling, he leans in close and says, “Look at those diamond cufflinks! You know she’s got something good hiding under there.” He’s right.
What she has in store for us is an unbelievable nineteen song set – the gospel according to Erykah. Her Dallas-bred band, The Cannabinoids, delves right into “The Healer” and has us chanting “HIP-HOP IS BIGGER THAN RELIGION,” at the top of our lungs with fists in the air. Hip-hop is bigger, it’s better, and Badu just could be its patron saint. The sermon has begun, and we are listening closely.
They follow with an untitled track about a girl named Breezy who “eats with chopsticks and likes to party by herself”. (I feel you, Breezy.) “On and On” melts into “Apple Tree” which melts into a freaked version of itself, heavy on the vamping. The mellow “Umm Hmm” off her latest album is chopped and screwed so hard that I wonder if Badu’s teacup is actually full of purple drank.
When she stops to introduce her nine-piece band, the love is apparent. Badu appreciates those who she works with, and acknowledges the talent and experience they bring from their own projects. They are family to her. You can hear the sincere respect in her voice, even as she clowns them. “We just making this shit up, I know you know. It feels good.” When you perform with a collective of musicians who have seen you through over a decade of classic albums, you can do things like make shit up.
As an artist, Badu offers women much sane, solid counsel on heartbreak and love. In her performance of “I Want You”, she opens with the moans and heavy sighs of focused pleasure, showing us what desire looks like in its natural, raw state. The bass pounds through our hearts and we all feel it, the love that just doesn’t ever let go.
Putting the stank on it through and through, the Cannabinoids continue to thrill us with the cult favorite, “Tyrone”. When Badu sings “I’m gonna tell you the truth / show and prove” my hands go up in the air to testify. That’s the life motto right there. And Badu has license to speak on it – she’s been showing and proving since I was singing Tyrone back in junior high.
We’re pulled back into our cores as she moves into “Didn’t Cha Know,” repeating the line, “There will be a brighter day / if you believe in brighter days”. Badu has faith in us, in our hearts, and our dreams, to take charge and create a new reality for each other. We sing along until it completely fades out and our eyes are full of tears. The Wiltern is hushed in silent reflection. I reach over and hold my friend’s hand. We need to remind ourselves that we’re in this together.
The jams keep coming with “That Hump”, “Soldier”, and “Danger”. The balcony feels like a choir section at this point. Our squeaky red velvet chairs are transformed into church pews. I’m surrounded by hand-clapping, finger-snapping, and shouts of affirmation.
Badu moves to her performance area and starts making music out of thin air. With the help of the theremin, it feels as though we are witnessing a miracle. This surreal electronic instrument is played without any physical contact. She moves her hands around two antennas that control frequency and amplitude, and the beauty of it is overwhelming.
The intense gospel session ends on a playful note as DJ A1 drops the unmistakable sound of Snoop’s “Aint No Fun”. What?! Yes. Badu has a sophisticated sense of humor, there’s no doubt about it. So there we are, rows and rows of women singing along joyfully to the raunchiest song lyrics of all time. The man in front of me turns and raises an eyebrow as I yell about putting a you-know-what “in your mouth”.
Pft, let the homegirls have some fun!
– Words and photos by Ani Vartivarian