Brooklyn is a global junction of music culture. Its reputation of progressive, multi-dimensional art was built by folks like saxophonist Branford Marsalis, filmmaker Spike Lee and guitarist Vernon Reid to name a few. Erykah Badu is as much a part of that renaissance as anyone, woodshedding her music locally at Two Steps Down and the Brooklyn Moon Café before her Baduizm debut. Her maverick application of traditional jazz, spiritual funk and hip-hop fusion to the mainstream left an indelible impression on many of today’s most exciting artists (i.e., Janelle Monáe).
Part of Badu’s longevity is her penchant for reinvention. For her next experiment, she recently performed as an artist-in-residence with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House—located in the heart of the borough’s downtown cultural district. Together with Brooklyn composer Ted Hearne, they turned her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) into a classical/hip-hop hybrid oratorio.
Performing a concept album about racial injustice rather than a compilation of familiar hits was a bold decision, but a necessary one. The site of the event was also no accident. If Brooklyn is the window on some of the globe’s brightest cultural accomplishments, it’s also the mirror of its social inconsistencies—ripe breeding ground for Badu’s musical indictment.
The event commenced with conductor Alan Pierson leading the 45-piece orchestra, (complete with electric rhythm section) into “Amerykah’s Overture.” Two-note strikes of violin with shrieking electric guitar chords eased into the funky bass and drum groove of “Amerykah’s Promise,” setting an intoxicating yet awkward tone. When the blasting horns ceased, and a diminutive vibraphone began, Ms. Badu emerged to a thunderous ovation.
Dressed in a black top hat, overcoat and multicolored spandex, the four-time Grammy winner proceeded to sing “The Healer.” The juxtaposition of the mostly Caucasian philharmonic playing dense, sweeping strings as Badu proclaimed “Hip-hop is bigger than religion” was as stark as it was exhilarating. Fittingly, she sang with the range and bravado of an opera singer, while shimmying, dropping low and caressing the mic stand.
Badu didn’t just sing, she performed—an important distinction particularly crucial during “Soldier,” the fictional account of a young Black student with good grades and noble ambitions cut down by gun violence. (The New Amerykah track is a simultaneous reaction to Sean Bell and the foreshadow of Trayvon Martin’s murder.) The orchestra behind this melancholy tale harkened back to the recordings of Curtis Mayfield, amplifying what was already a poignant creation into a haunting manifest of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Badu rode on the driving, gritty beat of “Twinkle” with the rolling flow on an MC with much on her mind. “Twinkle” is New Amerykah’s most damning statement—indicating that Black people “end up in blood” despite the constant hard work of those before them—magnified by Badu’s mannerisms: eyes squinted, shoulders tensed as she wailed out her vintage inaudible adlibs.
The electric bass infused the brooding line from “Freddie’s Dead” into part one of “Master Teacher,” further pushing Mayfield’s omnipresent influence on Badu’s work and the word. Background vocalists sang the Superfly mantra, “A beautiful world I’m trying to find.” Splitting “Master Teacher” into two parts, one sinister and the other mellow, Badu and Hearne brilliantly expressed two vantage points of the song’s hook “I stay woke” in terms of needing to be aware of the evils that surround us and the blessings that emerge in spite of the bleakness.
The program climaxed with “Me,” Badu’s ode to self-acceptance: her thickening legs, her three children from three fathers, her defiant approach to music and media. Her powerful set list of social commentary ended with a reprise of “Amerykah’s Promise,” and the entire performance was a powerful reminder of what America promises to its Black inhabitants: prejudice, unfairness and hope, with music and hip-hop at the forefront of the conversation.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.