“On & On”: Erykah Badu and Neo-soul
When Erykah Badu first appeared on BET’s Planet Groove in 1997 to promote her then forthcoming debut album Baduizm, it was clear that a shift in the musical landscape had arrived. Through her interview with Planet Groove’s host Rachel Stuartfarrell, it became more apparent with their brief interview where Badu stated, “I feel like this is where I need to be right now because music is kind of sick… it’s going through a rebirthing process and I find myself being one of the midwives aiding in that rebirthing process.” This rebirthing process would soon be labeled by Kedar Massenburg as neo-soul and the moniker Queen of neo-soul would forever be connected to Erykah Badu.
While the genre term was retroactively applied to D’Angelo’s debut album, 1995’s Brown Sugar as well as Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996) and artists such as Omar, The Fugees, Dionne Farris, Jamiroquai, and Me’Shell NdegéOcello laid the groundwork sonically and lyrically for the musical movement of neo-soul to exist, Erykah Badu’s breakthrough debut album solidified the neo-soul movement’s commercial visibility in the mid to late 1990s. The set’s accompanying singles “On & On,” “Next Lifetime,” and “Otherside of the Game” shaped and defined what a neo-soul aesthetic was and with the subsequent releases of Lauryn Hill’s debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), Jill Scott’s debut Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (2000), Badu’s Mama’s Gun (2000), as well as India.Arie’s Acoustic Soul (2001), it became apparent that mainstream neo-soul was a predominantly Black female led music genre with Erykah Badu at the forefront.
Inspired in part by Brandy’s self-titled 1994 debut album, Badu also noted in a 2011 interview with Fuse that African roots inspired a large portion of her debut.
“If the headwrap was my trademark, the drums, African drums, were my soundtrack. I never really thought about a lot of the things people labeled my lyrics for music as. ’94 to ’97, I was at a really interesting place in my life. I was embracing, very much, my culture, my African heritage, which is one part of me…Africa has always been a staple in my household and in my life. The drums mean an awful lot to me. It’s just who I was at the time, and I wanted to be completely who I was when I did what I did.”
The drums are central to Baduizm’s sound. Beginning and closing the album with “Rimshot,” a double entendre on drumming and “Rimshot,” like the rest of the songs on the album is about a young women trying to make sense of her world, her sexual relationships, as well as finding herself. The technical term rimshot, which Badu flips to refer to a sexual experience, is when a drummer hits the center and the rim of the snare drum at the same time. The drumming of the intro and outro “Rimshot” of course features rimshots and this drumming technique can be heard throughout Baduizm including the set’s lead single “On & On,” which she co-wrote with JaBorn Jamal. Lyrically, “On & On,” explores the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths (also referred to as the Five-Percent Nation) referencing the group’s theology of Supreme Mathematics which is a system of understanding numerals alongside concepts (1 – Knowledge; 2 – Wisdom; 3 – Understanding; 4 – Culture/Freedom; 5 – Power/Refinement; 6 – Equality; 7 – God; 8 – Build/Destroy; 9 – Born; 0 – Cipher)
On her live album aptly entitled Live (1997), Badu further opens up about her breakout debut single “On & On” during the reprise and making the connection to the Nation of Gods and Earths further.
Y’all know what a cypher is? It’s all kinds of cyphers. But a cypher can be represented by a circle, which consists of how many degrees? What? 360 degrees. And my cypher keeps moving like a rolling stone. So in my song when I say that, my cypher represents myself or the atoms in my body and the rolling stone represents the Earth. The atoms in the body rotate at the same rate on the same axis that the Earth rotates, giving us a direct connection with the place we call Earth; therefore, we can call ourselves Earth.
Badu’s explanation after performing “On & On” confirms the Nation of Gods and Earths connotations of the lyrical content. In the Nation of Gods and Earths theology, Black women and men are the original humans, made in the image of God. Black women are “Earths” and men “Gods.” Through her self-reflexive first single, Badu as she stated in her July 1997 interview with Joy Bennett Kinnon for EBONY Magazine, treats her “listeners like intelligent people” and challenges them to engage in potentially new concepts and seek out information about and from the Nation of Gods and Earths. The music video for “On & On,” that Badu also directed and which pays homage to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is also vital to the impact that this song and Badu’s career have had on music listeners.
In the music video for “On & On,” Badu is depicted as a maid in Black rural household in the late 1800s/ early 1900s, cleaning up the house, doing laundry, and attempting to put a little girl’s hair into a ponytail. At the end, Badu emerges from her chores in a green dress and gele headress performing in a barn turned juke joint. The video for “On and On,” Badu’s first visual statement creates a space of agency, complicating and resisting the onslaught of controlling images (mammy, matriarch, jezebel, sapphire, welfare queen) of how Black women are seen and represented.
Badu in “On & On,” also touches upon four of the six neo-soul music video themes that my own research explores. In “On & On,” Badu (1) elicits nostalgia through the loosely based connections to The Color Puple; (2) disrupts social space through her appearnce in the juke joint (3) references iconic Black women through iconography of famous blues women who would often perform in such spaces as barns; and (4) creates a Black female space through both her chore work as well as performance.
Through the lyrical content and visual of “On & On,” Erykah created a framework for fellow neo-soulsters Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, India.Arie, Floetry, and others to freely express themselves lyrically, musically, and visually in a space that would quickly be defined as neo-soul. In the same EBONY Magazine interview, Badu resists the newly minted neo-soul label stating, “No one asks a bird the explanation for the song; they just enjoy it.”
While neo-soul music is enjoyable, it is also meant to complicate, challenge, and interrogate our understanding of life. Erykah Badu’s debut album Baduizm (1997) does just that and her body of work continues to engage in a dialogue/conversation with her listeners, always pushing our understanding, wisdom, and knowledge as she herself continues to grow.
“Baduizm is an expression of me and the way I feel. Badu is my last name. Izm is well should get you high and Baduizm are the things that get me high. Lighting a candle, loving life, knowing myself, knowing the creator, loving them both, lighting incents, um building bridges, understanding, destroying bridges, overstanding, um using my melanin, using my power to get to where I need to go and to do the creator’s work. That’s what I’m here for and I’m still fly.” (E. Badu, Planet Groove, 1997)
Baduizm was an expression of who Erykah was in the mid to late 1990s, and the continual connection that fans and music listeners have with the album is a testament to the elicitation that the album has for fans, pushing them to think, challenging their conceptions, and creating new knowledge for generations to come.
Marcus C. Shepard
Currently enrolled at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication as a doctoral candidate, Marcus graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Commuication where he also helped co-found the first soul and gospel a cappella group Soul4Real. At Northwestern, he merged his love for singing soul music with his academic interests and began studying how neo-soul music intersects with identity. Marcus studies communication, identity and diversity as they are heard within soul music and discussed by multiracial communities.