It’s an hour before midnight and Erykah Badu is walking down several flights of stairs into her studio, where she has one night left to finish her sixth album, New Amerykah, Part 2: Return of the Ankh. Just off the hustle of Times Square, the studio is a mellow oasis, small and dimly lit, with ropes of purple Christmas lights glowing overhead. An unfinished version of the album plays in the background. Its atmospheric, improvisational sensibility heightens the feeling that within this space, time moves on Badu’s terms. It’s a joke among the people closest to her. Her publicist, effusive with apologies after our second scheduled photo shoot was canceled by Badu, says by way of explanation, “She works on Erykah time.”
Place has also played a vital role in the 39-year-old performer’s work. She currently has multiple homes—in New York, in Dallas and on the road—but says, “I’ve managed to create this situation of peace wherever I go.” The four-time Grammy winner (she’s been nominated a total of 19 times) has had her New York apartment, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, for 13 years. “It was a party of one for the longest time. It’s a very small apartment, with only a kitchen and a bedroom. It was my lab.” It’s also the place to which she keeps returning. “Brooklyn is where I go when I’m recording,” she says. “I used to call it my home, but I don’t anymore. There’s a part of me that’s always 21 years old there. It’s a hideaway. It’s a shrine. It’s a sanctuary. It’s a dressing room.”
But Brooklyn has evolved over the past decade, largely due to gentrification. “When I first moved in, it was all head wraps and dreadlocks,” she says. “The change was gradual, so gradual, in fact, that it’s like asking me how it felt to watch my children grow.” She is of two minds about the development of her neighborhood, which now comes complete with coffee shops, independent bookstores, pricey brownstones and strollers. “I hate that black people don’t know how valuable their land is,” she says. “One group is always pushed out for another. One tribe always takes over another tribe’s habitat. But it’s not so much about occupation here as it is convenience. The area is now more of an artistic environment, a meeting of the minds.”
For eight months of the year, Badu lives on the road. But even then, the mother of three—Outkast’s André Benjamin is the father of her son Seven—feels at home, because she brings her mother, brother and sister along for the ride. “My mother’s the queen. I’m still the daughter. I’m just a franchise,” she says, laughing. “We play cards. We talk shit. We build. We critique. We create. We argue. We grow.”
Painting by Tim Okamura.