Erykah Badu helps launch inaugural Riverfront Jazz Festival

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
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Ask Erykah Badu how she got involved in the inaugural Riverfront Jazz Festival, which she kicks off this weekend, and she’ll take you back nearly 40 years.

“It started when I was about 7 or 8 years old,” she says. “I was a member of The Junior Black Academy of Arts and Letters. My godmother was a staff member there, and she would take us to work with her.”

It was there, under the tutelage of founder Curtis King, that Badu first learned everything that would make her the artist she is today. Indeed, she still vividly recalls the moment when that experience transformed her.

rainbow bug“I had to have been about 9, and Mr. King took all of us [students] in the whole summer program to see The Wiz,” a musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. “We had never seen a play, but the costuming, the dancing, the magic, and this child [Stephanie Mills] who had the voice of a trumpet … it blew me away. We didn’t travel much when I was a kid, but [being at TBAAL] I was able to travel the world. We were all from the hood, and we were performing Medea! I was so blessed to have a chance to come out of a building bigger than when I went in.”

Once bitten by the performing bug, Badu soaked up as much about theater — and music — as she could, and applied it in her craft. She attended Booker T. Washington High School for Visual and Performing Arts; she majored in theater in college; and, of course, she launched a celebrated recording career (2017 is the 20th anniversary of the release of her debut album, Baduizm). But it all comes back to TBAAL.

“Curtis King is like my uncle. I got most of my understanding of theater from him — staging to lighting to photography… I got all of that growing up,” she says. And while she hasn’t taken on many acting roles since her auspicious feature film debut in The Cider House Rules in 1999, the multiple Grammy Award-winner says those lessons have informed everything she is today.

“I design all my lighting and staging; I am the band director; my stage presence and my management of my shows — all of those are what I learned there,” she says.

Which takes us back to this weekend’s jazz festival. Presented by TBAAL, it combines many of Badu’s passions in one place: Her love of Dallas, of music, of community involvement, of the organization. “I lend my art and celebrity to the Black Academy of Arts and Letters whenever I can,” she says.

She’s not the only one. The staggering lineup also includes performances by Martha Wash, Jon Secada, Oleta Adams and many more luminaries of jazz, neo-soul, blues and more.

“This festival was one of Mr. King’s visions, and when he asked me to be a part of it, of course I was so honored. He’s such a motivating force,” she says. “I just think it’s something that we need right now — real musical vibrations in the city are rare these days. There are a lot of things happening in this city in jazz, starting in Deep Ellum, that has been magnified through the artists who have been able to [bring music here]. All of these artists [scheduled to perform] are some of my band’s influences. This is big.”

Of course, Badu’s talent and longevity have made her one of the seasoned artists influencing another generation. She recalls when Solange Knowles — whom she now identifies as one of her best friends — first asked her via Twitter to be godmother to her child.

“I said, ‘What? Is that legal?’ I was offended. But she was one of those young people who saw me. I didn’t realize I had aged. My motto is, ‘Don’t grow up — it’s a trap!’ Now I see [that I have matured into veteran performer status]. I’m their Chaka Khan or their Duran Duran. And I am settling into it… kinda.”

The festival serves a purpose other than simply bringing people out for music, though: It forms a kind of emotional refuge from the stresses of the day.

“I don’t do much TV or movies lately, but I’m still acting… right now! The whole fucking world is depressed, we are all acting [like it’s OK],” she laughs. “We’re all kinda numb, but once you create something, it weakens the numbness. You can feel the strength come back in your heart and down to your toes. It’s a little selfish, too. It takes away some of my own shit. I am able to practice what I preach.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 01, 2017.