Unpacking Erykah Badu’s Empathy

The legendary singer recently came under fire for her controversial comments on Hitler, Bill Cosby and XXXtentation.

January 26, 2018

Erykah Badu has always been on her own vibration. The neo-soul artist has made a career of working outside the traditional boundaries of the industry, with an at times sporadic musical output and unusual relationship with celebritydom. This week, in an interview with Vulture’s David Marchese, Badu raised the ire of the internet by proclaiming her empathy for XXXtentacion, Bill Cosby, and Hitler. The backlash is hardly surprising. In an era where soundbites have the potential to gain traction, despite the nuance of the actual interview (where the interviewer probes Badu to explain how spirituality informs her code of empathy for humans unconditionally), Badu’s words rang blasphemous to most.

It’s difficult to separate the response to Badu’s comments from the work that has been done to change the narrative of celebrity infallibility in the current political climate. Erykah Badu, in particular, is the type of artist who has a fiercely loyal fanbase—she’s been in the game for 20 odd years, is active on the social media front, and has the type of catalogue that connects people across the social divide. Due to this particular relationship with her audience, Badu’s comments came across as especially tone-deaf to the plight of many of her fans.

I would never suggest that I have the popular opinion on this. Because I don’t.

Erykah Badu, Vulture, January 2018

But contextualizing Badu’s comments requires acknowledging her place in the contemporary music zeitgeist. Badu is an outsider and a weirdo. Her weariness of fame also makes her cynical about things like interviews, and it seems like she’s willing to say whatever she feels like, because she feels like she has no skin in the game. More than that, since she’s always played by her own rules, she’s always won it on her terms, which can’t be changed by a new landscape of sensitivity.

In trying make a broader point about empathy and Hitler, her comments fall flat. But her intentions go beyond just trying to get a rise out of people. It’s evident that she really does think there is good and bad in everyone, and that there is value in defending their humanity. Perhaps this is part of the package of her weirdness. She advocates for a future that is almost impossible to conceive in our current social context, and disapproving her comments is wholly the prerogative of listeners who can decide whether to attribute her claims to either eccentricity or irresponsibility.

As skeletons in the entertainment industry keep emerging from the closet, it’s important to bear in mind that Badu has had to find her personal reconciliation with the dangerous actions of those she’s encountered in her career. The rap industry in particular, which Badu has always been adjacent to through her art and relationships, has a documented history of violence, especially misogynistic violence. Before XXXtentacion was alive, artists like Biggie, Big Pun, Tupac and Dr. Dre received passes from the industry for their treatment of women. Badu has had to reconcile this somehow, and has chosen the path of empathy towards the aggressor.

This may seem high-minded and might make her a poor activist, but there is a double-edged sword for female artists surviving in an overtly masculine world. She can either distance herself from them and therefore jeopardize her career, or attempt to connect with them and see their humanity while potentially alienating her fanbase. Whether or not you agree with her choice is subjective, but I believe that she deserves some respect for the path she chose, and the courage to be open about it. After all, there are worse intentions than trying to see the humanity in others, especially in those who it seems most absent.


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