Meet The Real "Ms. Jackson" Erykah Badu's Mother Speaks On Andre 3000 + Stankonia, 15 Years Later
Yup. Tomorrow it will have been 15 years since OutKast's landmark album Stankonia popped on over out the blue, right into our DJ sets and CD players (remember CD players?) not to mention our hearts. It's been an open secret for a good chunk of those 15 years that the Grammy-winning song"Ms. Jackson"--even though it's officially dedicated "to all the baby's mama's...mamas" was actually an open letter of heartfelt apology from Andre 3000 to Erykah Badu's mom, expressing his regrets over the alt-rap king and queen's breakup sometime after the birth of their son Seven Benjamin. Andre has spoken openly about it in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
"I probably would never come out and tell Erykah's mom, 'I'm sorry for what went down.' But music gives you the chance to say what you want to say. And her mom loved it. She's like, 'Where's my publishing check?'"
Although extremely protective (understandably so) of her children and her private life, Erykah has also confirmed this in interviews, revealing on the Chelsea Lately show during a 2010 appearance:
"It was her [my mother's] chance at stardom. She got the airbrushed 'Ms. Jackson' shirt, the bobble-head doll. It was on her screensaver. She had the ringtone. That was her chance, so I just let it be."
Now, "Ms. Jackson" is quite obviously the greatest song on an album full of amazing ("Fresh & Clean"--? C'mon, sun) and even prophetic songs ("Bombs Over Baghdad"). Yes, we said it. Hell, it might be the greatest grown-man hip-hop heartbreak ballad ever. Ever-ever? Ever-ever. With that in mind, we decided that in honor of Stankonia's 15th Anniversary tomorrow (Happy Halloween, y'all) it was high time that the world met the real Ms. Jackson and learn what she felt about being directly addressed by her daughter's distinguished baby-daddy on record--not to mention the joys and pains of raising a Badu!
So that's what we did. Specifically Okayplayer's VP Ginny Suss AKA gingerlynn got Ms. Badu's permission to chat with her mother on the phone--and was totally enchanted by the woman who answered. In a phrase: She is for real. Without further ado, please meet Erykah Badu's mother AKA "Ms. Jackson" AKA Ms. Kolleen Maria Wright (neé Gipson)--although by the end of this interview, we predict that you, like gingerlynn, will be calling her "Queeny." There's no way for us to capture in this text interview the warmth and cadence of Ms. Wright's wonderfully expressive voice--listening to the audio is a little like being on the phone with the spirit of Ruby Dee, or more accuratley the type of strong, beautiful mother-sister Ms. Dee portrayed so many times onscreen. But reading her words will leave you with zero doubts left as to which parent gifted Badu her bewitching hazel-green eyes--and which blessed her with her regal, fearless spirit.
Okayplayer: Okay, first question: can you tell us a little bit about what Erykah was like as a little girl?
Ms. Kolleen Maria Wright holding a young Erica Abi Wright AKA Erykah Badu (photo courtesy of Koryan Wright)
Kolleen Maria Wright: Okay, as a little girl--my first little girl--she was absolutely the cutest little green-eyed thing you’d ever want to see in your life. She was very, very precocious; always into something, always marched by the beat of a different drummer. Real funny. And we had a pretty good relationship, until it came to what we were going to wear and what we were going to eat...because we never agreed on anything. She had a mind of her own but super-super-super talented from day one. But I didn’t know whether it was talent then--I have to take that back. I wasn’t that smart. I didn’t know that it was talent. But I knew she was different. She was different but it was a good different, you know what I mean?
OKP: Yes, I do know what you mean. When did you first know it was talent?
KMW: When I heard her sing and somebody else agreed that it was good, when she was a little girl. All mama monkeys think that their baby monkeys--or baby giraffes or baby bears or whatever--they think that their babies can really sing or can really dance or can really whatever, y’know. But of course that’s your baby; you’re the mom. But then when other people agreed then I said, Okay...we are on to something.
OKP: Was she always this fearless? I feel like that’s a real personality trait that has come through in her art.
KMW: Oh yeah, definitely. She was always very for taking chances and even earlier on in school with her choice of clothing and hairstyles and all of that, they were very daring; very daring. She wore things and made things that I didn’t believe that she was going to do!
OKP: I imagine this powerful spirit of hers might have gotten her into trouble sometimes, when she was little...
KMW: Sometimes? (laughs) got into trouble, sometimes? All the time. It was always. Well, first of all, they went to private school. When I would go to visit, her desk was always right there next to the teacher’s desk. Pulled there as if she was the teacher. I mean right next to the teacher’s desk. I thought, Oh look at that! My baby is the teacher’s pet. She is the smartest girl in class. She is the teacher’s helper. She is the teacher’s best...but no. Hell, no. She was the class clown. She was the one that was disruptive and the poor woman had to keep her there so that she could keep control over her! She was a mess. Smart, bright--but a mess, yes. She was a class clown.
OKP: I love that story. I used to be a schoolteacher so I can relate to that. I remember the special students that I used to have next to my desk but they were always my geniuses too.
KMW: Right, but the ones you had to keep an eye, keep close to you.
OKP: Do you remember when she got her first boombox or turntable or microphone?
KMW: Well, first instrument of any kind, that would have been at her dad’s mother’s house--her “Ganny” as she refers to her all the time--Ganny bought them a piano. And they were banging out tunes and playing piano very well by ear and writing and composing music; their grandmother would call to let me hear what they were doing. They recorded a song called…what was the name of it? Some boyfriend song about love, "I love my boyfriend." I love something..and the grandmother didn’t approve of that ‘cause she was a church lady. They had to change the lyrics to “I love Jesus.” That was one of the things that I most remember.
OKP: About how old was she when she did that?
KMW: They must have been about 7 to 9...no more than 10 (thinks) No, they hadn’t gotten to be 10 yet, just little girls.
OKP: When you said “they” was that her and her sister, who else was there?
KMW: Yes, that’s was Koko (Koryan Wright AKA Nayrok) because Eevin I don’t think Eevin was born yet. That was she and Koko, she and her sister.
OKP: How many kids were there total?
KMW: Oh, God--just the three. She, Koko and Eevin. Yeah, that’s all I can handle.
OKP: ...and Erykah is the oldest?
KMW: Yes, she is the first.
OKP: What songs did you sing to Erykah while you were pregnant with her, do you remember?
Andre & Seven Benjamin, photographed at Governor's Ball 2014 by Pip Cowley
KMW: I don’t know if there was a lot of singing but more reading. Oh, when I was pregnant with her? Oh wow, what songs did I sing...mostly Stevie Wonder, who I knew that, in another life, had to have been my husband. A lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot Smokey Robinson and those guys, a lot of that.
OKP: Amazing...and you said a lot of reading, do you remember what you read to her?
KMW: Yeah, well after she was born of course. A smart girlfriend of mine who is still one of my best friends gave me an almost complete volume of the Dr. Suess books and I was so fascinated with those because of the singsong, rhyme type lyrics of Dr. Suess. That’s what we did all the time, just the Dr. Suess and they fell in love with those as I did. It was always Dr. Suess
OKP: Beautiful. What kind of music was she exposed to generally? like throughout her childhood...
KMW: Soul music--well, I like all music. I like good music. Anything that was country & western that was good, anything that was jazz that was good. Of course Miles [Davis] and those guys. They were introduced to everything that I liked during that time. Everything that I liked, they listened to.
OKP: We understand you are an actress yourself. Can you tell us a bit about how you were drawn to the arts and what role creative expression played in your life?
KMW: Well I have always been artsy because I’ve always liked fashion. That kind of morphed into something else because I always thought I could sing but I wasn’t a very good singer, I learned [laughs] but I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it. As a little girl I would talk to myself and I had these imaginary friends and played with these dolls and had to create characters and roles for them. Like I said it kind of morphed into that other acting thing. It was short-lived but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot what was going on because after that I had to put that down because I had little girls to think about.
OKP: Yes, we were told that Erykah actually joined you onstage as young as 4 years old. Did you have any reservations about encouraging your kids to follow in your artistic footsteps...or was that something you embraced?
KMW: No, no, no, that was wonderful. Because one of the things that we talked about every morning when we played “beat the bell”--I don’t know if you know what beat the bell is?
KMW: It’s when you get up in the morning, rushing and you get in the car and you are running all the lights and you are cursing out all the people, you know, because you are trying to beat the late bell at school. While playing "beat the bell" every morning to school, I was also explaining to them that this is not what you want to do. This is not the way you want to live your life. What you want to do is find something that you enjoy. You find your passion and you make sure you can make money doing that. Anything that they did that was artistic, whether it was singing or dancing or even being a cheerleader or writing or whatever, I encouraged that--because I just didn’t see them with 9 to 5 jobs. Although there is nothing wrong with it, because that’s how we ate. But I just saw something different for them.
OKP: That’s beautiful and that’s rare I think, for people to teach their children to think that way. Do you have any advice for parents who are grooming their children to be a star because you did it in such a spectacular way?
KMW: There was no book, there was no anything. You just know people who have stars and who have raised stars, I guess will say the same thing, it is just something that you know. If you have 5 children, we want all 5 of them to be stars but we know that 2 at best--but if you can get one good one! (laughs) you know that one that has that “it” factor. Mind you, all of them are going to be special at something. You are going to pull a doctor or bartender or a chef, a great mechanic, a great telephone operator out of your bunch but then you also are going to find one who is a Grammy award-winning singer. You see it and you’ll know it and the best thing to do is to nourish it, find out if this is really what they want to do and just stand behind them. Sometimes you have to stand in front of them and pull them, but stand behind them and push them.
OKP: What does Badu-izm mean to you?
KMW: Badu-sim to me, it’s a type of religion. It is a type of way of being or thinking or behaving or living, existing. That’s baduizm.
OKP: So, now back to the song about you, where YOU are the star. What was your first reaction when you heard that “Ms Jackson” won the Grammy?
KMW: I thought that it should, especially if it was about me I thought that it should [laughs] . No, I’m just joking. Well first of all let’s clear the air. Let’s get this out of the way: I totally adore Andre Benjamin as a person. As a person he is a great and sensitive and quietly-spirited individual. Now let’s get that out of the way. And now since I know him a little bit, I mean since I know him personally, I know that that is altogether true. I only wanted the best because it comes through his music, it comes through whatever he does. He is genuinely a great guy and for all genuinely great guys or gals or anybody who are good people I want them to do well and I want them to excel and I want them to have the best. So since it was Andre and since I knew him, I was thrilled that he got the Grammy because he certainly deserved it.
OKP: Completely. What was your first impression of him when you first met him? Did he ever come home for Thanksgiving dinner or anything?
KMW: Yeah. He is a quiet guy, like I said. I would say he is a quiet-spirited guy, real sweet guy, but of course as all moms...well, are you a parent?
OKP: I am not yet a parent, no...
KMW: Okay, so here we go. Nobody was ever going to be good enough for Erykah or Kory; nobody. There hasn’t been a person MADE who I thought was going to be good enough for them. So of course I was very, very apprehensive about him. I didn’t know the guy at first but after I got to know him, he was good--and his mother was great. He came from great parents; His mom and dad are great people, especially his mother who I grew to adore. So that fruit didn’t fall far from the tree. He was manner-able and that meant a lot, very respectful. He has been raised right and that impressed me a lot when I first met him.
OKP: That’s exactly how you imagine Andre Benjamin would be. When you first heard the song...what did you think when you first heard it, this song dedicated to you--apologizing to you?
KMW: I didn’t know what to think. I had to listen to it over and over because first I had to figure out if I was being insulted--I had to figure out what vein it was in! I didn’t know, because--with a lot of music during that time--I didn’t know where it was coming from, because that wasn’t my genre of music. After I listened to it and listened to it I said, Oh, this might not be too bad. This might be harmless; this might be apologetic, this may be okay. So when I felt that it wasn’t being an insult or disrespectful, then I kind of settled into it.
OKP: I was younger when this came out but I think we all felt instantly that it was genuine. It was beautiful that it was a tribute. Is it safe to say that is your favorite OutKast song or do you have a different song that is your favorite?
KMW: Let’s see, a favorite OutKast song. No, “Ms. Jackson” is probably my favorite [everybody laughs...for a long time ] It’s probably my favorite. No, all of them are good. As far back as “Slammin Cadillac doors”--[“Elevators (Me & You)”-ed.] I enjoy that one. And I have enjoyed some of the later stuff, the newer things but yeah, “Ms Jackson” is probably my favorite. Because I listen to that more than I did the rest of them!
OKP: Well, it was also on the radio quite a bit.
KMW: Oh yeah, quite a bit. They played that a lot.
OKP: How do you describe your style as a grandmother? Do you prefer to spoil them or do you keep them in line when they come to visit?
KMW: My style? Well, first of all my name is “Queeny”--that’s my grandmother name.
OKP: I love it.
KMW: Yeah, my grandmother name is “Queeny.” Because I refuse to be Nana and Ganny and Ma-ma and Ne-ne and all that. I didn’t want to be that. I wanted to be someone regal, to them. So in my approach to everything I do I try to do it very regally. In a queenly manner, with high standards. Sometimes we get lost with silliness, but for the most part I want them to look at me as royalty--as I look at them, as my little prince and princesses. That’s the way I treat them, because that’s the way I want them to behave like royalty. And with royalty, everything petty is beneath you and that’s the way I want them to behave.
OKP: I have met them and they are royalty. They sure are.
KMW: Thank you.
OKP: Yes, it is very interesting because my best friend…I'm going to digress for a short minute, but I had a best friend since I was 2 and she has a child, who is my nephew. So my parents are like parents to her as well and grandparents to this little child. She let her parents and my parents choose their grandparent names just like you chose Queeny and she asked my father, Oh what do you want to be to my child? And he said: Sir. “Have them call me Sir.”
KMW: That’s right. I can dig it. I can dig it.
OKP: So it’s a safe bet that Erykah got her creativity from you but who gifted her her bewitching hazel green eyes?
KMW: That would have to be her very, very handsome, fine-ass daddy. It would have to be that guy. It would have to be William Wright, Jr.--my husband.
OKP: Finally, we know where they came from!
KMW: Oh yeah, it would have to be, that’s it. However, throughout my family, I believe them to have the green eyes and the hazel eyes also. They missed me. And luckily I found a guy with beautiful eyes. He made up for my part.
OKP: Queeny, thank you so much for speaking to us. This was a wonderful interview. I really appreciate you taking the time...
KMW: Don’t worry about it. Listen, I appreciate the privilege. This is really a privilege that you guys would want to interview me. This is something else. I want them to let me know when this is up--so I can send every hater I know two copies.
Ms. Kolleen Maria Wright AKA Queeny AKA The Real "Ms. Jackson"