OkayMuva: Erykah Badu Does Not Problematize Evil Like We Do
Myles Johnson returns for the new year to talk about Erykah Badu’s “problematic” comments from a Vulture interview.
There are few artists that I care to know outside of their work. Erykah Badu is one of those few. I am not unique in that desire. Between her large gaps between musical projects, the public still wants to engage her. Badu is able to host events and create viral tweets even when there is not a musical project to promote. This is because she lives in the public’s imagination as a distant relative and appreciated artist. She has perfected the space of both being admired to the point of almost being deified while still remaining relatable. She is a sister-unicorn. A space that artists like Solange, SZA, and Janelle Monae occupy in many of their supporters’ imaginations; otherworldly enough to be exalted, but down to earth enough that you can imagine having lunch with them.
I live in this place with Erykah Badu, too. When she does things I love, it feels like a personal gift. When she does things I abhor, it feels like a difficult space I find myself with a friend that I want to walk, talk, think and feel through. This is where I found myself when reading her interview with Vulture. Writer David Marchese asked Erykah Badu some questions around Bill Cosby, [Adolf] Hitler, and about her ideas around “pure” evil. She responded in a way that was easy to disagree with, but in this current moment, her answers felt like career suicide. Badu says, “I’m a humanist. I see good in everybody. I saw something good in Hitler.” Marchese responds with “Come again?” as if to help Badu clear her statement to not ignite controversy or as if to lead her into a more sensational statement to make for a piece that could go even more viral. She responds, “Yeah, I did. Hitler was a wonderful painter.”
It was not long after the interview dropped and the internet went aflame with conversations around Erykah Badu with how “problematic” she is. I put this in quotes because I’m not sure if this is the correct language. I think the correct language is Erykah Badu does not problematize issues the way that we’ve rehearsed. The preferred conversation around evil is: something evil happens, the person(s) responsible for it is evil, and the person(s) are then punished. In a clumsy fashion, Badu dared us to keep in mind humanity no matter how dark or complicated the person or behavior is which is a core principle in a justice and healing politic.
The truth is, because we have so many complicated issues at the moment, the thirst to see things as a binary is as strong as ever. The need to see the universe as a comic book and humans as villain or hero is even stronger. The failure to align with this thinking can cause backlash. This is groupthink.
Erykah Badu offers a perspective that has been close to me as I read, write, and speak more. The idea that in order for monstrous actions to ever be reduced or abolished, we must never allow people to be monsters. It is too easy to look at Hitler, name him a monster/villain because of his actions and ideals (that were evil and unspeakable), and throw him away. The radical approach is to dissect the world that informed the creation of somebody able to do these deeds. How was this person socialized? How did systems of domination that we strive to dismantle inform not only Hitler but the legions of people who shrank their morals and selves in order to go along with his evil mission?
It reminds me of when I was grappling with child molestation in order to somehow heal myself from a traumatic experience. Most of the information I received was binary, comic book-like naming child molesters as simply monsters that should be exterminated. Part of me understood this, I did want to kill the people who have abused me. However, as I got older, that solution was just not good enough. I had to know why someone would disrupt a child’s body and innocence in such a horrid way. The more research I did, the more I found that there is a lot of studying going into figuring out what makes a child molester; some of it being environmental, their own former childhood trauma, and severe mental health problems. These unaddressed issues can manifest in someone capable of doing heinous acts. This research will probably be the key component in significantly reducing the number of children being harmed. And it had to first start with many critical thinkers being willing to see people beyond the social binary of good and evil and see the human exhibiting behaviors as all humans do.
Even as I think about my desire of wanting to harm the people that harmed me, I know if I were to live in a different environment, have a different mental health story, or another trauma; I might not just have had the fantasy of murdering people that harmed me, but could have committed the act that would have me named a monster. Fortunately, my trauma just created a good writer.
Herein lies where I think what makes Erykah Badu’s point of view so uncomfortable for so many. It begs us to not remove ourselves from the great things a human is possible of or the evil things. It is disturbing because if we see the humans we have decided to name monsters as humans once again, it will remind us that we may all have an evilness that can be activated living inside of us right now that given powerful enough circumstances can have us behave as the monsters we attempt to abstract ourselves from.
I am not interested in defending or embracing Erykah Badu’s thoughts in this moment, but figuring out how the conversation she already had can be useful. The great challenge is how do we not prove Erykah Badu right? How do we express our dissent and concern without having to turn her into the other? How does one empathize with a portion, or all, of what she is saying without collapsing into the bottomless pit of “canceled people”? The answer is resisting the need to live in a binary and actually living inside of the messy, fantastic, heinous world we occupy. If we can’t do that, we might just be proving Erykah Badu right.