The Roots opened up with their hip-hop jazz riffs and stirring interludes of saxophones and drums when a big-boned woman whispered in a throaty voice: So when the analog girl in a digital world gonna come out?
The lights dimmed. A medley of Badu hits played, taking me back to all the places I lived when those songs came out, when my reverie suddenly was broken by a screaming crowd. The lights danced on our faces in Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall—the same one where in my grandparents' day, they did Marian Anderson wrong. The silhouette of a woman showed at the edge of the stage. It was her: rocking a china doll wig with a sexy, hip-hugging, milk-white dress that cut off above the knee. She sashayed to the middle of the mounted stage where a tea set, an old record player and a chair sat. She turned and showed us her back. A diva move, no doubt, but we all ate it up like cotton candy during a spring rain.
Ten years ago, the music industry was hot with talk of another diva who made the world take notice. They said Lauryn Hill had changed the game for women in hip-hop. But she has since disappeared and little has changed for women in the business. Except, there is Ms. Badu.
She's still doing what she does: creating a space for serious artists. She was one of the survivors, despite the machine's (also known as the recording industry) tendency to drive most artists into puppetry in exchange for heavier bags of paper. While watching her recently, I was proud: There are still artists like Erykah Badu. And, it felt good to know that and even better to support it.
At that concert, hundreds of us time traveled. I held my breath.
Feels like I've been holding it for 11 years, back when The Box was en vogue, before YouTube and MP3s. I'll never forget the exact moment when my 19-inch television framed this brown-skinned woman with the most articulate eyes and a grown woman's voice. Nothing was the same after that. I was then baptized and became a legitimate member of the church of soul music. Conversations about music became heated after my conversion. Allegiances got questioned on school playgrounds. Either you understood Ms. Badu's lyrics or you didn't. Either you dug her jive talk about ciphers and alternative algebraic formulas (and other five-percenter ideology) or you didn't. I remember this slight woman from Texas who had us all confused, was she hip-hop? Post-Soul? Jazz? Was there any box to put her in? And wasn't she fine?
Seeing Ms. Badu perform recently felt like a reunion: a meeting of my awkward pre-teen self and the soul-loving, recent college graduate, poetry-writing hipster I've become today. In the musty air of that concert hall, a closing of a chapter was happening. I came to fully believe that there was space for those who were decidedly outside of the mainstream, a space, a true space to breathe and exist.
It also meant my generation had grown up and not all of us bought into what the new century packaged as good music.
There will always be one Erykah Badu, just as there can only be one decade (the '90s, of course) that many of us will judge all music against. But, will there always be an audience for innovative artists? In the era of cassettes and CDs, we listened to an entire album (over and over again), became immersed in the creative statement of an album and rendered our decisions about an artist's success. The attention deficit disorder that MP3 players and YouTube encourage must certainly inhibit a listener's ear for creativity. I worry about my generation's ability to appreciate music and more so for those coming up.
What will become of the other analog girls and boys who came out too late, who as my grandparents used to say, "Been here before?" How will they find their chance moment to turn black music on its head and say, "Check this out, keep in mind, I'm an artist and I'm sensitive about my sh*#!"
Abdul Ali is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.