As a Black gender equality advocate, I had mixed reactions to Erykah Badu’s video “Window Seat.” I worried about people cheapening the significance of the song. In the video, the artist removes all of her clothes while walking down a public street in broad daylight. As Badu walks, you can see a person behind her picking up her clothes as she discards them. A small group of people, including a mother and her two children, stand near her as she’s wearing nothing but her underwear. A few moments later, she’s shot, and the purple words GROUP THINK puddle around her head as she lies naked in the street. Badu’s cameraman captured the stunt in one take on March 13 in Dealey Park, the site in Dallas, Texas where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
After its March 27th debut at 3:33 a.m. on erykahbadu.com, Badu spent the next three days leading to the release of her album, New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh, asking her thousands of followers on Twitter about the concept of “groupthink” under her moniker “fatbellybella.”
She received many answers concerning the ability to break away from crowd mentality in order to express one’s individuality. However, the irony remains that the majority of perspectives largely praised Badu for her video, her art, her body, and her courage to bare all – fueling an atmosphere perfect for promoting Return of the Ankh and resisting more harsh criticisms of her video offering.
Reactions on Twitter also remarked on the size of her booty and her figure for a 39-year-old mother of three and not Badu’s symbolism. The offenders were a cross-section of races and genders, and everything – from her underwear choice to the large tattoo of the word EVOLVING on her back – was discussed, criticized, and lauded.
To be fair, blatant objectification of naked bodies is expected in a market where sex and nudity sell a lot of products, including Erykah Badu’s album. However, Black women have a fraught history with objectification and display of their bodies against their will, the most notable example being the life of Saartjie “Sara” Baartman, also known as “Hottentot Venus.”
In 19th century Britain, Baartman was showcased as an oddity because of the protrusion of her buttocks and the size of her breasts – physical evidence of Black female sexual promiscuity and inferiority. British authorities continued to capitalize on Baartman’s body after death by placing her sexual organs and brain in formaldehyde and displaying them in museums.
Baartman’s legacy for Black women is the perpetual question of what people see and expect when we are scantily clad or wearing nothing. Are we viewed as human or as animals? Will we be treated with respect like autonomous human beings, or treated like inferior and violable sex objects?
When asked by entertainment writer Hunter Hauk about the symbolism and stylistic choices for her video, Badu said:
The song “Window Seat” is about liberating yourself from layers and layers of skin or demons that are a hindrance to your growth or freedom, or evolution. I wanted to do something that said just that, so I started to think about shedding, nudity, taking things off in a very artful way. I am from the theater, and this is just a part of expression to us, a part of art. And I saw a video by a group called Matt and Kim, and it was filmed in Times Square. And I thought it was the bravest, most liberating thing I’ve ever seen two people do. And I wanted to dedicate this contagious act of liberation and freedom to them.
Is the legacy of the Hottentot Venus among those layers of skin? Badu later explained in the interview that the video’s symbolic assassination foreshadowed the character assassination and backlash she would receive for exposing herself freely and on her own terms – with no state permits and no staged surroundings.
The Guardian reported on April 1 that Badu was charged and fined $500 for disorderly conduct after mother of two Ida Martinez filed an affidavit about witnessing the shoot and taking offense. Still, $500 is a pittance considering the buzz Badu generated after not being in the public eye since the debut of her album New Amerykah, Pt. 1, Fourth World War about two years ago.
The feminist pop culture blog Jezebel brought another perspective to Badu’s video and the act of exposing oneself, in its article on Liberian women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee. In one moment in particular, she strips naked to escape arrest and to draw police away from other protesters. Her decision to strip naked, in West African tradition, places a curse on those who behold her. In Gbowee’s literal action to free herself from imprisonment, we see a parallel to Badu’s symbolic liberation – women taking ownership of their lives, bodies, and sexualities can have unintended consequences; but the ownership on its face is a significant step in the direction of autonomous sexual decision-making and creativity.
The lyrics in “Window Seat” (“I just want a chance to fly/a chance to cry/and a long bye-bye”) also hit on important themes of growth, evolution, and the role of mourning and healing during painful and significant transitions. Although brownfemipower writes about mourning without reference to Erykah Badu, her words hit the same themes that I heard in “Window Seat”:
intrinsic in the process of mourning in my culture–is saying goodbye. Of recognizing that the dead will always be with us–in the trees, the wind, the food we eat–but they were not meant to be the center of our attention forever. we can invite them in on special days. we can leave food out for them when we feel their restlessness. but they have their place and we have ours. Goodbye is not “healed.” it’s not “moving on.”
it’s commitment to a new relationship.
In “Window Seat” we hear Badu grapple with the terms of forming this new relationship: how does a person make time to spread her wings without losing contact with those she loves, befriends, and sometimes craves? The musical rhythms change as the needs alternate: desires for distance and independence are coupled with mellow piano and synth, while calls out to the world for applause, energy, comfort, and direction are accentuated by a steady, stomping, clapping rhythm. The song helped me take joy in asking that question, even if I could not fly to the answers.
I always love looking at the deliberation and care Erykah Badu puts into her artistry, and Return of the Ankh has not disappointed me. The number “3” factored into the month and day selected for the album release (March 30th or 3/30) and the day and time of the release of “Window Seat” (March 27 at 3:33 p.m.; 3 is the square root of 27).
In numerological terms, the number 3 symbolizes a complete cycle between the past, the present, and the future. Badu often discussed the symbolism of the ankh, an ancient symbol from Egypt (formerly known as Kemet), during her concerts because of its ties to reproduction, renewal, and generation. Add in the fact these significances all relate to the season of spring, and you realize when Badu returns to a place, she brings it all the way.
On the whole, the album Return of the Ankh takes a departure from the political, hard-hitting rhythms of Fourth World War. On Return of the Ankh, you won’t find bass-laden songs similar to “The Healer” painting hip-hop as a healing force in Black communities; or like “Soldier” rallying Black communities around issues like Hurricane Katrina, street violence, and drug abuse.
The symbolism of the ankh as a regenerative force is not lost on the album’s tracks. Fourth World War’s need for money and survival in “That Hump” gets a makeover in Return of the Ankh’s funky and playful “Turn Me Away (Get Munny).” In this ode to making money in any way possible, Badu blends the tune and chorus from Sylvia Striplin’s 80s funk classic “You Can’t Turn Me Away” with the refrain of “Get Money” from the 90s rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A. (whose hit “Get Money” also sampled Striplin). The result is another grown and sexy groove Badu can add to her repertoire.
Another song that ties into the ankh’s regeneration theme is “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long,” another mellow yet funky offering from Badu. In this song, we hear about a lover giving her desired partner a break for time to get his life together (“When you go where you go boy I miss you much/but I know you’ve got to get your hustle on”). The track is a great transition from the funkiness of “Turn Me Away”; however, the theme of the album changes from cultivating one’s own personal journey to awaiting a loved one’s evolution into himself (“I can’t wait to see what you do/It’s not too much to follow you through”).
Return of the Ankh also christens the return of Badu’s long jazz-inspired ballads in the final track “Out My Mind, Just in Time”, similar to songs “I Want You” from her 2004 album Worldwide Underground and “Green Eyes” from 2000’s Mama’s Gun. The three songs are each over 10 minutes long and chronicle a lover’s struggle with infatuation, heartbreak, and emotional turmoil by shifting to different musical styles (sometimes seamlessly; sometimes not).
“Out My Mind, Just in Time” sucked me in immediately with its first two lines: “I’m a recovering undercover over-lover/recovering from a love I can’t get over.” The melodies are contemplative and soothing enough for easy relaxation, and Badu’s ease with the rhythms of this song reminded me of why music critics compared her singing talent to Billie Holliday’s early in her career.
The most important thing “Window Seat” as a video did for introducing Erykah Badu’s album is introduce to those who haven’t heard her that underneath all the costumes, all the marketing, and all of the expectations, Erykah Badu is just a woman. Return of the Ankh will teach new listeners and remind longtime fans that Badu is a talented and brave artist as well.