Pick yo afro, daddy, because it’s flat on one side
You need to pick yo afro, daddy, because it’s flat on one side
Well, If you don’t pick your afro, you gonna have one side hiiiiiiiigh…
That’s basically the trailer to Erykah Badu’s “On and On.” When I hear those words, one image comes to mind: my undergraduate students.
Last spring, a student did a presentation on Badu using the video to this song. The video is announced as a story that opens with the lines above. As soon as that third line hit, If you don’t pick yo afro daddy, you gon have one side hiiiiiiiigh, the class sang in unison. And then everybody just started laughing.
Yes, I was cracking up too, but I was also surprised… now hold up, yall— yall was only 2 years old when this song came out. What yall know about daddy’s afro being high? They ignored me except, of course, Aysha, who came to my office (and still on many other occasions) to tell me I was EXTRA (I was always extra: extra with the homework, extra with the assignments, extra with the discussion topics, extra with the earrings…. just EXTRA… I have come to love this word!) I get away with these kinds of comments as a college teacher, stuff I never got away with when I taught high school. During lunch, I always turned on the old school at noon on HOT 97 (my hip hop station back then) so when students finished eating lunch, many would come to my classroom. I should have known better but I was surprised when these students knew ALL of the lyrics to every and any Rakim or Sugar Hill or Roxanne or KRS-One song they heard, though many were not born at the time or, at least, they were still crawling in diapers. When I expressed my surprise, they got all personal, snapped on me because I grew up in Ohio, and accused me of trying to learn to pop-lock when they just came out the womb knowing Hip Hop. Yeah, they took it THERE. I was not phased though and would describe, rather rudely (with reminders of what they just had for lunch), the kind of excrement they had in their diapers while I was grown, understanding what I was hearing, and able to wipe my own behind… in Ohio. Not exactly one of my finer moments, I admit, but, hey, I wasn’t gon let them play me like that. Sometime you gotta do what you gotta do. Point is: there is a cultural apparatus and literate community here that recreates black experiences through music.
You don’t need to have been alive when Badu first came on the scene with that first album, Baduizm, (and every album thereafter) for it to make its impact on how you understand your life and the ways in which you understand being a black woman. With Badu, I see my students placing themselves into new aesthetic expressions, whether it be through body adornment, sound collaborations, or the crafting of one’s singing voice. Badu even designs new AfroDigital experiences to go along with her opening lament of a lost love or with her choral request that someone simply clap for her and have her back (see Badu perform “Window Seat” at the 2010 Soul Train Awards below). We seem to notice, maybe even over-notice, when young people of Afrikan descent gravitate to meaningless or, worst yet, offensive commercial musicians who often have very little to contribute in content or talent. When students start singing a song that came out in 1997 as if they have lived that moment with Badu (they were only 2 and 4 years old at the time), then, clearly, it is not accurate to think they are only gravitating to commercially successful artists who trade in poppy gimmicks for style, choose corporate branding over aestheticism and music, and pursue money rather than soul. I love when my students let me feel the ways that they are feeling those differences.
When I have students who are so deeply invested in a genre or musician that is literally before their time, I stop to notice these explicit ways that black communities sustain culture, memory, sound, and history. In this particular case, there’s a word for it: Baduizm.