I don’t know what to say…so many leaders to obey. But I was born on Saviour’s Day, so I choose me…
–Erykah Badu, “Me” from the New Amerykah album
She sucked me in with “Honey”, the first single, a loving,drawling sonic and visual (Chris Robinson, a long time music video director of hers never stops pleasing) ode to black music and independent record shops. I probably should have anticpated though, from the intensely dark and defiant cover art and album title, that “Honey” would be as sweet as it got.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A political album in the way that only the oftentimes brilliant Badu can be comes right on time. Her album comes in the year where it is more likely than unlikely that our next president will be a white woman or a black man (John Stewart, this year’s Oscars host, brilliantly quips that in the movies, when either of these groups are leading the country, the world is about to end). A new America indeed.
There’s no shortage of stories that media makers have been able to produce about the potential Democratic nominees. There’s no precedent for this. Pundits try to be nonchalant about this black man who raises millions in a month (okay, I sent in my $25 too) and gets more people out to vote than have in a long time. It’s hard. The Village Voice and other outlets construct false divisions such as latte-labor to manage Obama and Clinton’s respective bases.
Every now and then, someone remembers that a black female–that group of us who have something in common with both Democratic candidates–perspective could be useful. And true enough, Badu is no Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm or Carol Moseley Braun, she certainly has her platform. Listening to her album, the most uneven and arguably compelling of all of them, I’m reminded of the freedoms she undoubtedly owns as an artist.
Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has observed that the line between politicians and actors is faint in that they are nearly equally interested in the “benefits of authenticity”–how real they can appear to the rest of us.
Dare I say that in a landscape where the political differences between Clinton and Obama are scant, what we’re left to judge them on is appearance and delivery–their ability to communicate that they are the appropriate leaders of the “new” America potentially awaits us. While pundits try to wax about “issues,” I consider the visceral differences in the demeanor of the two–Obama with his cool charisma and Hillary with her tough gal persona. Black man or white woman. Few would admit it openly, but I suspect that in this context, Obama might win because he seems genuinely relaxed about the mess that Bush will leave for him.
But genuineness-what’s “real” can be relative. (Think the famous tune–Real, Compared to What?) So Obama scores points for being relaxed. But Clinton, who perpetually looks like she’s always fighting an uphill battle (I mean, she is behind in delegates and all) exhibits a clear appeal to “working” Americans, who I suspect are reassured by someone who seems less idealistic and more about grit. Consider their campaign slogans–his hope/change rhetoric vs. her experience platform. My suspicion is that when the lights, cameras and tape recorders are off, they probably aren’t as polarized as these positions would suggest.
I know one thing though–Obama had flashes of losing his cool (read, he momentarily stopped acting) when NBC’s Tim Russert put him on the spot regarding Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s support of him. What a tight space one must navigate in order to lead our country. Because if there was ever a loaded and complicated person or issue, it would be Farrakhan.
Ironically, Badu sings, “I salute you Farrakhan, ‘coz you represent me.” Is Farrakhan defined solely by his anti-Semitism? I don’t know the answer. I agree with Obama–Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is completely out of pocket. Yet I know that he has a certain “I got your back” relationship with black folks, despite his frequently inflammatory positions. This, I believe, is the impetus behind him “representing” Badu. Which, of course, Obama could never have admitted, due to the inability of mass media and public to consider two things that appear contradictory both being true.
In the meantime, Obama racks up more victories and closes polling gaps (although this ends up being inconsequential really). Clinton holds it down in the big, traditionally democratic states. Pennsylvania, the last delegate-rich state is several campaign stops away. And I–as a woman, African-American, media producer and activist–have been enjoying the most exciting and fun political process of my twentysomething years. I can’t wait to see who wins. And as I cross my fingers hoping to witness Obama and his family walking across the White House lawn, Badu remains central to my soundtrack.
As an artist who refuses to walk a tightrope, be neat or contained, she is quite reassuring. Her album is anything but crafted soundbites and slogans and the essence of lots of questions, uneven-ess, contradictions, problems and ultimately beauty. Probably more “real” than Clinton, Obama, or any politician, really, could ever hope to be. And, she won’t be president.
But I tell you, I’d vote for her if I could.