Let me take y’all back a few years, back to 1997. Remember the first time you saw Erykah Badu’s video for “On and On“? I do.

She strutted on the screen in that green headwrap and commanded us to listen. Erykah was – is- such a breath of fresh air in the game. She seemed like an earth angel, with a nasal twang of a voice akin to that of Billie Holiday’s. To this day, Baduizm is a fixture in my CD collection. In “Otherside of The Game” and “Next Lifetime,” she captures this unusual, timeless quality.

She’s positively otherworldly as she strides across the desert in the video for “Didn’t Cha Know”. Her big brown almond eyes and impossibly tall headwrap made her an imposing figure among her scantily clad R&B counterparts from the onset.

Erykah embraces an exotic image, and it totally works for her. Women who may never have worn an afrocentric hairstyle or outfit before have been inspired by Erykah’s fiercely ethnic beauty.

I love it when she’s sassy and funny, like in “Tyrone,” one of my all-time favorite break up songs. This was the jam when it came out, am I right bellas? This song was on the radio every hour on the hour!

She spoke straight to me (and many other bellas I know) with “Bag Lady.” I’m still learning to let it go, let it go, let it go, let it go.

Erykah is often cited as one of the biggest celebrities to influence women to go natural, and you’ll find photos of her in many of the Nappturality member’s photo sites as a hair inspiration.

That’s because her hair journey has mirrored our own. She’s worn it straight like Cher, or in long braids. She’ll rock a ginormous fro, like in this live video for “Black in the Day,” and shaved it all off, like in this live video for “Kiss Me.” She’s beautiful and brave enough to pull off the most extreme hairstyles. Like she says herself, “I’m “Cleva”, and I’m alright with me!”

If you’ve never seen her live, I highly recommend you check her out ASAP. Erykah delivers the goods on stage, and the whole audience is transported into her magical world.

I admire her spirit and self-confidence. Erykah Badu always knew exactly who she was, so she never felt the need to give into the black Hollywood image machine, emerging blonde and long-haired on the other side as so many individualistic afrobellas have done in the past.

She makes fun of the makeover machine in this hilarious, brief interview, where she advises wannabe pop stars to get breast, butt, and calf implants, and to “just be butt nekkid with glitter on ya, and a beeper.” Ha!

I also admire her for speaking out through her music, and improving so many hip hop songs with her hooks and background vocals. She’s the ultimate hook singing video chick in my book. (Kelis is a close second). Listen to her voice blend with Outkast and Cee-Lo’s on “Humble Mumble,” or “Liberation.” Check her out with the slick blowout and soft retro waves in this Sergio Mendes and Will-I-Am’s “That Heat.”

Let Erykah sing the hook, and your song might become a classic. Peep “You Got Me,” originated by Jill Scott but recorded by Erykah. Both are women with incredible voices, but there’s something about the husky restraint in Erykah’s version that has always touched me. Watching them perform together on the Dave Chappelle’s Block Party DVD is spine-tingling. When Erykah collaborates with someone, she works with artists who command equal respect. Love her funky futuristic look in Zap Mama’s “Bandy Bandy.”

Erykah already was a hip hop heroine, but the Brown Sugar soundtrack cemented that for everyone. She eloquently showed us exactly when she fell in love with hip hop, by collaborating through the ages with everyone from Kool Herc and Crazy Legs, MC Lyte and Chuck D, to Lil Flip. She goes mad old school and busts out a rap as MC Apples (a sobriquet she used in high school).

“Love of My Life” is her ode to the genre that has inspired her so much.

That video completely speaks to my own, complex relationship with hip-hop. I’ve loved rap music ever since my brothers got to go see Run-DMC in Trinidad in the early Eighties. “The Show” was one of the first songs I knew all the words to, period. (The other was Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”). Today I listen to all kinds of rap, from backpacker rhymes by Atmosphere and K-Os to ig’nant, drugged-out, screwed up bangers by Lil Scrappy, Three Six Mafia, and Lil Flip. My girl Lauren (Westsiiiide!) got me into Too Short and E-40, and I live in Miami, so Uncle Luke and Trick Daddy stay in my rotation. Having said all of that, I think… I KNOW that hip-hop can be better.

There’s room for the ghetto fabulosity and mentally sharp lyrics. My hope for hip-hop is that the artists start getting back to intelligent content again. And also, that old school artists will get the respect that they deserve (and I’m not talking about the VH1 Hip Hop Honors, here). I read this depressing New York Times article about older rappers put out to pasture, and I wish that Diddy, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and all of the acts that have proven to have longevity and industry respect would come together to create a Hip Hop Foundation for old school artists, akin to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for musicians who were manipulated out of the fruits of their labors by shoddy contracts.

I think Erykah Badu probably feels like I do about hip hop, that it’s come so far but it has so much further to go. I know that wherever the evolution leads us next, she’ll be there – singing her heart out and as always, marching to the beat of her own funky drummer. She’s a soul sista and a hip hop heroine, and one of my all-time hair and beauty icons.

Congratulations, Erykah! You’re Afrobella of the Week!

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