“Sometimes you think you are at the end, and you are just further deep in. Like a relationship,” Erykah Badu said while untangling a pile of gold and beaded necklaces on a recent cold night in New York City. “And when you finally come to an end, you feel bad about it.”
It was a night in for Ms. Badu, 45, a singer who also assumes any of the following names or in some cases personas: She Ill, Badoula Oblongata, Sara Bellum, Manuela Maria Mexico, Annie the EL, Mary Magnum, Automatic Slim, Butchy Knife Betty, Analog Girl in a Digital World, Lowdown Loretta Brown.
When asked, she can rattle off all of these melodically, without missing a beat. “You will come to realize my sense of humor is morbid and dry,” she said, laughing. Before her first album, when she was about 24, Ms. Badu worked at Steve Harvey’s comedy club, starting as a waitress, making it to the writer’s room where she wrote a few jokes that he used.
“This is my typical night,” she said from a Midtown Manhattan hotel room that seemed meditation-ready with strawberry and sandalwood incense burning and “Feel Better, World! … Love, Ms. Badu,” a mixtape that she uploaded to Mixcloud about a year ago, playing from her laptop.
It was just two days before Thanksgiving, which Ms. Badu, whose lineage she says includes Choctaw tribe, would spend “contemplating.” “It’s an awkward tradition, especially because of what is happening right now at Standing Rock,” she said, referring to the protests there over the planned Dakota Access Pipeline. “You can’t really think and feel comfortable.”
She had hung nine hats of various colors and shapes in the bedroom, a signature of the singular style for which she is known.
That night, Ms. Badu wore a kimono and multiple pieces of jewelry, including a crystal ankh necklace and a gold string hanging from her mouth, which she calls her “floss,” made by the jewelry designer Bijules. “This is a custom for Senegalese wrestlers,” she said. “They put string in their teeth to remind them of certain things or to remember a certain length of time.”
Ms. Badu was in town from Dallas, where she spends most of her time with friends and family. That includes daughters Puma, 12, and Mars, 7 (her son Seven, 19, left in September for college); her mother; uncles; and two 90-year-old grandmothers, Viola and Thelma. “I go to their house every day,” she said of her grandmothers. “I live in Dallas because that’s where they are.”
Ms. Badu hosted the Soul Train Awards, which will be shown on BET today. She was executive producer and helped choose some of the show’s performers.
It has been 19 years since her debut album, “Baduizm,” received great acclaim and two Grammys, yet songs like “On and On” continue to resonate with a new audience. Her latest mixtape, “But You Caint Use My Phone,” a line taken from her 1997 song “Tyrone,” infuses Drake’s “Hotline Bling” into her soul sound, something she said her son suggested.
Around 11 p.m., Yasmin Amira Davis, a hairstylist who has also worked with Sean Paul and Janet Jackson, arrived to tend to Ms. Badu’s nearly floor-length braids, a process Ms. Badu does every two to four weeks to touch up pieces that have grown out. (The session, which Ms. Davis completed with an assistant, lasted until about 5 a.m.) “I wanted [the braids] to be as thin as the lines on your hand,” Ms. Badu said. Ms. Badu estimates that she has thousands of braids, each taking about 8 to 15 minutes to do by hand.
Ms. Badu first wanted to wear her hair in braids when she was 7 or 8 years old because she saw a drawing in a South Dallas shop of two women with very long braids that were wavy at the end. “I said, ‘I think that’s me, I feel that energy,’ ” she remembered. The shop was that of Isis Brantley, who nearly 30 years later still reguarly braids Ms. Badu’s hair.
“How’s your mommy? And your granddaddy?” she asked Ms. Davis, who was rapidly braiding with unfaltering concentration. Ms. Davis and Ms. Badu had been working with each other for only a few months, but both said they felt as if they had known each other much longer. “My grandmother was sick and I was with [Ms. Badu] awhile and she said ‘You should go back,’” Ms. Davis said. “And when I got back home, she died a couple days later. So you want to say intuition — yes, for certain.”
At times, Ms. Badu and Ms. Davis have up to five women braiding down, sometimes for a couple days at a time. “When we are all together, the rhythm — and we are all around, there’s incense … it just feels really good,” she said. “I takes a village. A tribe. And it’s a sharing kind of thing.”