The Spice Girls “Wannabe,” Toni Braxton “Unbreak My Heart,” Jewel “Foolish Games,” and Meredith Brooks “Bitch,” were vying for radio listeners’ attention; the first Lilith Fair was birthed at The Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington; Shania Twain made country music history with her album Come On Over while Björk delved into darker and weirder territory with Homogenic. Such was the musical landscape for women in 1997. Into all that glided neo-soul goddess Erykah Badu with her debut Baduizm (which happens to turn 20 this weekend). Even the cover was important: Badu in profile wearing a tall brown headwrap, her face entirely obscured. Could there be a more diametrical opposite to the shiny, Barbie-fied beauty propagated by the Spice Girls?
Badu’s (she tweaked her given name, Erica Abi Wright, adding “kah,” Egyptian for “inner self” and adopting “badu,” her favorite jazz scat) freewheeling, unflinchingly honest musical style was a revelation, but we were then (and continue to be now) just as hypnotized by her personal style. While there are many artists in the public eye who fashion a persona (or have one fashioned for them by stylists) for the stage or the camera, Badu is not one; her look is sprung entirely from her own imagination and there’s no off-duty, off-stage version of it. She’s cited David Bowie, Chaka Khan and George Clinton as muses, and, like them, there are few sartorial statements that she hasn’t dallied with. Her kaleidoscopic accessory collection alone is iconic—ankh everything, bullet sashes, Masai bracelets (sometimes worn as anklets), outsize cuffs, rings and chokers, septum chains and arrows, and a milliner-level stash of hats (her Ricardo Tisci-designed rhinestone-encrusted topper is the stuff of Met Gala history).
And in the beauty realm if you can dream it, Badu has done it—yellow mohawks, red eyeshadow, tribal-style face paint, faux freckles, calf-grazing braids, shaved head, face jewels, lower lash falsies, grills, black lipstick and the list goes on—and is still doing it. Though she once sang about being an analog girl in a digital world, Badu is nowadays very much connected and, just a PSA, if you’re not following her on Instagram you’re not living your best life. A pioneer for creativity and self-expression in every facet of her life (and there are many: stylist, documentary filmmaker, actor, and, already a certified doula, she’s studying to become a licensed midwife) Badu is the embodiment of a brand of beauty the world could use more of.