why i wouldn’t be me without “mama’s gun.”

It’s difficult for me to admit this now, but I desperately wanted to be one of those shea butter queens I make fun of now. I imagined myself with a huge afro before I had even cut the perm out of my hair, was two years early on the coconut oil craze, and used to take scraps from my uncle’s tailor shop as headwraps. My local library is to blame.

When I was younger, I never owned my own personal CD player. On class field trips I was most certainly the girl who crowded around her friend to share a pair of earbuds. So when I got my first Ipod, it was a huge deal. I quickly learned the ins and outs of Limewire, and managed to only, in my four+ years of pirating, download the Bill Clinton Sexual Harassment speech once. In a lot of ways, curating the perfect 25 song playlist was a chance for me to start building what would become my identity. I took so pride in filling my Itunes playlist with songs and artists I knew my friends weren’t listening to, desperate to make sense of my desire to both fit in and assert my individuality. I skillfully scoured internet blogs, eventually creating a library filled with Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, and Lupe Fiasco. Yes, I was obnoxious. Yes, I prided myself on listening to artists “before they got big” and scoffed at people who hadn’t heard of M.I.A. But accessing these artists helped me craft a world for myself, one that wasn’t contingent on acceptance from others.

On the days where Limewire overwhelmed me, I would take the bus to the local library, my second home. My father and I were notorious at this library. For years, we would check out twenty items, completely disregard due dates until we racked up double and triple digit fines. We were so frequently present and friendly with the librarians that they would almost always drop the charges. Every week, I browsed the aisles in search of something new, picking up Lily Allen, Sarah Vaughan, and eventually landing on Baduzism. After playing the album nonstop and confusing the hell out of my mother, I knew it was time to move onto something else. I was finally ready for her magnum opus: Mama’s Gun.

I can’t remember hitting play on Mama’s Gun, because everything following felt like a black hole. I was unbelievably, irreversibly hooked on that album. I didn’t know much about conventions of music—Mr. Randolph’s music portion of music class began and ended with treble clefs—but I did know this album was defying them. Each song held a beat that was simultaneously hypnotic and fluid. The drumkick and flute on Hey Sugah, the intricately-crafted Dilla beat on Didn’t Ya Know all had me floating. I eventually was pulled down to earth by Green Eyes. The 10-minute emotional ode to the collapse of Erykah Badu and Andre 3000’s relationship had me crying over the relationship I was not yet in but so desperately wanted. By the time I reached the album’s end, I was fully engulfed.

Mama’s Gun was the soundtrack to so many of my firsts. My first major concert by myself, with openings from a still-underground Janelle Monae and N.E.R.D. I remember begging my dad to throw a little extra money my way so I could afford seats closer to the front. Shitty seats, but closer to the front, nonetheless. My first music festival: I can vividly recall driving through Maryland with the boy who gave me my first kiss and spending the day watching performances from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Common, and of course, Erykah Badu. Green Eyes was the soundtrack to my first self-indulgent heartache, after I spent months pining after an Aquarius. A complete mistake. The album was simultaneously an escape and a refuge for an angsty teen who blossomed into an anxious semi-adult.

Erykah Badu is so deeply linked to my identity because I spent my entire adolescence toying the line between individually and acceptance. I recall middle school me struggling to feel accepted because I was always late. When my friends moved on to Southpole jeans, I was still on Baby Phat. I didn’t listen to Gogo because my dad had a ridiculous “No Mumbling” radio policy, so instead I knew the words every Celine Dion song. For a long time, my identity felt like that of someone constantly trying to play catch-up. When I discovered the Badu aesthetic, it was like nothing I’d seen before. The headwraps, incense, and crystals finally felt like a concept that would set me apart from everyone else, and like something I could call my own. That shea butter identity gave me the space to build confidence about myself and to feel comfortable in my own difference. As I grew older and abandoned the need for a specific aesthetic, I recognized the beauty of transformation and growth, a shift from relying on baseless and empty claims to identity to more robust ones. Headwraps became less about looking like Badu and more about protecting my hair on the days when twist-outs and puffs were too much. I, admittedly very late, came to learn that trying to embody a whole look and identity just for the sake of standing out often feels empty. Badu was such a building block to how I came to know and see myself, a movement from someone simple and definable to a more complex, all-encompassing person who can appreciate the fullness of my own identity.

Today, my relationship with Erykah Badu is strenuous. I’ve watched her “For The D” challenge video a hundred times and her music is more than half of my shower playlist, but I’m blocked by her on Twitter (the month-long discussion on short skirts was a rough time for all of us). Still, my love for her artistry is unwavering. There is a certain unmatchable genius that Badu holds, and Mama’s Gun shines amidst the bundle of classic albums of the early 2000s.

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