Film festivals. At the worst of times they can seem like ridiculous, overblown affairs choked with brands and studios positioning their product for maximum awards attention. But at their best, they’re the very lifeblood of film culture, often the only avenue for adventurous artists to get their names into the world, and a sanctuary for the sort of art that struggles to find a safe harbor elsewhere. It has often been easy to lose sight of just how important festival culture is to the art form, but the rash of recent cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19 has served as an unfortunate reminder.
Austin’s SXSW was the first major film festival to cancel, and one might easily pinpoint that announcement as the moment when the tide really began to turn in the Stateside understanding of the seriousness of the pandemic. SXSW, even more than most festivals, has long been the most high-profile home to films, music and ideas that other festivals and showcases might gloss over, and the recent news that a third of the festival’s full-time staff had been laid off sent a particular chill down the spines of so many in the film and music communities. Variety had spoken to Erykah Badu, who owes so much of her success to the fest, prior to its cancellation, and her words feel every bit as relevant now.
Badu was in Austin just last week to receive an honor from the Texas Film Awards – the Austin Film Society’s annual gala that typically takes place the day before SXSW officially kicks off. Prior to that, she shared her memories of the festival, which played a key role in launching her career.
“Austin was where the plug happened for me. I was at SXSW, which I went to every year as a starving artist trying to be recognized. I went there one year, maybe ’93 or ’94, and I had just started reading a book called ‘The Celestine Prophecy.’ Before that I had been teaching theater at the South Dallas Cultural Center, and I found myself there two years after college, but what I really wanted was be an artist of some sort. So I just decided one day to go get a record deal. I quit my job and jumped on a plane with the little money I had saved and I went to New York. I auditioned for almost every label I could find, just weaseled my way in. I auditioned for Bad Boy Records, and auditioned for Puffy [Sean Combs] himself standing on top of his desk with a boombox. And Puffy ended up saying, ‘Well that’s really great, but I think we’d want to put you in artist development.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, OK, thanks.’ Onto the next one. And the next one, and the next one. Nobody really felt what I was doing. I had this 14-song demo at the time that I was calling ‘Erykah Free,’ which really became ‘Baduism.’ So I ended up back home in Dallas.
“In ‘The Celestine Prophecy,’ it [talked] about destiny and looking for the signs and following them. By now I started working at a coffee shop called Grinders, because I’d told all the people back at the theater school to kiss my ass when I thought I was gonna go get a record contract. And I’m reading this book at work, when all of the sudden this music comes on the speakers, and it was ‘Brown Sugar’ by D’Angelo. And I was blown back. And I started rethinking my whole career. And then SXSW came up, and [my cousin] Free and I went and performed, passed out demos. And we gave one to this lady named Tammy, Tammy at some point and listened to it, and she came back and said, ‘This you?” I go, ‘Yes ma’am,’ and she goes, ‘This is pretty good, my name is Tammy Cobb and I represent Mobb Deep.” Mobb Deep was one of my favorite groups, and Free and I had been listening to them all the way to Austin. So I’m thinking, ‘OK, “Celestine Prophecy,” work this.’ That was a sign. Tammy gives my demo to this guy named Kedar Massenburg: later he would introduce himself as the manager of D’Angelo.
“Kedar liked us so much that he says, ‘D’Angelo is doing a show at the Caravan of Dreams in Ft. Worth’ – you know, not Austin, but still in Texas – ‘and we want you to open because we like what you’re doing but we want to know if you’re a good performer.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Good performer? Wait ’til he gets a load of this.’ He said cool..’ Then one week later, he calls back and says he’s not going to be able to host us. I said, ‘Bullshit! Yes, we are. I told my mama, I told everyone this is happening, we’re performing.’ And this is the first time I’d ever been assertive like that in my life about anything. I’m used to letting things happen and flowing organically, but I said no ma’am. This is gonna happen. So he said OK, finally.
“We do this show, and when I come offstage, there’s this man waiting to escort me backstage, and his name is Big Mike. And he was D’Angelo’s road manager. And now he’s my road manager, and he’s been my road manager for 25 years. He left D’Angelo that day.
“And I think that all happened because of the energy in Austin surrounding us, along with all of these prophecies that I felt were happening, which were not coincidences. Austin and SXSW was the reason that could happen. That’s why that city is a vortex for me. So whenever I go there, I’m always looking for these signs and things, looking for trees that are twisted a different way, or hearing a song on the radio. That’s what Austin means to me, it’s a vortex. And there are many vortices for me on the planet, but that’s my one, and it will always be.