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Emily J. Lordi

Emily J. Lordi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature and a forthcoming 33 1/3 book on Donny Hathaway Live.

“Erykah Badu’s Afropresentism”
In her recent remix of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Erykah Badu replaces Drake’s catchy lament, “you used to call me on my cell phone,” with the even catchier, and wordier, “you used to call me on my cell-u-lar-de-vice-at-night.” The variation not only mocks by magnifying Drake’s needless modification (“call me on my cell phone”); it also embodies the canny play with time that has long characterized Badu’s aesthetic and defined her career. As a response song, Badu’s “Hotline Bling” embodies her unusual responsiveness to her social moment, the punctuality that now seems to have shaped her work across two decades. What is notable is the sheer diversity of styles and strategies—sober, epic, funny, mundane—through which she has engaged successive presents. Witness the defining neo-soul aesthetic of her debut album Baduizm; the razor-sharp social analysis of New AmErykah Part One; the way her 2010 “Window Seat” video exposed, one year into Obama’s presidency, the limits of Black (female) mobility; and the healing “mixtape for the world” she released into this violently anti-black summer.

This paper will make a case for the just-in-timeliness of Badu’s artistic voice and use it to theorize a stance called “Afropresentism.” As distinct from Afrofuturism, which mobilizes the past (be it Parliament’s pyramids or Janelle Monae’s Space Age) to conjure worlds yet to come, Afropresentist art treats the “past” as an ever-available resource for transforming the now. Hence, both Badu’s 2008 elegy for J Dilla, “Telephone,” and her 1997 hit “Tyrone” are resurrected and transfigured in her forthcoming telephone-themed mixtape, But You Cain’t Use My Phone. Focusing on that mixtape, I will posit Badu’s Afropresentism as a musical counterpart to Black Lives Matter and campus protests that arise unscheduled and treat Civil Rights-era activism not as a burden but as an ever-present impetus to make new presents.

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