Erykah Badu was born Erica Abi Johnson in South Dallas, Texas, on February 26, 1971. Her mother raised her and her brother and sisters alone, since their father, William Wright, Jr., had left the family early in their lives. To provide for her family, the children's grandmother often helped in looking after them while Erykah's mother, Kollen Maria Gipson (Wright), performed as an actress in theatrical productions. Influenced by her mother, Erykah had her first taste of show business at the age of 4, singing and dancing with her mother at the Dallas Theatre Centre. By the age of 14, Erykah was free-styling for a local radio station alongside such talent as Roy Hargrove. In her early youth, she decided to change the spelling of her name from Erica to Erykah, as she firmly believed her original name to be her 'slave' name. The term 'kah' signifies the inner self, which, when translated from Arabic, means 'can do no wrong'. Badu is also an African name for the 10th born child used for the Ashanti people in Ghana. Additionally in a letter written to Erykah from her father, "Badu in Arabic means truth and light...good choice kid."
Upon graduating from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Badu went on to study theater at the historically Black college Grambling State University. Concentrating on music full-time, she left the university in 1993 before graduating and took on several minimum wage jobs to support herself. She taught drama and dance to children at the South Dallas Cultural Center. Working and touring with her cousin, Robert "Free" Bradford, she recorded a 19-song demo, Country Cousins, which attracted the attention of Kedar Massenburg, who set Badu up to record a duet with D'Angelo, "Your Precious Love," and eventually signed her to a record deal with Universal Records.
Baduizm, Badu's highly acclaimed debut album, was released in early 1997 and debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Lead single "On & On" reached #12 on the singles charts in both the U.S. and UK. Badu received notice for her introspective lyrics and jazzy, bass-heavy sound, and was hailed as one of the leading lights of the burgeoning neo soul genre. Her sophisticated style of singing drew many comparisons to Billie Holiday. Baduizm eventually went triple platinum and, along with "On & On," won Grammy Awards at the 1998 ceremonies.
During that year, Badu became involved with rapper Andrae 3000 of OutKast, with whom she had a child, Seven, who was born in 1997. Their relationship ended sometime in the late 90s. Badu recorded her first live album, Live, while pregnant with Seven, and the release of the recording coincided with the birth to her child. Live reached #4 on the Billboard charts, selling double platinum, and spawned another R&B hit single in "Tyrone," a song chiding a selfish, cheap, and inattentive boyfriend. Badu also collaborated with the Roots (who had previously handled production duties on a number of tracks on Baduizm) on their breakthrough 1999 release, Things Fall Apart. She was featured on the song "You Got Me," co-written by Jill Scott, which hit the top 40 and won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
After taking some time off to raise her child, Badu returned in 2000 with Mama's Gun, an album more organic in sound than her previous studio album, and primarily produced by the Soulquarians and noted bassist Pino Palladino. A remix of one of the album's songs, "Bag Lady," was issued as the first single and topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. The album was well-received, with the lyrical content winning notices from many publications who found some of her lyrics hard to decipher on her initial releases. Despite not charting as high as her first two albums, Mama's Gun was another platinum-selling success, and "Bag Lady" was nominated for a Grammy.
By 2000, Badu was in a romantic relationship with fellow Soulquarian Common, and "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)" was released as a collaboration between the two on the Brown Sugar soundtrack. "Love of My Life" hit #9 on the pop charts, topped the R&B listings, and Badu was awarded her fourth Grammy for the song in 2003.
After the release of Mama's Gun and "Love of My Life," Badu went through a period of writer's block. She hit the road throughout 2002 and much of 2003 on what she dubbed the "Frustrated Artist Tour," in search of inspiration to write and perform new material. The conclusion of the tour saw Badu head back to the studio with new material, and in September of 2003, the Worldwide Underground album was released. More jam-oriented than any of her prior releases, Badu was quoted as saying that the release was designed to serve as one continuous groove. Worldwide Underground reached #3 on the Billboard charts and was certified gold not long after its release, and Badu received four further Grammy nominations for the album.
After almost four years and the birth of a daughter, Puma, it was revealed in 2007 that Badu had three albums in the works over the course of 2007 and 2008. Honey, a new single produced by 9th Wonder, was leaked online in November 2007, and the new album, titled New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), was released on February 26, 2008. Part two of the album is currently slated for February 2009 release. Erykah Badu is set to perform at the 10th annual Voodoo Experience in New Orleans the weekend before Halloween 2008.
Erykah Badu released her fifth studio album, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) on March 30, 2010. An "Icon" CD series of Badu was released on August 31, 2010. It features 12 of the most favorable hits from different albums of Erykah Badu.
Badu appeared on Flying Lotus' fourth album, Until the Quiet Comes. Badu also appeared on the debut album by the supergroup Rocketjuice and The Moon, which was released in March 2012.