Erykah Badu’s auspicious entrance into public consciousness was remarkably new and old at the same time. Nowhere is this paradox more clear than in the music video for her 1997 single “On & On.” With the swing and candor of an old-timey blues singer, Badu opens the video singing mournfully about a neglected Afro. “Pick your Afro daddy, cause it’s flat on one side.” It’s not part of the song, in fact it comes from a skit on Badu’s debut album Baduizm, but the humorous blues number helps lend historical authenticity to the Color Purple-inspired visuals laid out by director Paul Hunter.
Set somewhere in the 1930s or 40s – judging by the fashion – the camera paints a rustic scene of a country house and its attendant characters, from dashing young Black couples in their Sunday best to chickens, a cow, and playful children. Badu enters the scene dressed down, hair wrapped, and wringing clothes for the line, moving away from the action. We’re told by another character that she must “remember to do all [her] chores before going anywhere!” If you weren’t aware of the Alice Walker novel and film that served as a muse, you might think it was a take on Cinderella through the lens of Zora Neale Hurston.
The scene and sound then shift abruptly from a quaint exterior to a chaotic interior and from the blues to the sampled kick drum that starts off the song. With the slam of a door, the music fast-forwards to 1997 while the visual stays no less than half a century behind. It perfectly captures the timeless allure of Badu and her seamless blend of several decades worth of music, from hip-hop to soul to jazz.
From the messy house we arrive at a juke joint where Badu, wrapped in emerald green fabric, is performing to a captivated crowd. Later, the woman who reminded Erykah to finish her chores at the beginning of the video, is watching her perform and clocks her con: “I know that ain’t my tablecloth she got on!” It doesn’t matter though: Erykah keeps singing and the party keeps going. Like much of her work, the point isn’t to deceive but to lay the truth bare, even if it requires her to don a tablecloth as a dress for us to get it. The choices are strategic. The spiritual and philosophical teachings Badu relays in the song – which come from sources as diverse as Socrates and the Five Percenters – are heavy. She needed a way to entice rather than scare away listeners.
As one of the earliest songs to be branded “neo-soul,” Erykah Badu’s debut single and video set the tone for a movement that would redefine R&B in the late 90s and early 2000s. The song was the first of the budding genre to reach the top of the R&B charts and it earned her a Grammy Award. With an iconic video to match, it’s easy to let it keep playing on and on.