In what promises to be a critically acclaimed summer concert series, three Grammy-winning performers have joined forces to create The Sugar Water Festival Concert Series. Midway through the tour, the stars — Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott — sat down with NBC News’ reporter Terry Wynn II to discuss the politics of their music, owning their work as artists and what the festival represents to them as women.
How did you come up with the name Sugar Water Festival?
Erykah Badu: Water is the most fluent element on the earth with more that three quarters of the earth being covered with water. And water also represents the mother, the earth, the womb. And saying “sugar water” means we are the sugar in the water. The sweetness that sweetens the water.
Jill Scott: It’s like sweet nectar of the gods. God created water, God created us. It just has so many meanings, but we will figure it out by the time it is over.
You each have toured nationally as solo acts; so what was your inspiration for touring as a collective?
Queen Latifah: It was a lot of groveling involved (laughing).
JS: Please! When she brought up the concept of the festival, having all three of us tour together, I was like um…yea! It was not even a thought. I didn’t even take a breath on that one.
QL: Honestly for some people it is a thought. But for us it wasn’t a thought. It was an idea I think. I think Erykah can relate to being on a tour where the idea is hot and you are hot and you just wish you could have the same thing for your folks. That was what was on my mind after doing the Lilith Fair. And I am used to being on tours with people who are fantastic performers and I respect them and I love their music. But the bottom line is they got the vision for what we are trying to do. The bottom line was let’s get the tour, and own our tour. I am all about ownership. And if anybody knows anything about us it’s about ownership and handling your business but having fun at the same time. Erykah wants to do way more community activist things, so does Jill and so do I. This is only the beginning. They are willing women and I just thank God that they got it.
Erykah, both you and Queen Latifah have branched out into movies in addition to your music and Jill you recently released a book of poetry. But because of your musical success, you each could have just rested on your laurels and the fruits of your past but you choose to go into other areas. How do you continue to raise the bar for yourselves as artists?
EB: I think I can speak for everybody when I say this is how they made us! This thing right here. Like, you can be a singer all day long or an actor all day long but I think the Almighty put certain things in people. If Jill were a wrestler, she would still excel because she has that “thing” in her that makes her unique. It’s a thing that we are very grateful for and that we don’t take for granted. So you don’t want to do just one little thing. God gave us the gift to do many things. Being an artist, I would say my religion is art because I do God’s work best through my art.
JS: You better preach!
One thing I have noticed about each of you is that your work is simultaneously social and political. Have important is it to have a message within the music?
EB: Is it important? I think it is sometimes. It depends on where you are.
QL: It goes back to the same thing she said. It just depends on what comes out of you naturally. Some people observe life naturally and sometimes you just have to let things out and think about it later. You have to allow your mind to create and then if you want to censor something and bring it down or point it in a different direction, then you can do it. You need to give yourself the time to think freely. I don’t know if that is political. But sometimes things are political because you observe things that are right or that are wrong and you want to speak on them.
JS: I think if you force the issue like saying ‘Right now I am going to write a love song or a revolutionary song.’ It becomes a machine and that is not what an artist is. You just wait and it hits you and you have to be obedient to it.
How do you feel about illegal downloads and the bootlegging of your music?
EB: I don’t know if it affects us at this point because being on tour is how we make our money. You are supposed to make money off residuals but you have to sell the same number of records as Michael Jackson to get some royalties back. So at this rate, me personally, how ever people can get the music and enjoy it is OK. And that is one reason we have other businesses because we have learned that this whole system is not built for the artists.
JS: I am the kind of person who feels you deserve the fruit of your labor. And if anybody take the fruit off my plate, I have an issue with it. I don’t know if I am necessarily angry because I do understand the other side of it with people in the system trying to make a living but because that is my fruit on your table and you are not giving me a cut I have an issue with it.
QL: I feel anger and I feel understanding. It’s a difficult position to be in.
JS: I don’t even watch bootleg movies.
QL: The way this industry is set up, it is doomed to failure. The more you push the budgets up, the more you make records cost $20, the more you make records last 4 and 5 minutes on the radio. The point is, there was the variety to allow you to do different things but somewhere along the lines they made it this homogenized thing. And you can’t ask someone who is not making that kind of money to go to the record store and buy an album when someone down the street has the same record with same sound quality for $5.
Do you feel like the industry categorizes its artists?
JS: Yea, you see it in the media. Like when I came out, ‘if you like Erykah Badu, you will like Jill Scott. Or if you like Jill Scott, you will love Floetry.’ Like we need another one of those because we did well. It’s like, can you hurry up and make another one of that?
EB: You talk about political; everything we do is a political statement from Jill’s hairstyle to Queen Latifah being a covergirl. The Sugar Water festival, the fact that we own the festival is a political statement. You don’t have to think about it. It just is. In this country anything an African American woman does, whether her hair is permed or pressed is a political statement.
Erykah, to your point about political statements, some press publications have been quoting you because at the end of your song “Danger” you say “F**k the police.” Are you concerned about how people will interpret what you do and the repercussions of your actions?
EB: A part of me is sometimes. But no matter what I do I know I am being guided.
But I just want to clear this up. I am not talking about the police as individuals. I am talking about the police system that forced us to do some of the things we do because we are impoverished and in projects, and then we are made to depend on the system. But when we try to survive in the system, we are arrested. So that is what I am saying.
QL: If you want to come to the show and see what she meant, you should just spend your money and come see what she meant (laughing).
[For details on the festival, click Sugar Water Festival]