Happy Birthday Suit Mr. President

“John F. Kenneday was a revolutionary; he was not afraid to butt heads with America, and I was not afraid to show America my butt-naked truth,” says singer-songwriter Erykah Badu in the wake of her music video for Window Seat. Erykah Badu is known for her activism and philanthropy in addition to her socially conscious lyrics and eclectic style. The artist received backlash after her 2010 music video for Window Seat was released which showed her stripping as she walked down the streets of downtown Dallas. Not only was Badu committing public indecency, but she chose to strip down to nothing right as she arrived at the grassy knoll where President Kennedy was shot in 1963. Many thought that this performance art was disrespectful because of its location and public nudity around children.

Despite the controversy, the Window Seat video was widely viewed and sparked a conversation about art, nudity, and social commentary in music videos. Badu defended herself stating that it was intended to be a form of artistic expression and a commentary on social and political issues and made the point that nudity is natural and should not be seen as obscene or offensive. The decision to free Badu of all charges and fines was the right one and this is why.

Throughout the video Badu takes off her layers of clothing which symbolize the layers of obstacles that prevent growth and evolution. A tattoo that says “evolving” spreads across her back and can be seen when her shirt comes off, and about 30 seconds later she is shot in the head. Out of her head wound oozes blue blood that spells the word “groupthink”. Badu is critiquing groupthink, conformity, and the loss of individuality in today’s society, she is conveying that evolution happens when you kill off the layers that restrict growth. Her choice of location for this work of art was meant to challenge the idea of a fixed historical moment and suggest that change and progress require breaking free from established norms and beliefs, or things that are stagnant. Badu’s nudity represents her freedom from the constraints of others beliefs and freedom to think apart from the group.

Badu compares herself to President Kennedy through individuality. Kennedy was shot because he was a progressive president that wanted to stray from the norm in order to bolster progress in America. Window Seat is a part of the album The New Amerikah Part Two: Return of the Ankh and Badu believes peoples’ individuality is shunned in America and wants to communicate the dangers of mob mentality, along with the need for people to resist the pressure to conform. She reiterates that Kennedy’s open reluctance to conform is why he was assassinated, and that they (society), “Are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. They move in packs with every act of hate on one another. They feel more comfortable in groups, less guilt to swallow,” which Badu says at the end of her video.

At first glance the headline “Erykah Badu’s Nude Video, Done At Site of JFK Assassination” by NPR or TMZ’s picture titled “Erykah Banude: Click Here to Check Em Out” would cause speculation about Badu’s values, respect and judgment. The media’s twisting of Badu’s meaningful and powerful statement is an art in itself. Her message is one of love, change, and growth away from what everyone expects and leaning into the beauty of and respect for the individual.

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Rowan Mathews

One thought on “Happy Birthday Suit Mr. President

  1. This is an extremely controversial topic, and one that I feel I won’t be able to speak upon in it’s entirety. At first glance, I think it is extremely disrespectful to use a person’s death place to propel your ideologies forward. The use of Kennedy’s assassination is something that I don’t think should be depicted to graphically through any kind of “artistic freedom”. However, just because I think it is a bit disrespectful doesn’t mean I think anyone, in particular Erykah Badu, should be jailed or fined for it. Through the above article, it has become clear that Badu intended for the video to be a way to relate to Kennedy as someone who went against the norms of society for the greater good. He had a huge hand in allowing American society to evolve. Badu depicts herself as the death of the evolution that would defeat harmful conformity. While I dislike some aspects of the nature of Badu’s video, I respect the message behind it. Groupthink is often the perpetrator of a lack of critical thinking and the hinderance of social progress. It is not a crime to relate to a former President nor is it a crime to see their assassination as something symbolic that is meant to be shared with the world.

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