Erykah Badu on ‘Unboxing Valentino’

in conversation with Blake Abbie

Photography by Tony Krash

The mythical presence of Erykah Badu transcends industries and disciplines, postulating the American artist as an omnipotent figure across realms of creativity. Emerging in the 1990s at the forefront of neo-soul music, Badu’s eclectic vanguard approach to her craft, and her style, has inspired a generation of visionaries from musicians to designers. It was therefore little surprise that Pierpaolo Piccioli, who pushes sartorial and cultural boundaries at the helm of the Italian house Valentino, would ask Badu to curate the soundtrack of the Valentino Spring Summer 2023 collection.

‘Unboxing Valentino’ is a meditation on the human condition distilled into 91 precise, pared-back looks, an unexpected turn from the Roman atelier that, in recent seasons, has chosen a more maximalist approach. Hybrid garments question the structure of tailoring and its relationship with the body, as integrated second-skin layers create new possibilities for comfort and sculptural expression. For Piccioli, Badu and her music were the perfect complement to his work — an artist who chooses to make bold statements through her music, to make people listen and think; Badu could share a message.

Discussing her collaboration with the A#20 curator, Badu shares with A Magazine Curated By the process for the soundtrack and how fashion informs her own artistic output.

Erykah Badu and Pierpaolo Piccioli
Photography courtesy of Valentino

What was your exchange with Pierpaolo? How did you connect to create the soundtrack for ‘Unboxing Valentino’?

Erykah Badu: I was invited to the Valentino show at Paris Fashion Week. Before I even actually met Pierpaolo in person, I got a message at my hotel saying that he wanted me to curate a soundtrack. It was my very first time making one. Luckily, I had brought equipment with me because I like continuing to work as a touring traveller and was able to pull it off. Pierpaolo and I had only three meetings — it was only a two day thing. I spoke with him and played him lots of music and asked him what direction he wanted to go in. The time constraint narrowed down what we could use, clearance wise.

I said, “Okay, I know the perfect place to go: Madlib.” Madlib is one of my dear friends, a collaborator [and music producer]. I went through a catalogue of things he had picked out for one of my albums. After talking to Pierpaolo and hearing the intent of his show which was about not being boxed in — unboxing human capacity — I put together some things that fit. He gave me some of his requests from some of my songs, so I put those in and did a little remixing and moving things around, tempo changing, things like that.

The second day I went to the studio and was introduced to the collection. I even got a chance to try on all the clothes. We played through it that whole day, and I went back to the hotel and continued to create.

Your creative process together sounds improvisational, like a jam session.

EB: Yes, that’s the first step. And then it gets really intricate and tedious when I’m mixing and blending things together. There was a specific time limit for each tune. Each look required — and deserved — a different mood and feel. I went back and forth, did it over and over again and finally turned it. Pierpaolo was so busy but took the time to listen through and said, “That’s it.”

I would have loved to be in the room to understand what emotions were being worked through. What kind of mood did you want to come through in the soundtrack?

EB: Pierpaolo started off the show with a beautiful, dynamic piece. So to open the show, I was thinking we should move into something also beautiful and dynamic. In the middle there was this very vulnerable moment. So after looking at the clothes and models and him telling me what he felt about the meaning of the show, I imagined we were introducing a human who was walking into the world, who becomes vulnerable to the world and then finds themself. And that’s how I mixed the sounds, as far as the sequence.

Window Seat (2010), Other Side of the Game (1997), On & On (1996).

There’s an intro as well with lyrics from one of your songs: “You’ve got to get mad…”

EB: The intro is from my album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) from the track ‘Twinkle’, whose lyrics are:

They don’t know their language
They don’t know their God
They take what they’re given even when it feels odd
They say their grandfathers and grandmothers work hard for nothing

And we still in this ghetto
So they end up in prisons
They end up in blood

I got one of my really good friends Om’Mas Keith from a group called Sa-Ra; they produced half of that album.

At the end of ‘Twinkle’, Om’Mas Keith actually did a re-interpolation of a monologue from a movie called Network. In a scene from that movie, the newscaster bravely drops all of his politics and begins to speak candidly in a speech given on television. Omar rearranged it a little to fit my song and that album. That was the intro to the runway show.

How did you feel watching, listening and experiencing the whirlwind of creativity you had had over the three days?

EB: I was excited. I was sitting across from Anna Wintour who I saw enjoying it very much. To my right was the eloquent Naomi Campbell bobbing her head. And to the other side of me was Zendaya. It was magical to see because I don’t think they knew that I had done the music, but I was proud of it and happy and relieved that we could get it all done. I still had enough time to get dressed for the show in this wonderful ensemble chosen for me by Pierpaolo.

You looked fabulous with your hat and the whole Valentino look. Are you interested in the world of fashion and how it connects to your creativity?

EB: Thank you. This was the first fashion week actually honouring all my invitations over the last 20 years and I went to every show I was invited to. And I turned that motherfucker out.

I’ve always been excited about style. But I didn’t know the fashion world too much until later in my career. When I began to know who the brands and the houses were, I began to understand what I really liked about form, colour and texture. The brands were digging me and invited me, at the same time I was digging them. It was refreshing and comforting to be a part of a creative space like that. These artists, creative directors of houses, create in the same way as I create — laying things out musically or theatrically or even clothing wise. I have a lot in common with Pierpaolo, like our sense of elegance.

I didn’t have a lot of things until halfway through my career. My closet is mainly things I made or thrifted. Maybe a brand would send me a really expensive piece that I’d mix in with my patches, talismans or amulets. That’s pretty much how I do it. I’ve found that it’s the way they are wired as well, so becoming friends with these creatives has really influenced my hunger for creating on that side of the fashion world.

You’ve said before that each piece of clothing is an amulet or talisman or trinket, is our own statement, that it can be political, creative, emotional, but these things go together. What a beautiful way to think. As such it’s beautiful to be able to see this come alive in partnership and collaboration with Pierpaolo. What is it that you like to wear and what are your favourite shapes or silhouettes?

EB: No matter what is going on on top, I like to have some fringes, tassels, or something hanging at the bottom because I love the movement; I can hear the sound. I love clothing that makes sound. That’s another favourite. I wear jewellery that makes sound: bells or metal clinking things.

You move, and you make music.

EB: I like a lot of layers and being able to peel them back. Or cloak them on.

That’s what makes this collaboration so perfect. It’s the idea of unboxing, unveiling, the removing of clothing, of many layers is ultimately how you undress, and conversely dress, yourself.

EB: It was good. It was interesting. Pierpaolo started a form when he was designing the show with a lot of fabric and doodads and things. He would look at the form and start to eliminate, peel things away, as if he were a potter throwing a lump of clay on the table and carving away. The art is all that remains. That was his process. And that was mine too in creating the music, and my process from day to day. I believe evolving requires elimination.

Words by Blake Abbie
Edited by Albert Shyong 

Image curation by Federico Nessi

Photography by Andre D. Wagner.

Valentino Spring Summer 2023 by Pierpaolo Piccioli

Valentino Spring Summer 2023 by Pierpaolo Piccioli

Valentino Spring Summer 2023 by Pierpaolo Piccioli

Valentino Spring Summer 2023 by Pierpaolo Piccioli

Valentino Spring Summer 2023 by Pierpaolo Piccioli

Valentino Spring Summer 2023 by Pierpaolo Piccioli

Erykah Badu photographed by A#22 contributor Anthony Barboza (2000)




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