The only thing possibly more compelling than the music on Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah CDs is the artwork they’re each encased in. It’s easy to get lost in the multitude of images that crown her face on New Amerykah and the newly released artwork for Return Of The Ankh is the other side of a two-headed coin.
The artist responsible for giving Erkyah’s music some funkadelic sleeves to wear is known simply as Emek. For almost twenty years he’s been using a combination of silkscreen and hand drawn creations to turn album covers and posters into collectible works of art. While the MP3 threatens to make album and CD covers a thing of the past, artists like Badu are fighting to keep the soul in music in more ways than one.
“So many album covers today are just photography,” Emek says from his home in Oregon. “So Erykah wanted to go back to that old school and put some effort into it.”
While we could speculate all day long about what the symbols in these covers represent we reached out to Emek so that he could breakdown the method behind their beautiful madness.
TheUrbanDaily: When did you first start designing album covers?
Emek:I always had friends in bands and did low budget, indie album covers since the early 90s. But my first big cover was in 1995 for Neil young and Pearl Jam. They did a collaborative album together.
How did you meet Erykah Badu?
It was in 2005 and this book had come out called “The Art Of Modern Rock” and it featured a lot of artists from around the world that did artwork for bands. She was looking for an artist and of all the artists in the book I stood out to her. Then her manager contacted me and said that Erykah would like to meet you. As a coincidence I happened to be going to Austin for SXSW to show some of my artwork there and Erykah lives in Dallas. She was going to be performing and he arranged a meeting for us. We met there and hit it off.
So what was the inspiration for the New Amerykah covers?
It was really interesting because Erykah is very creative, but she doesn’t get involved to the point of being dominating. She likes to listen. She respects the creativity of other people. We listened to her music and I told her what I was seeing and we took it from there. The album had political themes so I was thinking that all of the issues of the world were weighing on her mind so I said let’s put them in her hair. So we have corruption, the health care system in the toilet, war, poverty, drugs, issues of modern life. But at the same time at the top there is music, trees and hope. It was a dark background and I drew her not really wearing make-up. It was a heavier vibe.
This new album is a whole other direction. It’s more personal and more emotional. I thought let’s take all of the corruption from her hair and we’ll have it fall as debris behind her. Those elements are still there but they’ve fallen down. She has a song on the album called “Twenty Feet Tall.” One of the lyrics is “you built a wall that’s 2o feet tall/but when I got off my knees I realized I was twenty-feet-tall too…” so I said let’s draw her really big and she’s encased in armor to protect herself from all of these previous elements and life in general.
She has another song called “Out My Mind (Just In Time)” so the tree of life is growing and she’s reborn as this innocent nude. We chose purple because it represents the 7th chakra, the crown chakra, the healing. So there is a lot of violet and purple. And out of all the debris behind her back all this life is growing, plants. Etc.
There’s also a lot of symbolism of threes: 3 moons, 3 Ankhs, 3 little babies hidden in the flowers because she has three kids. On the first album there are children being born in to this corrupt world. That’s about unwanted children and innocence being exposed to a harsh reality. But in this one the flowers and the babies are a healing energy and positive growth. She has this one song “My Music My Love My Babies” and 3 parts of life: being born, living your life and dying. The threes are all around.
Is she holding a tuning fork?
Yes, so she’s summoning the energy of the universe and you see these ripples in the sky. The ripples also could mean that the whole scene takes place underwater and shes about to emerge.
I see that you’ve modified the Ankh on her back a little bit…
Yeah. I made an Ankh heart because the Ankh is a symbol of life and eternity. Life energy is positive and love so I just made a “heart/ankh.”
So what is your method for doing this and how long did these covers take?
Album covers are a little different from the posters that I do. They start as black and white drawings I do by hand. They take a couple of weeks. Then I fill in all of the color on the computer. It still takes time but the computer definitely helps. Part of the process is collaborating and modifying as you go. There are always those late night phone calls where she says “I think she should be wearing an Egyptian headdress.”
A lot of people I’ve spoken to see a big Parliament/Funkadelic influence in these. Would you agree?
Oh sure. Growing up my parents had all kinds of music but we definitely had our share of great album covers. We didn’t’ have a TV in our house and I don’t think Erykah did either. I was influenced by a lot of album covers growing up. My parents had friends with tons of Grateful Dead artwork but it wasn’t until many years later that I heard the actually heard the music.
So you know I have to ask if any of these were constructed under the influence…
I’ve been doing Rock and Roll related art for 20 years and people always ask “Were you on drugs when you did this?” For me when I draw I have to be 100% sober. I get my demons out in my art. When you’re a serious artists with tons of deadlines and have a family to support you gotta keep it pure. When you’re listening to music, that’s a different story.
Have you been approached by any of Erykah’s friends to do their album covers?
Certain bands have asked Erkyah if they can use me and she says “no, he’s mine and I’m gonna keep him busy for a while.” But that is the nature of my business. Every project I do leads to more work so it’s all good.
To see more of Emek’s work visit his site at www.emek.net