Erykah Badu’s “Call Tyrone” Goes On a Fieldtrip to Romeo and Juliet

In all fairness, she’d have to  believe her own  “it’s-all-about-the -children” hot air to climb into this actual hot-air inferno:  an un air-conditioned,  Birmingham,  Alabama, cheese wagon , embarking on a four-hour ride with a bunch of raging inner-city ninth graders headed to an Alabama Shakespeare Festival performance of Romeo and Juliet.   Hence, I was surprised and grateful when a large, over-dressed black woman from the BOE agreed to serve as my emergency replacement chaperone, when the other adult who was scheduled to ride shotgun with me saw the light of Jesus and called in sick.  Sure, I’d rather not have had this degree of exposure to the authorities on this my first fieldtrip ever.  As the new teacher who seemed hell bent on making every mistake in the book, I had the vague suspicion that not all that could go wrong had yet gone wrong:  you know, like the non-stop singing of Eryakh Badu’s “Call Tyrone” as we bumped and jostled our way there… and back.

For those of you who failed to do your homework — memorizing the lyrics of the YouTube version of this fine song that I posted recently– I’ll sample the first stanza here:  “I’m getting’ tired of yo shit/ You don’t never buy me nothin’/ And every time you come around/ Ya gots ta bring Jim, John, Paul, and Tyrone/  Well I think ya better call Tyrone/  But you can’t  use my phone.”   Apparently, after all that utterly preposterous, family-feud defying, ideal love in Romeo and Juliet, the kids were eager to explore real love: the raw, economics of love symbolized in Tyrone’s tragically spurned homeboy… and soon-to-be roommate. The kids were making up for lost time, given the all-too-obvious dramatic possibilities Shakespeare had inexplicably left unexplored…like Juliet  getting all up in Romeo’s grill when he participated in a little gang banging with his homies or when that shit, Tybalt, took it all a little too far.

Clearly the sexual politics of “Call Tyrone” are of greater interest than Shakespeare’s oddly chaste lovers offing themselves over unrequited love.  Inviting one’s lover to permanently hang wit’ his homeboy Tyrone conveys the powerful and timeless missive: Guess who’s not going to be getting any?  You like hanging with Tyrone so much?  Well, I got an idea.  Why don’t you give him a call and go hang with him… on a permanent basis?  “But you can’t use my phone,“ is the coup de grace. In fact, take yo’ lazy, no-good ass down to the liquor store and see if your “friends” down there will let you mooch off of them long enough to “CA-ALL  TY-RO-ONE.”   Little hands rose high in the air above the bus seats in a spontaneous slow wave to the now multi-syllabic words of Badu’s timeless chorus.

Keisha, the queen bee in the middle of the bus, was happily orchestrating this amusing distraction from being stuck like napalm to molten plastic bus seats, listening carefully for any deviations from the lyrics and making everyone start completely over if they got something wrong.   I glanced over at the now sweating woman from the board who had not had enough advanced warning to dress appropriately for the occasion.   It was getting hard to tell if she looked hot ‘n bothered because she was stuffed into a polyester suit and hosiery or because our precious hope for the future were singing about being tired of a lover’s shit.   I had a grim foreboding it was the later.

As she slowly rose, struggling to unstick her flesh from the bus seat, I could see my barely begun career passing before my eyes.  Her exasperation had already reached feverish pitch as she yelled, “Young ladies! Tyrone not the kinda man you EVUH want to call!”  She then launched into the sermon on the bus, a beautifully crafted, impromptu lecture in the “I Have A Dream” oratory tradition, lambasting her subdued audience on the pitfalls of associating with the Tyrone’s of this world. Her critical reading of the text was, of course, way off:  the point of the song is that long-term association with Tyrone is a condemnation.  Moreover, it is unlikely that Tyrone is going to service your sexual needs while paying your way.  At’s right! Tyrone is the kinda man you gon’ find yo’ se’f callin’ in a kind of punishment-fits-the-crime sentencing from a girlfriend who’s had ‘bout ‘nuf of the mother fucker hangin’ ‘round, cutting into her desire for greater intimacy.  Fortunately, I had enough sense to not to interject this into her piece of bus-chaperone performance art.

Within minutes of her resuming her seat, clearly proud of the way she had simultaneously taken the situation in hand while modeling disciplinary techniques to an obviously clueless first-year teacher, the little hands again rose in a feeble wave:  “ I think ya better Ca-all Ty-ro-o-ne.” Her self-congratulatory good thang had come to a premature end!

“Welcome to my world,” I thought.  It would take another ten years of teaching before I could do a convincing imitation of “the adult in the room” …and another ten before I could do it without laughing.  I remained frozen to my hot bus seat.  That night, I went out and bought the CD.

The brutal commodization of love—the tit for tat I’d already detected in the overt gender tensions in my impoverished classroom–is fuel for another ten blogs.  Wealth, power and class disguise much of this ugliness for upper-class white women—at least in the era before the Real Housewives of Orange County franchise lifted the veil on the upper-middle class prostitution rings we call suburbia.  As her “Tyrone” prompted slews of violent response songs from black, male rappers, Badu felt compelled to soften the blow, often offering apologies to the “brothers” before singing it on tour.

Don’t be fooled. Badu revels in controversy:  from a nude JFK assassination video, to an Allah tattoo, to dumping her baby’s daddy over the phone.   After public insults over her multiple babies out of wedlock, all with different fathers, Badu felt compelled to address her detractors in a direct web rant:

…the fathers of my children are my brothers and friends.

We have a great deal of respect for one another and always

will.  We love our children to no end.

What is marriage?

Who is the judge?

Would it look better to marry and divorce and marry

again?  Would that be morally correct?

Is it really “good” to stay in a relationship where both

parties are UNFULFILLED, LONGING FOR RELIEF, BRINGING

ANOTHER DOWN as a result of improper training, creating

BAD ENERGY AND EXPERIENCES FOR THE CHILD TO

REPEAT?

How many of you stay in unhealthy relationships for

fear of going to HELL?

How many out there … that have kids to get a payday?

How many people getting they ass kicked and are

forced to submit cause Mama got her ass kicked?  Then,

what is correct? [ …] Live how you want.  Follow which

ever pattern you like.  My children will […] not be slaves

to this society’s failing idea of morality.

If I lose you as a fan because I choose to continue to

have children then FUCK OFF…WHO NEEDS YOU…CALL

      TYRONE…PACK LIGHT…BITE ME…KISS MY PLACENTA.

Four years later I was invited to a baby shower for one of my senior AP English students.  I felt proud to have reached this new, elevated position in my relationships with students.  The menu for the shower was Keisha’s favorite, beanie weenie. What the hell… it was making me pretty happy, too.  Represented at the shower were five generations of females, including Keisha’s beautiful baby girl, lavished with love by all.  I was surprised to discover that the eldest matriarch was only in her seventies.  I decided to try to do the math on this improbable biological feat later, instead losing myself in reveries about the history of my growing fondness for Keisha over the last four years.  When had I first become aware of her powerful presence?

On the bus!  She had been the queen bee, leading her peers in song while defying the pompous woman from the board.  I could still see her waiving arms during the chorus:  “Ca-all Ty-ro-one…but ya can’t use my phone.”

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