Madonna is emailing me, and I’m totally fine. Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. She’s been the wallpaper on my phone, my dance tutor, the inspiration for long-expired passwords, and now we’re emailing. Through intermediaries, and there’s no FaceTime in the cards, but still. An artist and (I usually hate this word) icon I’ve loved, celebrated, analyzed, cited, and defended for 35 years, is answering some of my questions. Everything is absolutely chill, and I’m breathing normally. Keep your smelling salts.
The occasion: Refinery29 is exclusively premiering the video for “Batuka,” off Madame X, Madonna’s fourteenth studio album, which debuted at #1 last month on the Billboard 200. Like many critics and fans, I find Madame X to be particularly beautiful — her most cohesive and visionary LP since 2005’s disco opus Confessions on a Dance Floor, and her weirdest, most emotional dare since 2003’s woefully dismissed classic American Life. (Did I mention I’m a fan?)
Even more than Bush-era American Life, Madame X finds Madonna reckoning with a bleak global moment as she considers her own remarkable history. This time, much of the sound was inspired by the superstar’s extended time with her children in Portugal, where she immersed herself in, and then interpreted, a range of musical traditions local to the region. That includes batuque, a style that emphasizes drumming, singing, and dancing, which was created by Black women from the island of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony with a central role in the slave trade.
“Batuka” — a defiant, joyful cry for rebellion with a rousing call-and-response structure — is Madonna’s collaboration with the all-women Orquestra Batukadeiras, and they join her in the striking video, directed by Emmanuel Adjei and filmed off the coast of Lisbon. “I found them to be so strong, authentic, soulful, loving, generous, and kind,” Madonna told Refinery29 of her collaborators.
The sixth video (so far) during this very cinematic Madame X era finds Madonna in a jam session with the Orquestra, with haunting shots of the coastline that reference the area’s brutal history. We also get to marvel at stunning closeups of the women in the Orquestra — as well at the Queen of Pop dancing freestyle in a floral dress and combat boots. An undisputed master and innovator of the form since the advent of MTV in the 1980s (see: “Material Girl,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Express Yourself,” “Vogue”), Madonna, with “Batuka,” has now starred in over 75 music videos.
Here’s what Madonna told Refinery29 about recording and filming “Batuka,” working with the women, her own forgotten history of drumming, and more. It’s all very casual.
Refinery29: In the Inside Madame X short film, you spoke a bit about discovering Batuque and the Orquestra Batukadeiras, and then collaborating with the women on this song. What did these women teach you?
Madonna: “I learned a great deal from these women. Many of them came from very economically challenged backgrounds, without access to formal education. The ways we measure achievement and success in our conventional society fails to capture their singular brilliance and strength. I found them to be so strong, authentic, soulful, loving, generous, and kind. You can’t learn these things in school. They taught me those things. It’s a tough world out there, and it’s inspiring to work with people who have been through the struggle but still manage to manifest and share joy with us all. That was a big part of the lesson.”
The video serves to both recreate that recording experience and, it would seem, to evoke the painful-but-joyous history of Batuque, specifically its origins in Cape Verde and ties to slavery and suppression. How did you, your director Emmanuel Adjei, and the Orquestra work together to conceive of the visual narrative for the video?
“We wanted to honor how I met these women and our journey, with an organic and beautiful cinematic experience. We found a house that looked like a typical house that one would live in on the islands of Cape Verde next to the sea. Instead of me going to a small nightclub environment to meet them and hear them play, to then be invited into their circle, we choose a more natural and beautiful environment as the meeting place, ending up in the recording studio. It wasn’t easy to replicate the significance of our first meeting and how it all happened. How they invited me in and gave me a leather drum, sat me down and said ‘Join Us.’ They took turns dancing and embracing me. They invited me into their world and made me feel extremely welcome. When I asked them to record with me it was the exact same experience. They were just as joyful, just as down to earth, just as open, just as loving. I tried to capture the simplicity of that exchange. I hope it captures the range of emotions that I felt coming from them, and their music. I wanted to show the strength and the history, and I felt like all of their faces were just so expressive. I wanted to capture that in all of their close-ups.”
Your dancing here seems improvised. How did you approach it?
“I was completely and utterly inspired by them. And there was no need or call for choreography. The dancing was organic and fluid; I just watched them move and joined them.”
Even your biggest fans might forget that in the beginning of your career, you were a drummer for the NYC band Breakfast Club. How did you draw upon this past work to approach “Batuka”?
“Drumming for me is connected to dancing, since they’re both centered in rhythm. Moving at different times and different rhythms and different time signatures. That segue from playing the drums came easily for me, since that was my first job in a band. It was authentic for me, and I love it. I love playing percussion.”
As you’ve described, “Madame X” takes on many disguises and persona. Who is she in “Batuka”?
“It’s all part of the journey of Madame X. Traveling to different places, different worlds, different cultures, experiencing different folk music. Madame X discovers and respects the history of it, of being inspired by it, and ultimately shares it with the world.”
Will the women join you onstage when you perform in a live setting?
“Yes, not only are they in my show, they are my choir in general. They’re my choir in ‘God Control,’ ‘Like a Prayer,’ ‘Come Alive,’ and ‘I Rise.’ They’re even dancing in my show; they’ve become fully integrated in so many ways. It’s amazing. It’s crazy how multitalented they all are and how ready they are to share this experience. It’s been so great having them become a part of everything. They’re going to blow people away; the world isn’t ready.”