Teddy Riley and Babyface’s ‘Verzuz’ battle was a teachable moment

OPINION: Surrounded by a crew of people Riley showed what it’s like to not practice social distancing during this crucial time

Teddy Riley, left, Babyface, right. (Photo: (Photo by Mindy Small/FilmMagic and Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

If you were anywhere near the internet on Saturday night, it’s likely you at least heard about the much-anticipated battle that was meant to feature legendary songwriter and producer Kenny Babyface Edmonds and king of New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley, for the Verzuz series created by Swiss Beatz and Timbaland.

While it was promoted as a “battle,” the virtual event was largely seen as a celebration of Black music excellence.

Originally scheduled to take place a week ago, the showcase had been postponed because, as Babyface revealed on Twitter, he and his family tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, he says, they were on the other side of the disease, and he was ready to go 20 for 20 songs with his “little brother” Riley. 

READ MORE: Babyface reveals he and family tested positive for COVID-19

Turns out, not so much. 

With nearly 500,000 people tuned in to Riley’s IG Live and ready to hear the two music icons play their best hits, Riley’s “show” quickly unraveled as he performed what he hoped would be a mini-concert in front of a keyboard, several mics, a live DJ, an overzealous hype man and a crew of people popping on and off-screen.


Still, they could not manage to fix the horrible echo that persisted within his sound and drove viewers crazy. From Toni Braxton to Tyrese to Snoop — everyone begged Riley’s team to stop and address the issue via the comments, which went ignored for far too long.

Meanwhile, Babyface, cool as ever, sat alone in his studio, dressed in a white shirt and dark velvet jacket, pressing play and delivering an impeccable stream of hits, from “Two Occasions” by The Deele to Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.”

Hundreds of thousands of people had already waited about 30 minutes at the start while Riley did a soundcheck while on Instagram Live and his team tried to figure out how to bring Babyface on; and then — because of the sound issues — there were several starts and stops throughout, including starting completely over with the first three songs when they thought the sound was fixed. It wasn’t. 

READ MORE: Teddy Riley and Babyface set an IG Live record. Then their music battle was postponed again 

Around 10 p.m., after chastising his crew on-camera for the issues, a member of Riley’s team announced that they were going to take a break and come back in 30 minutes, and they asked those viewing to do the same and “tell two of your friends.” But at 10:30 p.m. EST, Babyface gracefully called the whole thing off via an Instagram video and said they’d try it again another time.

The battle has now been rescheduled to Monday at 8 p.m. EST.

Though fans were disappointed about not hearing the two legends play from their catalog Saturday night, the memes and jokes on social media were legendary and provided comedic relief well into the night.

Swizz and Timbaland went live to discuss the breakdown and agreed that Riley — while well-intentioned in wanting to give fans a show — was simply doing too much. The Verzuz series has successfully featured other matchups between songwriters Neyo and Johnta Austin, producers DJ Premier and RZA and songwriter/producers Lil Jon and T-Pain — which was the most viewed battle until Babyface and Riley’s.

READ MORE: Instagram live battles; Who should face off next?

The key to those successful live broadcasts? Simplicity. And hopefully Teddy, a masterful producer, learned that.  

But here’s another important lesson I hope they’ve learned. Social responsibility. Behind-the-scenes videos have surfaced showing that Riley had an entire crew present to film the production, in addition to the five or so people we saw with him on screen.

While none of us know if any or all of those individuals, including Riley, has been tested and cleared of COVID-19, it is socially irresponsible of him to appear on-screen during this time in front of 400,000+ people showing that he is not practicing social distancing.

Especially when we know that the Coronavirus is disproportionately affecting and killing Black people. Celebrities are not immune to the disease. Again, Babyface himself has experienced this, and in fact, during the live broadcast the singer made it a point to say, “I’m over here by myself, you know, social distancing.”

The comment was lost on Riley and his team.  

We want to have a good time, of course, and we need this escape during these surreal circumstances we’re all living through. We’re also grateful to creatives like Swizz Beatz and Timbaland who are truly elevating the culture through this celebration of music old and new that they’ve created with Verzuz.

But we have to be safe. We have to be responsible. We have to practice social distancing. Because today, doing too much, with too many people, can be deadly. 

Elayne Fluker is a speaker, author and coach, who helps women get over “I got it” syndrome and embrace support as their superpower. She is host of the Support is Sexy podcast for women entrepreneurs, and her upcoming book teaching ambitious women how to ask for support will be released by HarperCollins Leadership in 2021.