World Rhythm: Angélique Kidjo
Photo credit: Fabrice Mabillot
“I’m in the Czech Republic and recording Philip Glass’s 12th Symphony,” Angelique Kidjo says, when asked where she’s calling from. This might surprise some people, given that the 61-year-olda former singer-songwriter and activist – originally from the West African nation of Benin – is not particularly known for working in the contemporary minimalist classical realm. But Kidjo has built a career doing the unexpected. In 2019, she released the album Celia, her tribute to the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz, and the year before, Kidjo reinvented Talking Heads’ Stay in the light as his look. And, yes, she’s worked with Glass before, putting his lyrics – sung in the Yoruba language – to the orchestrated music he composed.
“I’m trusting my intuition,” Kidjo says when asked how she decides what her next project should look like. “If you ask me, ‘What are you going to do next? I will say, ‘If I know, what’s the point of living?’ If you know what tomorrow has in store, what’s the surprise? I want to wake up and be surprised. I want to have this wonderful idea and say, “Wow! I don’t want to plan. That’s so boring.”
Certainly, like everyone else, the current pandemic took Kidjo by surprise, but she took the opportunity to shape her latest album, Mother Nature. “When the COVID lockdown came in, I said, ‘Well this won’t stop me! I’ll find a way to do it, ”Kidjo says. “If we can Zoom, there is a way to make music. Then I started to reach out. A mix of topical message songs and straightforward dance floors, the final collection features contributions from several young African singers, rappers and musicians. (“Dance is also a message,” she says.)
The first person Kidjo called to help him was Yemi Alade, a Nigerian singer-songwriter. Together, they cut the track “Dignity”, exposing corruption and brutality. “We all have to embrace dignity,” Kidjo says of the song. “We have to talk about respect and values. I sang [Alade] the song. And in a week, it was done.
Like so many recent recordings, Mother Nature was recorded remotely. Kidjo and his guests have never met; her collaborators recorded their parts locally and, says the singer, “pieces of songs would come from different parts of the world.”
As she explains, “I just had to push a button, and we could make an album with minimal carbon footprint. It was really interesting and exciting, but I missed being face to face with the people at the studio. This brings another dynamic.
Dynamic is a word that has been used more than once to describe Kidjo herself. Growing up in Benin, she listened to everything from big names in Africa like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba to American artists Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Carlos Santana. By the time she moved to Paris in the early 1980s, she was already performing professionally. (Today, she resides in Brooklyn.) From the start, she mixed elements of several genres seamlessly, singing her songs in five languages. She has always had her eyes on a bigger prize: to have a global impact.
“My mom and dad always told me to dream big,” Kidjo says. “’If it’s not big enough, shut up; we don’t want to hear about your little dreams. And my dad always said, ‘Talent has no sex, no gender. If you are doing something that makes you happy, that’s what you want to do, go for it. You will fall, but you will get up. That’s life. It’s human. It’s natural. If you do what makes you happy and it makes people happy all over the planet, you have done what you are here for.
Whether she’s performing in a tent at Bonnaroo or performing at Carnegie Hall, where she recently hosted guests like Glass, Josh Groban and Cyndi Lauper, Kidjo is known to deliver a spirited performance. Often times, she leaves the stage with a wireless microphone in order to work closely with the crowd, her hands outstretched high as she walks the aisles. In that regard, the restrictions of the pandemic really restricted his style. It was only recently that she started performing live again. “I missed it so much,” she says.
Kidjo’s career as a prolific artist would be more than enough to wear out most artists, but she has long maintained an equally busy schedule as an activist. For nearly two decades, she was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, involved in causes – most of them related to African issues – ranging from climate change and women’s rights to immunization. pregnant women and girls’ education. She has traveled all over Africa and many other countries, both as a spokesperson and as a singer.
In doing so, Kidjo says, she is often bewildered to find that some Westerners still hold archaic notions of what Africa is – or even what it is. Some people, she says, don’t even realize that Africa is not one country. “I’ve been in this conversation forever,” she said, frustration in her voice. “People always say, ‘Your country, Africa.’ I say: ‘Africa is a continent, fool! What’s wrong?’ Every time I’ve been given a Grammy I’ve said, “People wake up! Something else is happening. Get out of the clichés.
“There are going to be good things and bad things, like everywhere else in the world,” she continues. “But if you don’t reach out to young children, you’re going to miss it. Every time I return to Africa I get really excited and blown away by the boldness and the entrepreneurial spirit. The Internet has allowed them to say to themselves: “We want to be free. We want to make our own music. We want to be our own kings and queens in our countries, on our continent. I like to think about the future.