Angelique Kidjo uses music to tell the important stories of Africa
By MARK GUARINO | Sun-Times Music Writer
February 6, 2014 3:04PM
Angelique Kidjo is one of the biggest musical stars in Africa, and her multiple albums have endorsed important themes and issues: African pride, female solidarity, and human rights, especially for the impoverished.
Even though she now calls Brooklyn home, her music continues to dwell in West-African themes and rhythms. A 13th album, “Eve” (Savoy/429 Records), came out last month and features contemporary and traditional African dance grooves driven by her powerful — and quite large — singing voice. It is accompanied by a memoir, “Spirit Rising” (Harper Collins), that documents her incredible journey from leaving her home country Benin to becoming a musical ambassador and humanitarian working for female empowerment back home.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Question: In your book, you describe the repression and insults you experienced as a young girl in Benin for wanting to sing. Is that culture the reason why we haven’t seen any major music stars from that part of the world?
Angelique Kidjo: It is difficult for any female singer from Africa to have an international career because they’re a woman. There are a lot of reasons that music is not perceived, not by politicians, not by society, as a job and as a career. The belief if you are a girl and you want to sing, you have no choice to be a prostitute. To make it, you have to sleep with everybody. Sex, drugs and rock and roll of the ’60s is something they take literally as the truth. So that is still the perception of the parents who have children who want to do music. People can see TV [images like Beyonce] and think, “Didn’t I tell you that when you sing, you have to be naked?” All those things do not help young artists who come out today. [Those images] become the standard for everybody.
Q. So it’s really western images that make people there believe that singing pop music is a path to immorality, even prostitution.
AK: Villages still have satellites to see what is going on in the world. They believe that what happens in western countries, we have to mimic. Today when I’m in a hotel room and I see the videos, I think about my country and the parents who see those videos who say, “Hell no, I don’t want my daughters to do this.” Because singing in our culture is all about getting together and celebrating every moment with song, with dance, with rhythm. It’s used much more in a social gathering, the birth of a child, to celebrate a wedding or somebody passing way. Doing a show is the concept of westerners.
Q. Benin is a poor country, and its politics corrupt. Yet the music you sing, much of it about your country, sounds celebratory. How do you reconcile those two differences?
AK: That question is the same I asked when I was a little girl to my [family] in the village. I saw people dancing, and said, “I am not dancing to those lyrics, there’s nothing joyful in it.” My aunt and uncle said, “It’s not up to us singers or artists to make people feel guilty. The decision that each one of us makes is our choice and is completely different from the message of the song. But at that point, what you do with [the message] is your decision.”
Q. You escaped to Paris from Benin in 1983 during a time your home country was ruled by communists.
AK: I missed the warmth of the people, missed talking to my parents. That was the hardest thing. The communist regime was such a pariah in the country, you can’t trust nobody, not your man, your father, your cousin. It controls families and brings people against each other. It’s evil. It’s horrible.
Q. Your album features all-women’s choirs from African villages in Benin and Kenya, so I was surprised to hear New Orleans keyboardist Dr. John is also a guest. What brought you both together?
AK: We used to share the same management and talked extensively about Africa and the role of African women, even in New Orleans because New Orleans has many immigrants from Africa. He said, “I love you guys, you are perfect companions for us. I like the way you nourish us and the way you make our own mistakes even when you know we make mistakes that hurt us.” When I told him what I was trying to do in the studio, he was so emotional; he got exactly what I was trying to do. He said to me that it was a woman from Benin who told him that if he quit drugs, it would bring his career back up and he did.
Q. Your career has made you, unwittingly, an ambassador of your continent. Is that ever a burden?
AK: No, because I’m a storyteller. My family in the village explained to me that sometimes stories are hard to hear and some are difficult to tell. For me, it comes with a lot of responsibility that I don’t want to take lightly. People don’t complain much in Africa because no one has time to listen. Life, everyday, is a survival day. At the same time, there is so much joy. So how do you balance both? Keeping your humanity and, at the same time, believing it’s going to go away?