Her voice is unmistakable. Anyone who listens to her will know she’s African true and true. The rhythm, video, costume, location… everything tells of a home she will never forget.
She is Angelique Kidjo, born July 14, 1960 in Ouidah, Benin to a Ouidah father and a Yoruba mother. At age six, Kidjo was performing with her mother’s theatre troupe, giving her an early appreciation for traditional music and dance. She started singing in her school band, Les Sphinx, and found success as a teenager with her adaptation of Miriam Makeba’s “Les Trois Z“, which played on national radio.
Angélique Kidjo who has won a lot more than the Grammy (twice), named by The Guardian as one of the 100 most inspiring women in the world, named as one of 50 African icons by the BBC and a UNICEF International Goodwill ambassador since 2002, didn’t just land on the world scene. She has been through her ups and downs yet plays her cards well.
According to her during an interview she said this about her early life/ career; “I have always sung with my mom! She is the one who taught me many traditional songs. She had a theatre company she was running by herself. One of her plays told the story of the King Akaba. Once a young actress was sick and could not join the troupe. I took her place and that was the beginning of my career! I was not there when my mother sang on Bana. The song was almost finished and I sent it to my brother Oscar who recorded my mom in his studio in Benin. When I received the file and added it to the song, that made it perfect. She used to sing us that song when we were young, so memories of my childhood came back to me. Her contribution was the last touch to the album. Once she had sung, I knew it was complete.”
Kidjo is big in the fight against slavery, on women’s rights in Benin, China’s exploitation of African resources and pretty much every other socio-political issue affecting the continent today. But she never sounds more irate than when talking about critics of what has come to be known as world music.
Having survived everything from abuse to political exile to racism she said; “My hope is to contribute on my modest level to change the perception of African women in the media. In fact they are very strong and carry their continent on their back. Their spirit is beautiful too. Africa is a place of culture, not only misery and war. It is important to address all these issues but we have to get out of the “single story” of the continent as Chimamanda Adiche always says. What I enjoyed a lot during those sessions with my counterparts from other continents especially during collaborations was their curiosity. First they didn’t understand what was going on and then slowly they got excited and I could not get them to stop singing!”
Kidjo’s fighting spirit might well have come from her decision to be a singer in a country where that profession is ranked alongside prostitution. According to her during an interview shae said; “When I was a little kid, everyone thought my singing was cute. Then I became a teenager and it was hell on earth. One day after school I heard someone shout ‘Prostitute!’ A boy threw a stone at me and suddenly everyone was rubbing sand in my hair, spitting at me. I came home, shaking from head to toe. My grandmother sat me down and cleaned and braided my hair, and I told her I didn’t want to sing any more. She said: ‘Are you going to let stupid people tell you what to do with your life? Do what you have to do.’ To this day that advice is what has kept me going, and what has guided me.”
“Mama Afrique” as she is fondly called has also made time to help girls back home in Benin and elsewhere on the African continent. She established the Batonga Foundation to help African girls stay in school with financial aid, mentoring and infrastructure support. In Kidjo’s view, music is essential. It helps every child,no matter the gender and background.
Some of her hit songs include; We We, Batonga, Agolo, Adouma, Wombo Lombo,Shango,We Are One – Lion King II soundtrack and the recent “Shekere in which she featured a much younger female artiste Yemi Alade.
Kidjo who lived in Paris in her 20s, now lives in New York with her family. Her fierce passion for the continent remains raw despite the fact that she’s physically far away.
Which of Angelique Kidjo’s songs do you enjoy the most? Please share with us in the comment section.