“At the Service of the Song”: A Conversation with Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo speaks with conviction and humour about the major issues that drive her, such as the promotion of African music, the education of women, and our shared destiny as a people.
Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo might have one of the most impressive and diverse job histories on the planet.

Over a career spanning three decades, the Beninese songstress has so far released over a dozen studio and live albums in a myriad of different genres; performed countless sold-out concerts throughout the world; worked with UNICEF, Oxfam, and the African Union; co-founded her own charity for women’s education (The Batonga Foundation); and collaborated with seemingly everyone in the music industry from Philip Glass to Alicia Keys and Bono. Recently, the multiple-Grammy winner has also embarked on a successful acting career, and by the end of the year will also be hosting a current affairs program on TV5 Monde in France. Oh, and she speaks and sings in four different languages, not including the one she made up herself. Feeling lazy yet?

It’s an overwhelming resume, the type that most of us can only dream about. And although it sounds like it would make for an exhausting daily schedule, it’s clear that Kidjo is inspired and energized by taking on multiple roles as singer, performer, humanitarian. A citizen of the world in the purest sense, Kidjo speaks with great conviction and humour about the major issues that drive her, such as the promotion of African music, the education of women, and our shared destiny as a people.

Though she has been active in music since the 1980s, recent years have seen her greatest musical achievements; to outside ears, it seems as if she’s found the “sweet spot” for her rich and multi-textured voice. Her 2014 Grammy winning album Eve, dedicated to the women of Africa, demonstrates her humility and skill as a collaborator, even including a performance with her octogenarian mother, Yvonne. 2015’s Sings, recorded with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, is, for my money, her greatest artistic accomplishment to date: interweaving West African vocals and themes with the rich tapestry of European classical music. Any artist could attempt this type of ambitious cross-cultural collaboration, but few — if any — could pull it off with the skill and sensitivity of Angelique Kidjo.

PopMatters caught up with Angelique recently via phone from her home in New York City, where she revealed that she is in the early stages of writing and recording a new album. This led to a wide-ranging conversation about what it means to be a so-called “world music” artist, globalization, what it feels like to sing for thousands, and entering the TV news business.

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I really hate the label “world music.” It’s always struck me as silly.

It’s a garbage label. They just put it there, you don’t know what to do with it. You don’t want to deal with the complexity of the music that is not found in English, or French, or any other colonizer language because that space is bigger than you. So it takes a lot of humility to go and say “OK, let’s face it. Africa is a continent. Benin has south, east, west. Let’s do a little bit of research and find out what are the differences between the south, northern and center part of Benin in terms of rhythm and music?” And it demands a little bit of consideration and respect for us, as artists, to give the credit of us being multiple, and different.

But that doesn’t happen because it is too simple for people who are lazy, I have to say. I come from a family where my Mum and Dad have exposed me and my brothers and sisters to many different types of music relentlessly. And I grew up wondering “Why are they doing that? Why is it that they want to do that?” My Mum is going to turn 90 next year, and I asked her this question and she said “You’ve been traveling. Can you tell me that one place you’ve been is equal to the other, or exactly the same?” And I said no. She said “That’s why. Because everywhere you go you learn something, culturally, musically, humanly.” And as a human being we are always learning from the moment we are born in this world until we die because we are always challenged to adapt to differences of culture.

Absolutely. Now, it’s an enormous honour to win a Grammy…

Oh yeah.

It’s just the category. [Kidjo has won two Grammys for Best World Music Album] I’m sitting here thinking that even if they had a category like “Best African Album” or something, there’s so much music in Africa. How can you compare it?

Yeah, and I think it’s about time somebody devoted time to sit with the academy and expose them to that diversity in music that comes from Africa. Like Pitchfork does with all the things that are cool. They reach out to Pitchfork or Okayafrica and they can get the sense of exactly what is out there, and it will be very profitable and it will be very, very, very good for the music business in general, and African artists to perform also during the Grammys. And be the first award — the first musical award in the world — to have no limit to the music that exists in our world. Be the one that changes things, educate the public. If it is about the number of people that would tune in, give them that talent and you will see that people are going to go “OK, I want to see something new from the Grammys today.”

I think it’s going to come sooner or later because the world in which we are living is demanding it. And we have to do that. We really have to do that to cut the fuel from people who want to divide us. We have to show that musically and culturally we are not divided. No one can divide us. No one can make us afraid of nothing.

As long as we’re talking about our unity as a people, I’m curious: you’ve performed all over the world, and are there any differences, as you see them, between performing for, say, an American audience, and a French audience, and an audience in Nigeria or something like that?

Differences exist because there are cultural differences, though [we are all] the same. But what I’ve seen throughout my career is that my [audience] has evolved to represent the whole world, not one category of people. And for me, as an artist, it’s a reward that goes beyond words for me. Because when I started it was just like intellectuals, “in” people, “cool” people, and then suddenly everywhere I go I face the world. I face the planet. I saw every colour, every face, every shape possible. And that is the power and the magic of music. That’s what threatens all dictatorships. That’s where you see what you can do with music. You choose to go to a concert, you pay for it, it’s your choice. And you pick the music you want to listen to, the music that empowers you. It’s not a leader that empowers you, but that music. And it’s powerful.

And at the same time I’m humble, and small when I witness that. I thank whoever is it — God, nature, my family, my mother — to have given me life and the talent to see what we can achieve with music when we put ourselves really at the service of the song.

Do you feel powerful onstage?

I won’t say powerful. I feel blessed, and I feel like I have wings that will allow me to fly throughout the years to empower people. Because the people give me the power, the joy. My sister used to say “You are an [arsonist] with your music.”


I said “What do you mean?” She said “You fire up those people’s asses, you fire up their faith, you fire up their smile … Everybody come out [of the concert] with a big smile on their face, and they feel like they are walking on cloud nine. How do you do that? You put that fire out there and you don’t have anything to extinguish it?” I say “I don’t have the power to extinguish it. I want people to leave with that fire in them until they decide they’re going to take it to somebody else.” That’s how I feel.

[…] Globalization has to take into account our cultural richness and diversity. If we succeed doing that, we’re going to benefit from it. We can leave a legacy for the next generation that they can live up to, and they can look at themselves and say [of] the generation before, “Oh, they didn’t screw us up. They gave us something culturally strong enough for us to be able to live together.” Because we can’t fool ourselves: the future is going to make up mixed kids, of every diversity, everywhere around. People travel, love has no colour. Love is blind, that’s it. And we have to give [future generations] a music in which they can find themselves.

You’ve attained great success, some amazing awards. You’ve had a very successful career. Do you still face challenges in the music industry, as a woman, as an African?Oh yeah.

The music scene has changed a lot. So the challenges are different, and you have to adapt to it. So you have to be a mutant. You have to mutate all the time. You have to change and evolve all the time. And the challenge that we all are facing, especially as artists that don’t do mainstream music, is that there tends to be a tunnel that is narrowing down to one type of music. And that is dangerous for our culture, for our craft. We have to open it to everybody. Every single artist should have the right to be heard in the world. Everywhere you go you have to be able to listen to a diversity of music, not one type of music.

[ …] When I did my acceptance speech at the Grammys last year, I said that we artists have a role to play in the peace of this world. And if it’s in our music, we have to forecast that. We have to show that. We have to start getting out of the bubble and coming together, doing music that people can relate to that is not just for making money. But because our craft depends on the peaceful world that we create. If there is no peace we can’t do concerts. In a state of emergency, no one is going to come out and come and listen to your music.

Look what happened in Paris. I mean, why did [the terrorists] target a music venue? Because they know that they can gather together [many] victims.

When you started this interview you talked about “world music,” and [the label is used] on purpose to divide. So it’s our responsibility as a business, and as artists, to find different ways … So, the challenge we have to face as artists in our business is to be creative, and outside of our comfort zone sometimes.

You’re set to become a news presenter later this year, hosting a show on TV5 Monde in France. Why are you doing that? What do you hope to accomplish with it?

I do a lot of work, since I have been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. I’ve seen a lot of things that I convey in interviews, and now I’m going to be able to convey it on TV for millions of people, to [share] the stories of the people we don’t see, and of the progress we are making. Because we always see the problems, but we don’t see the solutions. We don’t see the world that is done in the field by regular people that are transforming the world. And I’ve been very active in humanitarian work … I cannot do my music anymore without being a part of it. Because it has become one …

For me, for everybody, we are one. It has been something that I’ve used my music [to promote]. I did a lot of collaborations. Why do I do collaborations? Because I’ve seen that musicians coming together at the service of the song, the message is stronger than me alone doing it. Because [in the studio] you bring your craft, you bring your sensitivity, you bring your voice, you bring your spirit. It’s beyond music. It’s what we are, and who we are deeply. How your voice touches people, how my voice touches people, we multiply the effects of touching people by being two, three, or four.