Angélique Kidjo is an African icon. A musical masterclass. A woman of the world.
She speaks and sings in five languages—no, six, if you count her recent foray into the native Spanish of the late Celia Cruz for her 17th album, released in April and simply titled Celia. Kidjo’s Wikipedia page alone is a dizzying array of accolades and mentions of artists as diverse as Alicia Keys and David Byrne, whose 1980 Remain in Light album (with Talking Heads) Kidjo reimagined last year, bringing its African influences to full fruition. Now, she does the same for the Afro-Cuban roots of the “Queen of Latin Music.”
Speaking with Kidjo, you’re keenly aware of how aware she is. It’s as if she vibrates at a different frequency—which you might initially assume is due to her own lauded status as “the undisputed queen of African music,” as the Telegraph called her in 2012. But to use her own words, it’s something deeper.
“When you meet and you encounter truth, it’s so clear that even if you want to deny it, you can’t,” she tells The Glow Up. “It’s like you’re in a bowl of light that is sucking you into it.”
She’s talking about music, but she may as well be referring to herself; a musician, activist, writer, teacher, actress, mother, mentor, wife, African, Brooklynite, and inspiration to countless fans across the globe. She gives new meaning to the phrase “using your platform”; she has fearlessly challenged brutal regimes from the stage, spearheaded a charity to empower adolescent African girls, and remarkably, a mere 10 days after giving birth to her only child in 1993, returned to the studio to finish an album. (Fun fact: that child-turned-Yale Drama alum is actress Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, frequently seen on Chicago Med)
It’s a life well-lived, and still very much in progress, but as Kidjo tells it, it was founded in a sense of limitlessness from her very beginnings in the West African country formerly known as Dahomey (now Benin).
“I was raised in a household where at an early age, without even realizing the impact it was going to have on my life, my parents allowed us to have access to the world—through music, to books, to sports, to meeting people,” she says. “They were completely liberal and gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted.”
The Kidjos also encouraged their daughter to live a life free of prejudice; to remain open to the voices of those affected by oppression, patriarchy, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and genocide. Their only rule? Every meal must be eaten at home. “[Their children] were all they had, so I think they were worried sick,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t know anything else. I felt, ‘this is how it should be.’”
But the freedoms and familiar routines of Kidjo’s childhood were soon clouded by the rise of the People’s Republic of Benin, which came to power in the mid-1970s, transforming her then-liberated existence into life in a Marxist-Leninist state.
“When the communist regime arrived, all that stopped, because the radio we used to play, that kind of music stopped,” recalls Kidjo, who counted Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and yes, Celia Cruz, among her earliest influences. “At home, we couldn’t play our LPs any more; the only music that was allowed for us to play, even in our intimacy, was propaganda music.
“And that freedom that I grew up in, I could not let go” she continued. “So, I had to leave my country, and from that point on, I was determined to bring the whole world to realize that we have so much in common. Through music, we share so much. ... And for me, every music started in Africa, because Africa is the cradle of humanity.”
But while the world is now eager to engage in debates about cultural appropriation (ourselves often included), Kidjo has been blending genres for decades. Aside from understanding the difference between homage and appropriation, she’d like us all to do our “homework” on influences before crying foul, as some dared to do when she took on the music of Talking Heads (with Byrne’s blessing; ironically, Talking Heads’ first album was named for the novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, which the band had never read).
“For me, cultural appropriation is when you take something willingly from somebody, and not acknowledging it,” Kidjo says. “What was interesting about the Remain in Light album that I did was that the urge to bring it full circle back to Africa was there from the get-go. … When I started listening to the [original] album, nothing was absurd to me; everything was crystal clear. To bring that clarity, I had to go back to the traditional music of my country.”
Kidjo speaks proudly of hailing from an elder-driven culture; the descendant of an oral tradition in which the wisdom of proverbs is used to encourage people to think for themselves. Recording Remain in Light, she traveled to villages in Kenya, recording the voices of African women to combat the portrayals popular in Western media. “I wanted their voices to be heard, not to be anonymous,” she said. “They are at the source of my strength, so I wanted to pay tribute to them.”
Kidjo is also paying her international fame forward. In 2006, she founded the Batonga Foundation to provide hope, mentorship and marketable skills to girls who might otherwise be entirely at the mercy of a society that considers them little more than another commodity.
“When you are born a girl in Africa, you don’t have an identity; the life of a boy is more important than the life of a girl,” she says. “You are seen, from the moment you get out of your mom’s womb, as merchandise that can be married off to somebody. And that’s why it’s so important for me to be working with teenagers … We have to start at the root of it. Empower them, and give them the freedom to think for themselves.”
“It makes me humble,” she says of her work with Batonga. “Because you think you are helping people, but really, they are the ones helping you to see what is right, and what is wrong.”
Kidjo is very clear on what’s wrong with the world, speaking openly on the increasing polarization between us, and the corruption continuing to upend the world as we know it.
“Corruption has no boundaries. It’s not just an African problem, it’s a global problem.” she says, later adding, “We create that polarization. It’s not the world, it’s not our humanity that’s polarized, it’s us as human beings that put the division out there, just for the purpose of power and profit.”
It’s a grim reality, but one that Kidjo feels makes the release of her video for Celia’s “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” [featuring Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen] “so timely, because we always forget to celebrate life,” she says. Staying true to her roots, she recruited a South African director and African choreographer to execute the colorful, often Keith Haring-like vision, which evokes the imagery of the new wave era of the late-‘80s and ‘90s.
“Life is a carnival; we all have a role to play,” she continues. “We choose our disguises, and we choose our fate.” Graciously, she’s allowed The Glow Up to premiere the video here.
Fittingly, “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” will be the anthem of the 38th annual Fête de la Musique in Paris on June 21. And despite releasing two albums in as many years, Kidjo is already brimming with excitement about her next project: Famed composer Philip Glass is designing a symphony around her voice, timpani, and organ, using the poetry from David Bowie’s 1979 album Lodger.
“For me, my career is what I believe in; I don’t touch anything unless I can carry it my entire life,” Kidjo says. “Every one of my albums that I have made, I want to be able to sing it today. That’s where my career started from, and that’s where it’s going to continue going and moving forward.”
But whatever the genre, Kidjo’s music will always echo Africa.
“Africa has always been there, like it or not. That’s where I stand,” she says. “Whatever you do, Africa is at the center of it. There’s no music I would shy away from. I’m not afraid.”
The Glow Up tip: For the latest on Angélique Kidjo’s tours dates and releases, visit her website.