Benin: Music Lets Me See Beyond Color, Beyond Language - Angelique Kidjo
Angelique Kidjo, one of
Africa's most prolific and best known artistes, is from Benin in West
Africa. She started singing at age six, producing songs that span music genres and language categories, and has nine albums to her credit. She
performed at the 2006 Francophonie Festival in Washington, D.C. in
March and discusses her career in music with AllAfrica's Gaddiel Baah.
You said on stage that you had a passion for music. What explains this passion?
you can find somebody who can explain to you their passion for
something, then you can explain to me. Passion is something that you
can not really explain. I am happy when I am singing and I love it.
Being on stage and being able to speak to people who come from different parts of the world who do not [speak] the same language is a
joy for me.
I have been in contact with music
since I was a child because my mother was a theater director and a
choreographer and my brother also used to
play music in the seventies
when I was a child. My passion for music is also the ability that music
gives me to see beyond people's color, see beyond people's languages.
The barrier of language does not stop me because when it comes to
music, we speak the same language. My passion for human relationships is part of the passion that music allows me to express.
Would you want to talk a little bit about your recent album Oyaya?
is part of the trilogy that I started back in 1997, by tracing back the roots of slavery through music. I learnt a lot and there are certain
rhythms that left my country Benin and the west coast of Africa that
are in some places such as Bahia and Cuba and by extension are in many
other places I have been to that are really still the same, centuries
later, that have not been altered at all. I was in Brazil and it is a
very weird feeling sitting there and they are singing in your language and you know that after that song, they cannot speak your language. The
language is even more accurate than what we sing in Benin.
learn that one of the positive legacies of slavery is music. If the
slaves had not been in America, we would not have had R & B, we
would not have had rock and roll, funk, salsa, etc. It is amazing to see how music, throughout the history of humankind, has helped human
beings to keep hope and their dignity and to continue existing in a
very hostile environment.
Which of your albums would you call your favorite?
love all of them. I take time to do my albums and some take more time
than others but if I don't love the songs, I am not going to sing them. On stage, if I don't love a song, I can not sing it. Every time I
an album, I spend at least two solid years on it. How can you
sing something that you don't like in two years?
You sing in several languages. Has this always been the case?
It has always been like that.
What influences your choice of language?
of the time, it is the music itself. If I wake up in the morning and the music that I have is still in my head, I have to sing it. When I
started singing in Benin, I sang music in the indigenous language, of
course. But I also sang in Cameroonian and Zairian languages, and many
other languages from Africa but I copy them phonetically. And then you have English too, and Spanish and Portuguese, and many different
languages. The thing that matters to me is the beauty of the song, how
it makes me feel happy and how I can give it back to people.
It often happens that musicians blossom early and quickly but whither just as fast. What accounts for your relative longevity?
don't know. I will say I always take risks, I always try different
things. I always follow my inspiration and it is easy because sometimes
my inspiration is not in fashion but I am not trying to be in fashion.
I am trying to say things that mean a lot to me and to be true to it,
to have fun while I am doing it, and to be able to give that joy and
strength to people.
Your music is a blend of genres, funk, R & B, etc. What exactly do you sing?
are talking about R & B and funk. Where do they come from? They
came from Africa with the slaves. The music that I am doing, the roots
always go back to Africa. Why should we African artists be stuck in
one genre of music while we have been influencing the music of the
world one or two centuries back?
For how long have you been a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador?
Four years now.
What does the position entail?
First of all, people have to realize that there is no money in being a goodwill ambassador. It is about passion and commitment.
I have a lot of passion for my continent because
I know the potential in my continent that has been wasted over the
years. We have to do something and if we Africans don't start doing it,
don't start thinking about a better future for our children and have a
say in decisions that are taken, we can't keep on blaming other people.
a Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef allows me to be able to help with my
knowledge of Africa, for them to understand how to approach their programs for children, how to approach the women, to convince the
mothers, fathers to send their daughters, their kids to school.
are now talking about elections but do people know what the act of voting means when they go and vote? Do you vote for somebody who comes
from your region or you vote for a political program?
of being a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador is to convince people that there
is more value in going to school than not going to school. And girls' education is my passion and commitment to Unicef. Everywhere I go, on
stage, I speak to the girls. I speak to the people and let them know
that I am available and through Unicef, they can speak to me. If I
don't have the solution, I ask the Unicef people how we can make things
work in the country, who we can talk to to get answers.
always encourage the people of Africa that any program that comes
Africa, they have to be part of it. When I spoke at the State Department on behalf of Unicef, I mentioned that everything that is
done in Africa, they have to incorporate the African people into it
because they have to be responsible for their own lives. They must know
that when you come with a program, once you leave, the program must survive. We have to learn to deal with our needs without taking all the
money and putting it in our pockets.
Could you share some of your experiences as a Goodwill Ambassador?
experiences have been both very positive and painful. When you are facing children who have nothing and you see in the same country
members of government who have more than they can use, you feel
embarrassed because you are with people who see the same reality.
can we Africans allow our kids to be so vulnerable? I know poverty is
great in Africa. But there is poverty everywhere. Does poverty mean we
have to lose our dignity and our pride and not be able to feed our children? What kind of politician can do that, because they are parents
Working with Unicef has allowed me to see
another face of Africa that I have never seen before: how people at
different levels are fighting poverty, HIV/Aids, rape, etc.
women in Africa are really strong. How much pain can we take before we
realize that if we want our countries and our continent to
have to start thinking about working hard and keeping what belongs to
us in our hand? Doing business with other people is good but we cannot do business and lose everything. It is not for a small minority to make
money while the majority continues to suffer. We cannot continue like
that, begging left and right for help. There are potentialities in
Africa, humanly and materially.
We are in the
21st century and in Africa it is still like we are in the 17th century
because of corruption [and] lack of energy. If I had not been with
Unicef traveling so much, I would not have seen all those things. I would have continued blaming somebody else for our problems but our
problems [are] 80 percent our responsibility because of the way we do
We cannot achieve democracy or any
economic progress without education. By traveling and working closely
with Unicef, I have come to realize that the HIV/Aids pandemic also has to do with the lack of education, in addition to poverty.
How does your music raise some these issues?
music expresses these things very much. Since the beginning I have been talking about poverty even before people realized poverty was part of
HIV/Aids. People are willing to help Africa but are Africans willing to help ourselves? That is the question, and in my lyrics I have said
that. Why is it that in some countries in Africa we put people in jail
because they do not agree with the government that is in power?
My music has been there to just speak about all
the problems we have in Africa. I have spoken about HIV/Aids, I have spoken about feminine genital mutilation, etc. There are good and bad
traditions in Africa and the ones that are bad for us, we need to have
the courage to face them and make them disappear.
have been involved in charity concerts like Roll Back Malaria, Keep a
Child Alive Foundation Concert, We are the Future Concert, etc. Is
there a particular reason for your involvement in these causes?
reason is that the world is changing and we in Africa are the ones who are still being taken advantage of. Why? I believe in human beings
[more] than in anything else. And more and more, I am seeing the
interconnections that we have. Nature has proved to us lately that if you do not take care of something that is happening somewhere, it is
going to come to your backyard. Nature is changing, the weather is
changing, everything is changing. One thing that is a constant is
between all those elements is the human being. We should, during our
lifetime, spend energy, talent and time to make people aware of that.
We are the future, you are the answer.
I am a mother and I want the world in which my
child will grow up to
that, I have to do something. If
I have the capacity to do something and I don't do it, then it is not
Have any other musicians or artists inspired you over the years?
lot. One of the two major female artists who really inspired me in
Africa, who gave me the strength to do what I am doing today, are Miriam Makeba and Bella Bellow. Their voices are beautiful and they
were not doing music that people would expect Africans to do. They
would do the music that they loved, that you can still listen to today,
especially Bella Bellow, very rich and very modern. It is a reality that when you come from Africa and you are an artist, people are
expecting you to sound a certain way, while artists from other parts
of the world
do not have to deal with that burden. From them, I learnt
that when you are inspired to do music, just do it.
Ali Farka Toure passed away recently. What can you say about him and his contribution to music?
was a good friend of mine and a great human being and I am going to miss him. I already miss him right now because we had been making plans
for me to go to his village and my crazy schedule never allowed me to
go. I have a lot respect for Ali because he is one of those rare
musicians from Africa and every time we meet, he is so happy to see me
and encourages me to continue doing what I am doing with no jealousy
whatsoever. He is an amazing artist and his contribution to African
music is going to live long after his death.
What should your fans expect from you next?
boy! You are asking me a question as if I was God. I don't know. I will
always do the music that I love. I am writing some songs
they are ready, I am going to let you guys know. It is all going to be
Angelique Kidjo music.
Any final words for your fans?
are the ones who have kept me going all this while. I want to thank
them for always being there and always letting me know how much they
love the music. Even the ones who don't love my music, I take into
account what they say.
I want the youth,
especially in Africa, [to know that] the future is bright if they
think about it and they do what they want to do without making
Give yourself the chance to do it the best possible and wait for the
I am always going to be there for my continent
and I am always going to be there for every human being in need because
we really need to work together. We really need to love one another
more than ever because today the world is in danger. Hatred is getting
more and more disciples and the danger I see is much more in that
regard than in anything else.
I will ask my
fans to continue supporting me and other African artists because
without support we will not exist anymore. As the African continent is not seen as a market for the record business, the people we have that
can really support us and keep us going are the fans and the African
public, wherever we go in the world. I am just thankful that they come
to our concerts.
The music that I am doing is
for the African continent and for the whole world. Everybody is welcome
to my music so let us be a big happy family.