The world’s diva
Benin’s Angelique Kidjo using music as ‘tool of peace’
“The streets are empty,” said Angelique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo, more commonly known as Angelique Kidjo. The Grammy-winning world-music chanteuse from Benin was speaking on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 29, by phone from her apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where she was “on lockdown,” as she playfully put it, waiting for Hurricane Sandy to hit.
“The neighborhood of Red Hook, which is not far from here, is already flooded,” offered Kidjo in her charmingly accented English. “I’m inside. I’m lock all my windows. I’m in my PJs. I’m having a cool day off.”
True to her reputation as an upbeat, hopeful, can-do person—as her lively, inspiring performances and humanitarian work with such organizations as UNICEF and her own Batonga Foundation attest to—Kidjo was not letting any storm, Franken- or otherwise, wreck her day and paralyze her with fear. She said she’d prepared for what could be a long haul by cooking all weekend. “I hope I don’t lose electricity,” added Kidjo matter-of-factly, “otherwise all the food is going to garbage.”
Kidjo hits the stage in Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium on Nov. 15 in support of her new live album, Spirit Rising, with her unique, infectious brand of world music, informed by such varied musical influences as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Santana, the late South African songstress Miriam Makeba and Beninese traditional music. Kidjo sings in four languages, including Fon and Yorùbá, both native languages of Benin.
Kidjo’s powerful voice and electrified stage presence have earned her accolades from esteemed quarters. Time magazine dubbed Kidjo “Africa’s premier diva” in 2007, a moniker that has understandably stuck. Last year, the BBC included her on a top-50 list of African icons; also in 2011, the UK’s The Guardian newspaper recognized Kidjo as one of the top 100 women in the world in the arena of art, film, music and fashion. In July, she was hailed as “the undisputed queen of African music” in an article in the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in advance of her performance at the BT River of Music festival at the London 2012 Olympics.
Despite her fame, Kidjo comes across as down-to-earth. She speaks earnestly of her concern about the problems of the world—social inequities such as the widening gap between the world’s wealthy and poor, the fact that women own only 1 percent of the land worldwide, and the lack of education opportunities for girls and young women in Africa, which the Batonga Foundation is set up to address by providing scholarships, building schools, and so on.
Kidjo noted that her parents raised her to be independent and “not become a weight on the shoulder of a man. You need to have a job [as a woman], because anything can happen.” And in order to find decent employment, one must have an education, she stressed.
“We have to empower the women of Africa,” said Kidjo. “And we have to teach the boys that it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to feel pain, it’s OK to feel empathy.” She does not, however, limit her desire to help humankind to her native continent of Africa.
Kidjo aims to spread good feelings worldwide with her music, feelings that audience members can carry with them into the community after her performance ends. “When the music touches you, you improve the community,” is how she put it.
“My whole career, my entire life, I’ve been telling people the one thing that doesn’t know color or boundary is music,” said Kidjo, who began performing at the age of 6 with her mother’s theater troupe. “Music is the quintessential tool of peace.”
As for the impending violence of Hurricane Sandy, “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m under the wings of God, so I’m cool.”