Angélique Kidjo: A conversation with Africa’s Premier Diva
Words by Kyle Long
In 2007, Time magazine called Angélique Kidjo “Africa’s premier diva.” But Kidjo is more than a singer. Over the last couple decades, Kidjo has emerged as a global ambassador for African culture, and an advocate for women across the continent. That fact was also noticed by Time magazine, and in 2021 they included Kidjo on their list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Angélique Kidjo was born in the West African nation of Benin in 1960. Kidjo issued her debut album in 1981, and since then, she’s released over a dozen solo LPs, earning five Grammy awards.
While Kidjo’s music is rooted in the traditions of her West African home, she’s grown to embrace a staggering variety of sounds – from American jazz and rock, to Brazilian samba and axé music. In recent years, Kidjo has released critically acclaimed albums interpreting the music of the Afro-Cuban queen of salsa Celia Cruz, and the New York post punk band Talking Heads. Kidjo has also made significant contributions to Western classical music, composing music for the esteemed Kronos Quartet, and performing new works by composer Philip Glass.
Angélique Kidjo recently spoke with Classical Music Indy contributor Kyle Long.
Long: I’m speaking to you from Indianapolis. We have a very special legacy of jazz music here. There was a generation of important jazz musicians who came from Indianapolis, including Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, and Slide Hampton. I know you’ve worked extensively in jazz music, do those musicians mean anything to you?
Angélique Kidjo: Whoa, of course! You’re talking about some very important jazz musicians that have left an impact on music. I hope when I’m no longer here people will remember me like that. Because they’ve left such a legacy that we all have to live up to.
Long: I think people here in Indianapolis are often surprised that our local musicians are known in places like West Africa. But you grew up hearing Indianapolis artists like Wes Montgomery in Benin, right?
Angélique Kidjo: Yes, Wes Montgomery was an extraordinary guitar player. That’s the power of music, you can come from a very small place and impact the world. When you’ve been given the gift of music, and you play with all your heart, and soul – it’s bigger than you, and it outlives you. That’s what Wes Montgomery did.
Long: I wanted to ask about your most recent solo album “Mother Nature”, which won a Grammy for Best Global Music Album. “Mother Nature” features many notable guest artists, particularly younger performers like Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, and Mr. Eazi. These artists represent a new wave of African music, and they’ve achieved unprecedented success in American popular music.
You have a great rapport with this new wave of young African musicians. Can you tell me about that relationship, and what it means to you to see this new generation rise up and take African music to new heights?
Angélique Kidjo: I was surprised to hear all these new artists claiming that they felt empowered and inspired by me. That’s what I was talking about with Wes Montgomery. You start doing music and you don’t know where that music will go. You don’t know what that music will do to people, how it will transform their lives, or how it will link to their best or worst memories. It’s an art form that is as fluid as air and water, it goes everywhere.
So to hear that this young generation of African musicians has been empowered and impacted by my music, I’m really humbled. Their music is out of this world. It’s done impeccably, and with a lot of professionalism. I’ve been waiting my whole life to see this day come.
Long: When you were a young woman in the 1980s struggling to get your music heard, did you ever think there’d be a day when African musicians were regularly getting hits on the American pop music charts?
Angélique Kidjo: No, but I knew it was not impossible. I’ve been saying this since the beginning of my career: Africa is at the center of all music. We are all Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens come from Africa. It’s in our DNA. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is, we all have something in us that is African.
Long: The premiere recording of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 12 was released earlier this year. That recording features you performing with the Filharmonie Brno, under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies. You have a significant musical relationship with Glass. You’ve collaborated with Glass several times, and in 2013 he composed “Ifè: Three Yorùbá Songs” for your voice. Is there anything you’d like to share about working with Philip Glass?
Angélique Kidjo: Working with Philip Glass is a blessing. I’ve never ever worked with anybody that is so enthusiastic about music. When he talks about music there’s a light bulb that goes on. His music takes you to a completely new zone, a new zone of repetitive music.
When we first worked together, I was asking “Where do I start singing? Where do I fit in here?” He said, “Come on Angélique, you can do this.” So I said, “Ok, let me jump in.” Because he believes that I’m able to do it. He believes that I’m capable of doing anything. So I just give it a try, and let the music take me wherever it wants to take me.
Long: Finally, I wanted to ask about your work advocating for women. In 2006 you founded the Batonga Foundation, an organization that seeks to empower and educate adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa. Tell us about your work advocating for women.
Angélique Kidjo: I think that there’s no future for humanity, if women are discounted from it. Because we are more than half the population of this planet. And as long as we underestimate and undermine women, we will all fail. Especially if men think that the only way they can assert their power is to abuse women, or to undermine them. There’s only so long women can take that abuse.
But I’ve seen it firsthand, that when you empower a young girl, it goes a long way – not only for her, but for her family, her community, and the world.