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One of Africa’s biggest stars uses empowering song to lift up women and girls

March 28, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
Benin-born Angelique Kidjo has made the empowerment of women and girls a part of her music and life's work for decades. The Grammy winner has attracted a global following with her mix of African and Western music styles and lyrics in a number of different languages. Jeffrey Brown profiles Kidjo latest album, "Eve," as well as her new memoir, "Spirit Rising: My Life My Music."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: one of Africa’s most notable singers.

Jeffrey Brown caught up with Angelique Kidjo here at George Washington University recently, where she called on the world to sing, dance, and lift up the women of her continent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Angelique Kidjo dedicates her new album “Eve” to the women of Africa, to their resilience and their beauty.

Born in the small West African country of Benin, now living in Brooklyn, Kidjo has made the empowerment of women and girls a part of her music and life’s work for decades, from the Afro-pop song “Hello” to her anthem “Afrika.”

She sings in a variety of African languages, along with French and English, and mixes African rhythms with Western pop, soul and jazz. The idea for her latest work came during a trip to Kenya, when she encountered a group of women singing traditional songs. She went on to record them and then other women’s choral groups in Benin, and it all became part of an album celebrating women’s potential.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO, “Eve”: A woman doesn’t sit home doing nothing. It’s impossible; 5:00 a.m. in the morning she’s already up humming a song, getting ready, thinking about how this day going to go, what can I do to make this day a special one, even though there are challenges. It’s not living. It’s survival, but they have a skill of survival, survival in beauty, resilience, mind and strength.

And every time I go, I’m reminded that it’s not about money. It’s about how you fall and how you rise. It’s about how you see yourself in the role you play in your society and in the world, and who you are deeply. You have to know yourself to be able to go know other people. And that is something that I want the voice to tell the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Grammy-winning Kidjo has attracted a global following and performed and recorded with leading Western stars, including Bono and Alicia Keys.

And now she’s told the story of her rise to the international stage in a new memoir: “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music.” It’s timed to a U.S. tour and the release of her 10th album.

The story begins at home, with nine siblings, two supportive parents, her mother was a dancer and her father an amateur musician, and one very determined young girl, ready to sing her heart out.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: The voice is the mirror of your soul, and I want my soul to touch other people’s souls.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you knew this even as a young girl?

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: I have so much fun when I’m singing. And music has always been my breath, my strength. Everything comes back to it. I have grown up in a family where my parents have made this — the house available to every human being.

That’s my father’s will, to open the house to peoples’ brain. My father sees people more as what we can intellectually in your heart, what we can share together.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, in her culture, girls weren’t supposed to aspire to be Aretha Franklin, an early role model for the young Angelique.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: The defining moment for me was coming back from school one day where out of the blue, I start hearing people throwing stone at me, saying — spitting at me, calling me a whore, a prostitute, all kinds of horrible name.

JEFFREY BROWN: It just wasn’t something girls were supposed to do. ANGELIQUE KIDJO: No. You sing traditional music, it’s OK, because our tradition is oral. So I came home crying, saying, I don’t want to sing anymore.

And my grandmother said to me, that’s all? You are crying because some stupid people are making comments? I have an advice for you: You cannot be loved by everybody and you cannot love everybody. If what you do makes you happy, and within our circle of family, we support you, we love you, we don’t judge what you do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kidjo left her homeland in 1983, after a communist regime took over and cracked down on artistic freedom. She went to Paris and established herself in the music scene there. She also met her musician husband, Jean, now her manager.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome the voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a further nod to her past, on the new album, the 53-year-old Kidjo recorded the voice of her 87 year-old mother, Yvonne Eve, on a song called “Bana,” which urges people to value each other over money.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: At 8 years old, when I was singing women’s rights with my mother, I didn’t even know I was being a feminist at the time.

So, for me — for her not to be there, it wouldn’t be completed. And her voice was the last one that I recorded, because I always ask her why we are blamed, women are blamed for everything. And then she said to me, because men have told our story for us. We need to tell our stories, all of us, men, women, all around the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is what she aims to do with her work as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and with her own Batonga Foundation, which has promoted education for girls across Africa since 2007.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: Women are the backbone of Africa. And when you educate a young girl, once she becomes a mother, she put boys and girls equally to school, she understands sanitation importance, she understand vaccination, she understand a lot of things that would help her kids grow up to be healthy and to be well-educated.

The woman that is educated raises the GDP of the country. Child death at birth is reduced drastically. Diseases disappear. I mean, we transform Africa completely by educating more women, because we need new leaderships.

JEFFREY BROWN: The empowerment theme continues to animate her music. One song suggests that, since women suffer during war, they should have a role in brokering peace. Another addresses forced marriages.

At the end of concerts, Angelique Kidjo invites the crowd to join her on the stage. It’s a festival of dance and song of all ages, sizes, men and women.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: Music nourished the person that I am to be able to give. And when I’m on stage, I always say, stage is my little heaven. If heaven looked like this, the day I die, if I die, if I can continue doing this, oh, boy, I’m dying tomorrow.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can listen to more of Angelique Kidjo’s music on Art Beat.