Singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo

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The world music artist explains how her expansive career is marked as much by her musical achievement as by her passionate advocacy for her Africa homeland.

Dubbed "Africa's premier diva" by Time, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo has a repertoire that includes solo albums and collaborations with the likes of Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana and Bono, to name a few. The Benin (West Africa) native was performing by age 6 and has emerged as one of the most successful artists on the world music stage. She also translates her art into philanthropy through her work as a UNICEF ambassador and her Batonga Foundation, which gives African girls access to education. Kidjo kicks off 2014 with two new projects: the CD, "Eve," dedicated to the power of African womanhood, and her autobiography, Spirit Rising.


Tavis: With 13 albums to her credit, Grammy-winner Angelique Kidjo has established herself as one of the world’s premier singer-songwriters often working with musicians from diverse disciplines to forge her message of cooperation and collaboration. Her latest CD is called “Eve” and is a tribute to the perseverance of the women of Africa.

She is also the author of a new text, an autobiography called “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music.” First, let’s take a look at a song from the CD titled “Eva.”


Tavis: A tribute to the women of Africa. I think I get that. But tell me more. Tell me why.

Angelique Kidjo: Well, most of the time when it comes to African women, Black women, it’s always about bad stuff and we never seem to be people that have joy, family, empowerment. And I didn’t grow up with women that live in misery. I grew up with very strong women.

Both the grandmother and my mother, my aunties, and all the women I meet during my trip with UNICEF, they are just so resilient, they’re just so beautiful, that sometimes I’m like why don’t the world come to see this? We have so much to learn from them.

Tavis: Tell me more about what you think – I agree with you, but tell me more about what you think it is that we in the American empire have to learn from the women of Africa.

Kidjo: What we have to learn from the women of Africa is that every day is worth living. It doesn’t matter what challenge you face, the most important thing is, when you fall, how you rise and how high you want to go, where you want to go from that rise on. Are you gonna linger on the pain of the past or are you gonna move forward? And it’s always that.

From the moment they wake up in the morning, it doesn’t matter how much the day’s gonna be hard, what happened yesterday. They just move forward thinking how are we gonna make this day special, different from the last day and different from other days? That’s one thing we have to learn from the African women.

Tavis: What is it about certain women in Africa? And I hear your point earlier that you were not raised by women who live lives of misery. But it is difficult trying to navigate life every day in certain parts of the continent and I know you wanna argue that point. So for those persons who find it to be more of a struggle most days, the joy in living is what? The motivation to keep doing it is what?

Kidjo: The motivation to keep doing it is the future is always going to be better. One of the experiences that I’ve been through that is part of this book is that I took – a couple of years ago, I made a trip to the Chad refugee camp for the women from Darfur. And we met 23 women and, one after the other, the horror story they been through to end up in that camp was just appalling. I mean, when I wanted to just disappear, vanish. And that experience have impact my sleep ’til today.

But one thing that I see before I left, they say to us, “We’re already victim of situation that we don’t choose. Whatever you come out of here to do for us, don’t victimize us twice. All we’re asking from you is to do everything in your capacity for the peace to be reinstated in our countries, for safety and security to exist for us to be able to raise the children that we have to get a life.”

And that is something that every day I’m in a difficult situation, I want to linger on. I just think of those women. They have lost everything. They’re being raped constantly by people. Their little boy being beheaded on the breast of the mother. I mean, the whole story goes on and on. And yet, here they are within the tears in the their eyes looking at you in your eyes and telling you, “Don’t make me a victim second time.”

As a woman, I tell you my story because I know that’s so we can impact other women. But all we have to remember is that life is worth living. Don’t let anyone define you from what you live through and everything that they think you stand for. Just be proud of who you are. It doesn’t matter.

Tavis: Tell me why it is or how it is, Angelique, that your personal – I mean, we’ll talk about it. Your story, your life, is in the book, “Spirit Rising.” Because we talk so many times, been friends for so many years, I know that your own story of having to leave the continent. Give me some sense of why it is or how it is that you have not been embittered. But, given your own story, your desire to go back to hear these stories and to try to make us respond to those stories.

Kidjo: Well, I cannot be bitter because I was not raised in a family where bitterness has any space. Because my mom and dad always said, “Speak. Speak up your mind. We ain’t God. We can’t read your brain.” Let’s get together with a problem you have and find a solution to it. And if we can’t find a solution to it, leave of it. Go move forward. Tomorrow is always better if you have that philosophy and you have a strong spirit.

I don’t care about what people think about me. I’ve learned that since I was 12 years old when my grandmother told me, “Don’t let anyone define and decide for you fate.” What you do that makes you happy and that makes your family, the people that love you, their opinion counts more than anybody out there that is putting a category on you or defining you according to the old phantasmal.

So, for me, from the point of view of my life, I’ve been impacted by women that taught me that, as a woman, my body is a sanctuary, that whoever I invite in my body, I have to be clear in that invitation. If no is a no is a no, and you fight to your last breath for that no to be understood. Don’t say that you are a victim if you let somebody manipulate you.

From the moment you are clear in your vision of yourself and how you project that vision in your family, your community and in the world, that’s all that matters. I know where I come from, Tavis. I don’t where I’m going. Really, we don’t know what the next half hour hold. But who we are, if we don’t control that, if we don’t embody that and we are not proud, we don’t stand proud in our shoes, we always be fooled of people.

Our stories have been told by others. Our story, our identity, our image has been set up by other people that tell our story for us because of the power that it gives them to tell our story and to define us and put us in a category. I refuse to sit in anybody’s box. I refuse for anyone to tell me who I am because I know who I am.

Tavis: Tell me how the strength of that spirit has defined your music. When you say as powerfully as you do that you were taught don’t let people define you, don’t let them box you, don’t let them categorize you, that is a statement that’s true of the life that you’ve lived, but it’s also just as true of the music you produce, that you don’t get boxed in, you don’t get categorized, you don’t get defined.

Hence, all these beautiful collaborations in all different kinds of genres. You just do what you wanna do, apparently.

Kidjo: Yeah, because music give me that freedom. Music is a universal language. My father told me, “Do not come back to this house and tell me you’ve failed because you’re Black because that’s the last time you use that word in this house.” Your color doesn’t define your brain nor your soul. You can stand next to any human being and challenge that person as long as you use your brain.

And if you love music, you have to be the one that opens doors. You have to be the one that build bridge on which everybody can be free to walk on. I know that that’s my mission. And music for me has been my breath, my backbone since I was a little kid. Anything that comes to my life, hard time or good time, I always find comfort in music.

And, therefore, I am a storyteller with my music. And my story, nobody gonna tell it for me. The story of those women that I’m talking about on this album, they give me the permission to tell those stories. And I want their face to be seen. I want their voice to be heard because those women are the ones that nourish my inspiration and they nourish my strength.

This whole concept started when I took a trip a year and a half ago. I was in Kenya with UNICEF. We were tackling the problem of stunting. Stunting is acute malnutrition of a newborn baby and it’s a problem. The head of UNICEF call it silencing them, and it’s true. It’s happening in our society where you don’t have the means to put the right nutrient food on the table.

What it does, it damages permanently the brain of a child which mean the work force, the person then cannot. Economically, it just impacts our countries and the whole world economy. And I arrive in that place dealing with those women. The first village was just dreadful. I was just like I wanna scream off my head.

And you arrive in the second village and you see those women with that pause, that joy in their eyes, that smile, living with nothing pretty much. And they start singing to me and I have shiver all over my body. And my heart start beating. It was just like I felt I am more powerful than anybody else. I’ve been empowered by those women by that voice. And that’s why I took it to believe and I went to women in different villages.

I mean, just talking about it, I wanna cry because they just embrace me. They’re like this is a dream come true to us. We’ve nourished you with all this music and you take it everywhere. You talk so gracefully about us. We never dreamed that one day we’d be singing with you. I say, you better believe it because I have to give back and I’m gonna come back and you’re gonna give me more.

And we start the conversation from music. First of all, I play the music and they look at me like are you kidding us? We’re gonna sing that? I say, you’re gonna do. So I sing to them and I sing the song with them. After a while, I remove the music and then they take it over like trying to stop a fast train. They won’t stop. I’m like, okay, I have it. They’re like, uh-uh, we’re having too much fun in there.

And from the music, we start talking about family, how they want the girls to go to school. They start talking about their concern about sex because sex is a taboo subject. Women don’t have a say in sexual intercourse with their husband or their partner. And I’m like I’m not gonna deal with all this here. How am I gonna deal with this? And they say, yes, we know you can give us some tips here and there.

I say, no, be yourself. Don’t be afraid of your partner. Your partner is not – you are not his thing. Tell him, talk to him. They say, we can’t. I say, you can. Don’t be afraid. If next time you can’t tell him yeah, go talk. Whenever you do that, say, yeah, I’m gonna do that [laughs].

Tavis: Spoken like a true woman who lives in Brooklyn [laugh].

Kidjo: I go do that!

Tavis: I’ll tell him. I’ll tell that Negro, yeah [laugh].

Kidjo: Come on. Yeah, you’re gonna have to do this, white man. It’s joyful, not painful.

Tavis: When you have those kinds of encounters, how do you, as a UNICEF ambassador, how do you leave the continent repeatedly and not be burdened by that? What you do is take those stories and turn it into music because that’s the gift that you have to share with all of them. But how do you not end up burdened by that?

Kidjo: I’m not burdened about it because the people that I’m helping, that I’m working with, are not burdened about it. They know that is their life, right? And sometimes the women say, we will not change our life for nobody else because we have our children here. As hard as it is, when we see smiles on the face of our children, it’s worth millions.

So who am I to pity them? They don’t want to be pitied. They don’t want to be helped above what they decide to do. And that’s the problem we have in Africa. Most of the people have good will. They wanna help African people. But how can you help African people without their input in it? You cannot transform the society of people if the people are not part of the change. So for me, burden is not part of it. It is how do we talk together and how do we find solution together?

Tavis: You don’t have very many critics. Everybody seems to love you. I certainly do. But for those critics that you do have who think that, in your music and in other aspects, you’ve become “westernized” – because, as I mentioned earlier, you’ve been living in Brooklyn for quite a while now – how do you respond to those critics who say that, in your music specifically, you’ve gotten a little too westernized?

Kidjo: Well, the music from the western world come from where? The question I ask them is that you want us African artists to be a piece of museum? We don’t have the right to modernity? How society has evolved, the traditional music of my ancestors are not the one we playing today. It’s the same song, but the lyrics are different. It has to reflect our time. It has to reflect the evolution of the family.

We’re not just stuck in a piece of wood or something. I mean, people just – the phantasm of people about Africa is something that is denying us to move forward. That’s why we want to come in and rape Africa in his resources.

It’s okay for westerner to come and take the music from Africa and make it and then sell big time. And they say, okay, cool. But when you do that, it’s not cool. Well, I’m African and I’m proud of being an African woman. And where I come from, the family where I come from, they listen to every different kind of music.

Can you imagine me bringing James Brown music to the village and they will play the drum in it and they will kill it? So now who’s gonna tell me we are not allowed to do that? Do we have to have permission again by the colonizer to do what we have to do? They have told our story before. They are the one that divided us and we still give them that power of division over us.

No, I refuse. I don’t care. I am who I am and I will live the way I want and decide to live. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. It’s not easy what I’m saying because the music business is male-dominated. When you are a woman and you’re an African on top of it, forget it. But you know what? You have to stand for something or you fall for everything.

I want to look at myself in the mirror at the end of my life and say I’ve done my share and I’m proud of what I’ve done. Nobody can take that away from me. They don’t like it; I don’t force anybody to listen to my music. Blues come from Africa, rock and roll come from Africa. You listen to (inaudible), after the slave music, everywhere you go, Africa is there. R&B, hip-hop, bring it.

You go to Africa. Just go and just remove all the banners that you have in your head and go to the village, from one village to the other. If you don’t trust the roots of the modern music in Africa, then there’s hope for that music at all.

Tavis: As tough as the music business is, male-dominated, yes, and if you’re a Black woman, another challenge. If you’re an African woman…

Kidjo: It’s another challenge.

Tavis: Another challenge. I get that. And yet, everybody and their mama wants to collaborate with you [laugh].

Kidjo: I love that.

Tavis: Tell me why that is. I love it too, but why is that? How is that? You’ve collaborated with like everybody in this country and around the globe.

Kidjo: I collaborate with people because their music talk to me as much as mine talk to them. And one thing that I learn since I was a child when I start asking questions because my nickname is “When, why, how?” I never get enough answer.

In my village, as soon as I come out, they go, “Don’t ask questions. That’s the deal!” And I say yes and I start asking questions. They’re start rolling their eyes, I say, “Are you gonna answer me or not?” You don’t answer me, how do I know? So basically, I grew up asking questions.

I mean, as an African child living in a poor family in a poor country and having access to so much music because my father decided that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have to listen to music and realize that the world doesn’t stop at the doorstep of this house, that we have challenges to face when we leave this house.

And my mom deeply believed that too because, when my mom put me on stage when I was six years old, she always knew. She said, “I saw it in you, but you gotta be able to be naked spiritually to touch peoples’ souls. Do not be afraid at any cost if you are in sync with your truth. God gave you that talent for something. Go ahead and touch people.”

Tavis: To be naked spiritually.

Kidjo: Absolutely.

Tavis: I love that, yeah.

Kidjo: And for me, physically, that’s what it is about. What are you there for? I say if you’re on stage and you’re more concerned about your dress, and then you think that the public is accessory, you got nothing to do there. I mean, you can’t just do that. You give because that music is something that is the bedrock of humanity.

And I don’t care how people like it or not. I don’t want anybody to be hurt. I want everybody to be happy because, if you’re happy, you are more open to other people. Don’t let misery bring you down. Smile. My father always say you wake up in the morning and you start smiling, your day’s gonna get better.

You can meet anybody out there that challenge you for many different things, smile back. Even the most racist person make a very painful racial comment, give him a smile. It’s better than you take a weapon on him because he’s just gonna go like, “Oh.” He’s just being stupid. You see what I mean?

Tavis: See, all of this explains why, when I see you in concert, you don’t stop smiling and you won’t stand still on the stage.

Kidjo: Why should I stand still? I’m alive.

Tavis: I say you’re on the move [laugh].

Kidjo: I’m alive, baby. Come on, I gotta be moving everywhere, mm-hmm.

Tavis: I love that line and I’m gonna use that too. See, every time you come on, you make me think of stuff. You give me gifts every time. That line that the audience is not an accessory…

Kidjo: It’s not.

Tavis: That’s a cold line. But there are so many – I ain’t gonna call no names on TV tonight. But I’m a music lover, as you know, all kinds of music and I’ve been to shows in my lifetime where I felt just like that. I felt like, to the artist on the stage, the audience was just an accessory.

Kidjo: Not me. If I go to that show sometime, I will give you two or three songs and I’ll be like, “Show me your guts, show me your guts, show me your guts.” By the third song, you don’t show me your gut, I’m out of there. I don’t have time for that. I don’t wanna be dirty by your ego. For me, music is always you have to be at the service of the song. If you’re not, then your inspiration is not truth. Everything you do is to please people because today music is out there.

It becomes a commodity and it’s become the commodity that people transform the way they want it to. They can cut your song, they do everything they want. We artists is like we are just there to make other people reach and then they just snatch it away from us. Fine, but you ain’t gonna snatch my spirit away from me. Who I am, the music I do, is mine. I decide who I got.

So when I invite people on my album, they all go like, “Okay, what is up in there?” I remember Steve Jordan. He played on this album, right? So at one point, the song “Orisha,” I call him back and say, “Come on, Steve. I want the women singing, the whole drum thing, how are we gonna do that?” So he come up and said, “Angelique, which market are you targeting?” I said, “Don’t ask me that,” which I ain’t targeting no market.

He said, “Why are you going with this rhythm of yours?” I say, “You can play, right?” He say, “I don’t know about this.” I say, “Sit down,” and he get on the drums. I look at him and I say, “Duh. You play the thing one take. Why you giving me headache for? It’s in your blood. Come on, it’s in your DNA. What the hell you care?” He goes, “All right. You always make me sweat.”

Christian and Steve together are just like – we listen to them like is this for real? Those talented people like that? And we were having fun. They’re looking at me like, “Why do you come up with those things?” I said, “The rhythm come from my country. I just use it.”

Tavis: See, that question, that’s not the first time you’ve heard that question, though. What market are you going for?

Kidjo: Yeah.

Tavis: You say you ain’t going for no market. I’m trying to do my – I’m gonna tell my truth.

Kidjo: Absolutely.

Tavis: It ain’t about no market.

Kidjo: Market? I don’t know which market [laugh]. Human beings market [laugh].

Tavis: There you go, exactly. This book, speaking of your spirit, “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music,” everybody loves it. These words about you and your work from Bill Clinton and Bono and Alicia Keys and Peter Gabriel and Desmond Tutu, everybody loves what you have written here. But why did you, at this point in your life, want to write an autobiography? What did you want to say?

Kidjo: Well, it started – you remember the (inaudible) we have when my father passed away.

Tavis: I remember that. Your mother’s still here, though?

Kidjo: Oh, my mom is…

Tavis: What? Is she 87 now?

Kidjo: Alive and cooking. Oh, my body! Jesus Christ, you never take my mom to club. She will shame the heck out of you.

Tavis: At 87 [laugh]? In the club?

Kidjo: What? My daughter say, “Grandma’s cane is her third leg.” She walks so fast. “Come on, come on, come on.” I’m like, “Mom, come on. Slow down.” She say, “I got no time, man.”

Tavis: Her cane is her third leg [laugh].

Kidjo: Jesus, where are you going, ma? And she just love music so much, right? So when I decided to write this book is right after the funeral of my father because there’s so much stuff going on in my head and everybody I meet, I’ll be talking about my father. And a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you buy yourself a camera, sit in front of it and talk, talk, talk like if you’re talking to your father?”

So I started doing that and then I’d been approached by Harper colleagues to write a book about my journey from Africa all the way to America. And that comes in handy because we have to transcribe it and translate it.

Then suddenly I’m like this is the moment to tell this story. This is the moment to tell a story in a world where we are losing ground, where individuals are no longer important. We are just seen as collateral damage of consummation, consumption. When you have a headache, you go buy. You don’t even have time to sit and think what do I need? Do I really need this? What can I do for myself and somebody else to have a sense of my life?

So telling my story is to empower people to believe in their own power. We have so much power individually. Collectively, we put that power together, no one ever will be able to tell us what to do.

Tavis: I was not surprised when I got the book from my Angelique Kidjo because, consistent with who she is, there are about 150 illustrations in the book. It’s vibrant just to look at, much less to read.

Kidjo: This is my grandmother, my father’s mother.

Tavis: This your grandmother? Oh.

Kidjo: Oh, she’s a tough cookie.

Tavis: Just the photos alone make the…

Kidjo: You see that face? She’s laughing.

Tavis: I see [laugh].

Kidjo: She is smiling like, “Come on. You come to my turf, I’ll show you.”

Tavis: It’s quite a book. It’s called “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music” by Angelique Kidjo. And the new CD from Angelique is called “Eve.” This sister is busy as always. And you look gorgeous as you always do.

Kidjo: Oh, well, I always look gorgeous because Sheila make me gorgeous. Sheila is the best.

Tavis: Sheila helps, yeah.

Kidjo: She gave me all those tips. Now I wanna go back and start using it. I’m telling you, man.

Tavis: But she didn’t make all that, though.

Kidjo: No, but it’s like, okay, I’m going back. I’m gonna use all the tips. I’m gonna put the eyelashes on. I’m gonna do the line. I cannot do straight lines. She say put five dots outside in and then you – I’m like, okay, girlfriend.

Tavis: So now she’s giving you makeup tips [laughs]. Sheila, you done turned – Angelique is already too much. Now you’re giving her makeup tips. She in trouble now.

Kidjo: I’m gonna be so hot. Nobody could look at it anymore. I’m gonna be banging everybody down on the floor.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith [laugh].

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Last modified: February 3, 2014 at 2:13 pm