Singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo

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Grammy-winning West African singer-songwriter describes the appeal of her music and talks about her foundation.

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 Dave Matthews, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Bono and John Legend, 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 distinctive art into philanthropy through her work as a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador and her Batonga foundation. "Oyo" is Kidjo's latest CD.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Angelique Kidjo to this program. The Grammy-winning singer from West Africa is here in the U.S. in advance of her new CD, “Oyo.” The disc features collaborations with a number of artists, including Bono, John Legend and Dianne Reeves. Before we get to that, here now a small sample of Angelique Kidjo in concert.
[Video segment of Angelique Kidjo in concert]
Tavis: So my long-time producer Chris McDonald made a fatal mistake (laughter) by not accepting your invitation to come up on stage at Disney Hall here in L.A. the other night. What was his problem?
Angelique Kidjo: I think he was too slow, and my brother needs to be straightened out. (Laughter) He cannot be slow like that on me.
Tavis: You like to bring people up on stage, get in the aisles, when you perform.
Kidjo: That’s what we do in Africa. Music is for everybody to be shared, and it’s a language that we all share from north to south, east to west. If you cannot dance, then you’re not alive.
My mom used to say, “Somebody tell you ‘I don’t know how to dance,’ put your hand on their heart and say, ‘Is your heart beating, or are you dead yet?'” (Laughter)
Tavis: How, then, does it make you feel when you’re up on stage and you and your band are all into it, and you know the audience is appreciating the music but they aren’t into it with you? Do you take personal offense to that?
Kidjo: Not at all. I prefer – I like both. As far as you are into the music and we are sharing that music together and I’m giving you all my soul and you’re giving me yours too in return. It doesn’t matter – at one point you’re going to stand up; I know that for a fact. I’ve tried, I’ve done it. If I made Jimmy Carter dance, I can make anybody dance. (Laughter)
Tavis: Except Chris.
Kidjo: Yeah, Chris was dancing on the aisle; you didn’t come on stage. (Laughter)
Tavis: You had Jimmy Carter up dancing one day?
Kidjo: With his wife. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize, we were there with Josh Groban and Willie Nelson, and I sang the song that you just see. Next to him was the prime minister of Norway. He was a bishop, I think. He was like this. (Laughter) Right? You have the Carter couple going – grooving it. (Laughter) I’m like, “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Tavis: I would love to see that – Jimmy Carter getting his groove on.
Kidjo: Oh, you have it.
Tavis: That would be –
Kidjo: You have it.
Tavis: We got to find that tape.
Kidjo: It is on. A&E broadcast it later on.
Tavis: We’ve got to find that, I would love to see that. (Laughter) This new CD, “Oyo,” oyo means what?
Kidjo: It means beauty of earth, beauty in human being. The beauty that we are all born with that we don’t see that much around us. We are more surrounded by negativity and the beauty that we hold, we don’t show it.
Music has taught me that beauty, to believe in people, not to judge people according to their skin color but what they have to give me. If you’re stupid, I’ll walk away. I don’t want to waste my time with stupid people. But if there’s something interesting that we can share together – it can be music, it can be painting, it can be books, it can be anything – as far as humanly we connect, I’m ready.
Tavis: Speaking of connecting to human beings around the world, you are celebrated around the world for your music coming out of West Africa. What is it about your sound, about your stylings that you think connects universally?
Kidjo: The truth of my soul, because as my mom used to say, “Once you reach that stage there’s no double-guessing anymore.” You get there; you’ve got to be naked, spiritually. You have to be able not to be afraid to show that you’re fragile, that you’re strong, that you’re just a human being talking to other human beings.
How can we connect if your spirit is not open to other people to feel connected, to recognize themselves in that soul and go, “Wow, I want to be part of this soul.” Every time I finish my show and somebody comes to me and say, “You are so generous,” I’m like, “Why are you saying that?” It’s not questionable. You can’t give, you’re not an artist.
Don’t go on stage thinking it’s about your bellybutton. You’re there because you want to connect to the world. I think that’s what people really like about my sound, about coming to my concert, because you can come in completely down to my concert; you get out of that concert with a big smile on your face. Because I never let you forget from the first time, first moment I step on that stage, that every single one in this room is worth it, is important, and we all have a role to play in this world.
Even the carpenter is building this planet with us. We all are important.
Tavis: You’ve referenced your mother a couple times in this conversation already, and I know from knowing you for so many years that it’s impossible to have a conversation with you for any length of time and not hear you talk about your mother and your father – your father especially, who exposed you to music when you were a child. Tell me about your dad.
Kidjo: Oh, my dad was a wonderful man. I think that every African girl, if that girl can have a father that is a big supporter of her, she can move mountains. She can go beyond. That’s why I am where I am, because my father believed in one thing – education.
He always tell us, “Your ultimate weapon is your brain. Use it, because if you don’t come to an agreement with somebody by arguing, by exchanging point of view, not in hate, not in violence, but just arguing to find a solution together and you have to come to fight, you have both lost. Every war that we have fought in the history of humankind just proves how weak we were and how not intelligent we were.”
So my dad is that type of man, that sometimes they do things with my mom and we’re like, “We don’t want to see this.” Like “Samba Party” is being played and my dad will come from work and go, “Ooh, that’s my song. (Unintelligible) can we dance?” And my mom is cooking, right?
My mom is like, “Frank, what’s wrong with you? Do you know how to cook?” And Dad said, “I don’t care, I want to dance.” My mom say, “But my food is burning.” He goes, “Let it burn. Let’s dance first.” (Laughter) “You go back to it later on.” That’s my father.
Tavis: Wow.
Kidjo: He told my brothers, all of them, seven of them, “If one day you raise a hand on a woman, you never come back to this house. You’re no longer my child.” He said to the men that married his three girls, “You hit my daughter (unintelligible) I’m going to get it; I’m going to knock you and take my child out.” That’s my dad. Stand up for me.
He produced my first concert when I did my first album in 1981. The local promoter said to my dad two weeks prior to the show, “Ah, I don’t think I want to invest in your daughter, she’s too little. No one’s going to see her on stage.” My dad go, “What does talent have to do with the size of somebody? Are you stupid? I’m hearing this clearly or you just want to pull out?” He said, “Ah, don’t want to invest, that’s what I say.”
They were friends. From that day on their friendship stopped. My father was retired. He took his money of retirement, he never produced a show ever in his life – he doesn’t know how to do ticketing, none of that. He went ahead, asked questions around, did it. Do my poster – I still have that poster in my house.
He came home and said, “Okay, this is the deal. If I do this concert, if we lose money, it means we won’t have proper meal for three months. You all ready for this?” We all look at each other. “Yeah.” (Laughter)
Tavis: If this tanks, we ain’t eating for three months.
Kidjo: Absolutely. That’s it. (Laughter)
Tavis: And y’all all signed up.
Kidjo: Oh, we said, “Oh, we’ll do it.” As long as there’s hot water, some tea around and some bread, we’ll be cool. We ate it for lunch, breakfast and dinner for three months, because of course all the sponsor pulled out when the promoter pulled out. So we lost the money, but what it does, it just opened me up outside of Benin to the rest of Africa. That’s where it picked up.
My international career started at that moment because my father make the point that my daughter, she is talented, and no one’s going to stop me from believing in her. That’s Daddy.
Tavis: How did it aid and abet, how did it help your artistry to know that your father supported you that way, your mother did, your brothers, your whole family sacrificed for three months, all standing behind you for one concert. That made you feel like?
Kidjo: That made me feel empowered, and when I hit that stage that day, in my mind – because before I go on stage I always pray. I say, “I didn’t ask for this voice.” That’s my prayer to God. “You gave me this voice – make me touch people’s soul as much as I can.” Two, three, four, it doesn’t matter the number – let me touch people.
I went on stage and I was like, oh, man, I’m going to kill this stage today. You don’t believe me because I’m petite? Ooh, wait till I knock you off. My brothers, my sister, my mother, everybody was there.
My mom used to do my costumes, and they were like, “What is in you?” I’m like, “Rage. I got to prove that he’s not wrong.” We came back from Togo – it was in Togo, not in Benin – we all drove back home and we were all silent in the car when we were driving back home, and my dad just turned around to me and said, “You know that you were born for this, right? You’re something else.”
I went back in Benin and played for the first time after 14 years of exile in 1996 at the big stadium in my country, in my old town. I’m never going to forget my father. He was sitting down like that, frozen the whole concert, afraid for me that something might go wrong – being a dad.
You can see every song, tears were falling off the eyes of my dad because finally – that promoter is still alive today, and he was at the show, and my father was sitting not far from him. He did not look at him for one second.
Tavis: That whole story had come full circle, though.
Kidjo: I’m telling you, my dad was so happy. My dad said, “I can die happy now.” I’m like, “Dad, come on, don’t talk about dying.” But one of the things he said before he passed away was, “Whatever the outcome of my disease is,” because they diagnosed him with liver cancer at the end of March and he didn’t live a month, and I went to see him 10 days before he passed away, and he saw me come in (unintelligible). “I know you’re touring; what are you doing here?” I’m like, “Dad, I just came to see you.” He said, “Hm, I heard you won a Grammy.” I said, “Yes.” He goes, “What is a Grammy, anyway?”
I was so stupid; I forgot to bring the Grammy for my dad. He wanted to see it so badly and I forgot it. I explained to him what the Grammy was, that the Grammy rewards you for the work that you do, the music work that you do. Then he was silent for a moment and he goes – he always finds something to make you laugh, my dad is amazing – he goes, “Hm, so finally you found a place on this Earth where people recognize talent, right?” (Laughter)
I’m like, “Dad, come on, come on.” He was barely talking and he laughed. I’m like, “Oh, he’s doing good.” Then he said, “When are you going to bring the Grammy to me?” I said, “Next time I come around.”
He said to me, “Do not cancel anything to come and see me. You were born for this. You started singing in my ears before you started talking. This is what you came on Earth to do. Me, I can wait. Whatever happens, if I die, it’s only my body that is leaving you. My spirit will always be with you.”
I can tell you since my father passed away he has been opening up a lot of doors, letting me see that it’s okay to grow up. Because finally I realized that I became an adult. My father is no longer going to be here. I can’t call him anymore and say, “Hey, Dad, this is this, this is that, this is this, this is that,” and he’s going to walk me through the problem.
It is hard for me to talk about my dad, but he’s just a wonderful man and I think in my prayers every day I wish for every little girl that are born in Africa to have the dad to embrace the dream. Not to see them as possession or property, to give them to early marriage.
It breaks my heart when I see young girls of 15 years old that already have two or three kids and they look like they are 30 years old. They are married to men that are the age of their grandpa. For me, that tradition is something I’m fighting against. The world is moving around. We in Africa, we have to evolve. That tradition is wrong. It’s bad. It has to stop.
Tavis: You have a foundation you started working on these issues – Bajanga?
Kidjo: Batonga, yeah.
Tavis: Batonga, yeah.
Kidjo: Batonga is a foundation that I put together to help the girls fly. That’s why I put butterfly as a symbol of it – the metamorphosis. If you educate African women, Africa’s economy, Africa’s democracy, everything in Africa will just take off.
That’s why men are so afraid in Africa to have educated women, because as far as they’re in control, they feel comfortable. But my mom and dad used to say – my dad specifically used to say, “When you love somebody, love is not a jail. You have to set that person free. If that person is happy, you’re happy. A woman is not your property. She is your partner in life and in death.”
So that’s how bad I want the girls to be educated, for them to understand that they have rights, that when they become mothers they make sure that boys and girls that they have go to school. That the (unintelligible) home, as my brother was taught, start to respect the sister, because if you respect your sister, boy, you respect your wife and every woman in the world.
Tavis: Your story’s so fascinating, we’ve been talking for 15, 20 minutes, I ain’t got to the CD yet. (Laughter) Your personal story is such a beautiful narrative that it’s even hard to get to the music, but let me jump to the CD now because track number 14 is the – you’re smiling already – is the first song you sang when you were about six. You have now put it on this CD, “Oyo.” Tell me about the song.
Kidjo: My mom had a theater group and I grew up seeing people coming home talking, trying to learn a test. I’m like, “Hm? What is that?” My mom did the costume, write the whole thing, travel around to put in that theater piece the life of a king, one of our kings called Akaba in Benin. He had one of the most beautiful girls – the Princess Nagezi (sp), and he was jealous like you can’t even imagine.
So he was turning the life of his daughter to hell, so the whole piece was about that and it’s a long piece. So my mom – in Africa, you do intermission, the whole place go empty, nobody come back. Intermission don’t work. (Laughter)
Tavis: No intermissions.
Kidjo: I’m just letting y’all know right now. (Laughter) If you’d like to do any TV shows with intermission in Africa, forget it. (Laughter) That doesn’t work in Benin. So she put a ballet to do the intermission. During the ballet, people would dance and sing. That’s how I started learning how to dance, because she taught me how to dance, and I learned all the lines of the actors and actresses.
When they were rehearsing I’d be like, “Nope, that’s not the line.” (Laughter) My mom would say, “Can you shut up, please?” (Laughter) “All right, but that’s not the line anyway.” Well, I was something else.
I learned every song, and there was a little girl in that play that used to sing before the king sits as a judge to judge all the things that was brought to him. That girl was sick that day. Me, as usual, I was inside the costume just pulling everything left and right, just trying everything on.
Here I am, my mom goes – she pulled me and I came out with all the clothes on my head. She goes, “You’re going to sing.” I’m like – I look at my mom and go, “Uh-uh.” She goes, “Mm-hmm.” I said, “Uh-uh.” She goes, “Mm-hmm.” I’m like, “Oh, she’s serious.”
By the time I was just doing my funny faces, she grabbed the dress, put it on me, and I looked at the dress – it fits me perfect. I’m like, “This is still a joke.” She goes, “Come, I show you something.” I’m like, I’m going to (unintelligible). Then we arrive right next – behind the curtain and she pushed me in the spotlight. (Laughter) Oh, man.
The first time ever in my life I hear all the bones of my body going (makes noise) doing music. (Laughter) I said, “I’m never going to be able to do this.” You see, you start laughing – the whole public started laughing. Because of the spotlight on my face I didn’t see how many people were there, and if I had seen them I would never open my mouth, I can guarantee you that.
So I go, “Hey, this is kind of fun, people are laughing. They won’t see me – I will sing quick and get out of here.” So I start singing the song and I was hooked. I came back and I said, “Mom, can I sing every night?” (Laughter) She goes, “I thought you didn’t want to go there?” I’m like, “I kind of like it, though. Can I do it again?” She goes, “Nope.” (Laughter) I’m like, “Damn.”
Tavis: I think it’s so cool that all of these year later, “Atcha Houn” is on the CD.
Kidjo: Is still there. It’s a very important song when you take the history of the kingdom of the Fon, where I come from. One of our kings, Behanzin, was the one that created the first female Amazon warrior. They were (unintelligible). Every time they would come back from a battlefield, that rhythm, atcha, is their rhythm.
The male play – the males are naked all the way up here, the torso is naked, and they put water everywhere. They use the water in the different parts of their body to make sounds and they play, and if you see those women dancing it’s like there’s no bones in their body. It’s sensual, it’s beautiful.
What they say when they come back from the battlefield is we are inviting you to celebrate life with us. Wherever you are, tighten up your belt, come on up, man, come and join. I added this to the song. I said people from Africa, people from Europe, from Americas, from Asia, wherever you are, please, join. We’re only one people, not two.
Tavis: We haven’t even gotten to the Bono track, (laughter) John Legend, Roy Hargrove.
Kidjo: You’re going to do whatever you want to do after that. Don’t ask me questions (unintelligible).
Kidjo: Dianne Reeves. This CD is amazing. Of course, everything Angelique is pretty amazing. But “Oyo” is the name of the new project from my friend Angelique Kidjo, and I love talking to you all the time.
Kidjo: Any time, we have to write a book together about a lot of stuff.
Tavis: Your life ought to be a book – it’s an amazing story. Fortunately we’ve left enough time in this conversation – in the show, I should say – for some music. You ready to sing?
Kidjo: Oh, hell, yeah.
Tavis: All right. (Laughter) Well, guess what? I’m going to put the spotlight on you like your mama and push you out. So in just a moment, a special acoustic performance from the new CD, “Oyo,” with Angelique Kidjo – stay with us.
From her new CD, “Oyo,” here is Angelique Kidjo, accompanied by Dominic James, performing “Samba Party.” Enjoy. Good night from L.A., and keep the faith.
[Live musical performance]

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm