Profile: Angelique Kidjo, Combining Showbiz with humanitarianism in Africa

“I met the most amazing young girl Malala. She stood up for the rights of girls – let’s support her!” These are the words Angelique Kidjo, arguably, one of Africa’s prominent singer, twittered about Malala, a 16 year old Pakistani school pupil and activist who was shot by Taliban gunman in Pakistan while returning from school a couple of years ago.

306340_orig
Angelique Kidjo, has also been championing the course of young girls and the empowerment of women by supporting education for girls in Africa through her charity Batonga Foundation.

Like Malala, Angelique Kidjo, has also been championing the course of young girls and the empowerment of women by supporting education for girls in Africa through her charity called Batonga Foundation. Kedjo, a six time Grammy nominee whose artistic career spans three decades with ten albums, supports both secondary school and higher education for girls in Africa.

“Throughout the course of human history, the global family has been unable to find solutions to the evils that persistently deny the achievement of enduring peace and harmony. But as long as these evils persist, they must be resisted. Popular culture believes that the function of the artist is to entertain. Artists are told that to be political or to challenge authority is an abuse of their gift.’’ This is how Harry Belafonte sums up Angelique kidjo in a piece he published in Vanity Fair 2007.

"You can fall, but you can rise also" - @angeliquekidjo #mondaymotivation
“You can fall, but you can rise also” – @angeliquekidjo #mondaymotivation

Belatonte continued: ‘How fortunate for our common humanity that so many throughout history have refused to acquiesce! I believe that art is a prime facilitator of truth, and those who have come to embrace this have always enhanced our humanity. Angelique Kidjo is such an artist, using her work and her growing fame to change the way the world views Africa’’

“She helps raise the profile of social causes. Beyond her music, she uses the upheaval of her childhood, in Benin, as the backbone for Batonga, her nonprofit effort to help educate young African women. Most artists talk about doing good; few go out and do it. Angelique Kidjo is one of them.”

Kidjo and film producer, Ava DuVernay
 Kidjo and film producer, Ava DuVernay

Among other things, Angelique Kidjo’s Washington-based foundation called Batonga is aimed at eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education and advocating for community awareness of the value of education for girls. Both Malala and Angelique are united by their common goal of promoting female education of young girls in Africa and in Pakistan.

But that’s where the similarities between these two female activists end.

Kidjo, born July 14 1960 in Benin, West Africa, is the seventh child in a family of ten. She followed in the footsteps of her parents; her mother was a performer in a dance and theatre ensemble and her father was a banjo player. Her parents shaped her love for the stage and performing. She started playing music at the tender age of 6.

“When the military took over in my country, military music was everywhere and musicians were forced to sing praises for the military leaders. There was no way I could obey such orders, so I left the country”

angelique-kidjo-grammy-award-best-world-music-album-2015-eve-715x474
Kedjo, a six time Grammy nominee whose artistic career spans three decades with ten albums, supports both secondary school and higher education for girls in Africa.

The political instability in her home country later proved to be a turning point in Angelique’s life as she went on to become, not only one of the spunkiest, most electrifying performers in the pop world, but also one of the most forward and creative artists whose mission has been to explore the relationship of diverse musical cultures.

While doing various day jobs to pay for her tuition, Kidjo studied music at a reputable jazz school in Paris where she met and married musician and producer, Jean Hebrail with whom she has composed most of her music. They also have a teenage daughter.

As a teenager growing up in Benin, West Africa, Angelique Kidjo endured verbal and physical abuse because of her dream of becoming a singer. “When I was six, everybody found singing very cute, but when the teenager years kicked in, it became less attractive,” Kidjo said. “They believe when you’re a musician and you’re a girl, you absolutely have to be a prostitute. Those beliefs are still going on right now”

Kidjo achieved moderate success as a solo musician in her early 20s, but her career really took off when she joined the European jazz-funk-African fusion band Pili Pili as the lead singer in the mid-1980s.

After touring extensively with that group for several years, a revived attempt at a solo career proved successful and eventually led to major international fame.

In her music, she explores the tribal and pop rhythms of her West African heritage, blending it with a variety of styles including funk, salsa, jazz, rumba, souk, makossa and European, as well as Latin American music. Throughout her career, she has collaborated with diverse groups of international artists such as Carlos Santana, Youssou N’Dour and Alicia Keys.

When she relocated to France, she enrolled in a law school as she thought that she would never make it as a musician. While in France, Kidjo spread her rhythmic Afro-funk fusion around the world with her fun-loving personality, her onstage charisma and unique voice.

Angelique Kidjo Performs In London
Angelique Kidjo in one of her recent performance In London

Angelique Kidjo, whose real name is Angelique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin, considers the late Merriam Makeba as her role model. Johannesburg-born Makeba was the first name in African music to reach a degree of global popularity. “She was an African lady with an international career, so I thought that maybe there is a possibility for me in the future to be like her”

It has however, not all been a bed of roses for the singer, song writer and activist. She has been criticized for using funk and other Western pop elements which makes her music less African.

“Well, most of these people who criticize me have never get out of the country to see what’s happening in my continent,” says Kidjo,

“None of them can tell me the type of music that is played in my country. . . I think it’s the nostalgia of colonization. Music doesn’t belong to anybody”

Among her arrays of distinctions, she is the first ever woman to be listed among the 40 most powerful celebrities in Africa by Forbes Magazine. She occupies the fourth spot just below Chinua Achebe, Youssou N’dour and Didier Drogba. The UK based Daily Telegraph describes her as the “undisputed queen of African music”.

Besides her 2008 Grammy award, Angelique Kidjo was named Best Artist in April this year by Songlines magazine.

According to U2 lead singer, Bono: “Kidjo uses her work and her growing fame to change the way the world view Africa… Most artists talk about doing good; few go out and do it. Angelique Kidjo is one of them” In one of her article widely disseminated titled ‘Songs of Freedom’ the 54 year old singer highlights the importance of music in society and bemoans the censorship of music in some African countries.

“The mix of melodies and words carries a message much more powerful than spoken ideas…may be because when someone sings, truth speak directly to your heart,”

“Music in itself is the expression of freedom, and in some parts of the world, the joy and liberty it invokes are unbearable.”

“It is painful to think that in northern Mali, the land of Ali Farka Touré, -a region some believe is the birthplace of the blues, music is being completely silenced by militants who adhere to strict Islamic laws,”

Ange Ngu Thomas

Author: Ange Ngu Thomas