“If you are an African musician, people are waiting for you to fail,” says Angélique Kidjo, five time Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and activist from Benin in West Africa – and one of the greatest living artists anywhere.
“They expect you to be late, and to never be good enough. I always tell the new generation, ‘Be spotless, because where you come from has a lot of clichés. But be defiant. Refuse to be categorised.’”
A 5’4” dynamo whose 16 albums, including 2021’s genre-blending Mother Nature, a reckoning with both climate change and her own legacy that includes collaborations with young African gunslingers Burna Boy, Mr Eazi and Sampa the Great, Kidjo flashes a grin. “And never take your public for granted,” she adds.
New York-based Kidjo, 63, has forged a 40-year-career on the back of multilingual, mostly danceable songs that mix traditional African styles with pop, soul, reggae and jazz. Each concert she does is a new beginning, she tells me; in November she’ll be working hard to seduce all five tiers of the Royal Albert Hall when – accompanied by special guests including fellow West African superstar Youssou N’Dour and the UK’s only Black and ethnically diverse orchestra, Chineke! – she headlines the EFG London Jazz Festival.
“Jazz is the modern form of traditional music from Africa,” says Kidjo, who often scat-sings, African style. “It brings people together to participate, improvise, express human emotion. To feel totally free.”
Today she’s visiting the Albert Hall, which she last played in 2019 as part of the BBC Proms. Having arrived early she’s already been out on the stage, her red high heels clicking, and surveyed the empty auditorium.
“As a kid I learned to confront my stage-fright, understand any fear, which means the stage is the safest place on the planet for me,” she says, seated in a dressing room across the carpet from her French husband/manager Jean Hebrail, whom she met as a student at Paris’s CIM Jazz School in the 1980s (the couple have a daughter, the actress and writer Naima Hebrail Kidjo, born in 1993), and who spends our entire interview folded over a computer sorting details for Kidjo’s forthcoming world tour.
“The power of music is amazing. The joy you can bring! Seeing the smiles on people’s faces lifts me up, gives me purpose. Everyone should listen to the music they love for 30 minutes a day,” she continues in her mile-a-minute way (as she writes in her 2014 autobiography Spirit Rising, she’s never needed coffee). She is scathing about our obsession with social media.
“Social media? Forget it! The dopamine you get from music lasts way longer than a click. Music resets your brain, reminds you who you are. It’s my breath, my purpose. Everything I do, fighting problems with UNICEF, the Batonga Foundation” – she’s been a Goodwill Ambassador for the former since 2002, and founded the latter in 2006 to assist in transforming the lives of vulnerable adolescent girls in Africa – “is with music on my side. Music is what helps me change the world.”
Kidjo was never meant to be a singer. In Benin, the former Kingdom of Dahomey, one-time home to the all-woman Amazon military regiment and the birthplace of voodoo (she has covered Jimi Hendrix – “Who could better claim to be a ‘Voodoo Child’ than me?” she says), female musicians were considered immoral.
Music, however, was in her life from the get-go. One of 10 siblings born to liberal parents in the busy city of Ouidah, she’d sung traditional melodies as a child in her mother’s theatre troupe and grown up dancing to records by James Brown, the Beatles and Miriam ‘Mama Africa’ Makeba. Being gobby, she’d been picked on: ‘Batonga!’ she’d yell, a word she’d made up. ‘Get off my back!”
After fronting a high school band that won every competition going, Kidjo recorded an album, Pretty, that made her a national star. Benin was by then a dictatorship; asked to serve as a mouthpiece, she slipped out of the country for a new life in France. She worked as a cleaner, swept floors at a barber’s, put her earnings from singing backing vocals into paying for lessons at jazz school. When she burst onto the international scene with Logozo, her 1991 debut for Island Records (whose cover sees her in a zebra-print jumpsuit, her hair shaved into a flat-top), arguments started.
Was Kidjo diluting ‘traditional’ African music? How ‘authentic’ was her sound? She rolls her eyes. “There was so much ignorance then. Some people said, ‘Modernity is not for Africans.’ How else do you think we move forward? Our success stories still don’t interest the Western media, even though what I dreamed about 30 years ago is happening: a boom in contemporary art, architecture, technology, fashion, music...
“In my time you signed a recording contract for 10 years,” she continues. “Today’s kids don’t want anyone telling them what to do. I invited the youth onto my album [Mother Nature] because the African continent will pay the highest price for climate change, and the policy makers aren’t listening. Burna Boy told me, ‘If we want to live in a better world, a different world, then we have to take action ourselves.’”
Kidjo has always walked her talk. For her, big ideas arrive to be pursued. A trio of albums tracing the global roots of slavery? Check. Campaigns to eradicate tetanus, malaria, female genital mutilation? Check. Collaborations with John Legend, the Luxembourg Philharmonic, female village choirs from Kenya? Check. African takes on Ravel’s Bolero, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and the music of Cuban salsera Celia Cruz? A cameo in a big budget film (2022’s The Woman King, the story of the Dahomey Amazons)? A rendition of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ for Quincy Jones’s 90th birthday celebrations at the Hollywood Bowl in July?
Check, and check again.
She says what she thinks, too. In 2006, she was thrown out of Zimbabwe for calling its authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe a “monster”. In 2010, she told a male journalist to “Quit bitching, women’s issues are your issues too” when he questioned the all-female line-up of the Lilith Fair. Asked about her performance at the 2018 Armistice Day Centennial in Paris, where she sang Blewu, a song of peace, under the Arc de Triomphe before a row of presidents including Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, she pretends to choke.
“You could see the divide of the world right there, just with body language,” she says. “The [presidents] willing to work together for the sake of humanity. And the ones who want the world to be their way, no matter how many lives they destroy.”
Last May, Kidjo was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize, an international music gong celebrating the importance of music and recognising exceptional achievements. While the roll-call of previous Laureates reads like her concert guest-list (Sting, Youssou N’Dour, Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Gabriel and Kronos Quartet, all previous Kidjo collaborators), she says it raised the bar on her career.
“I have to figure how to live up to it,” she says. “But I’ve been raised by a global village, and taught the value of giving back, of using my singing voice to build bridges between cultures.
“The beauty of it is that every day I wake up excited to keep going.”
Angélique Kidjo plays the Royal Albert Hall with special guests as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival on November 17; efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk