We are reliably informed that singer and song writer Angelique Kidjo is working on a new album after a long period of silence. She was last seen at the United Nations headquarters in New York last friday July 12th when 16 year old Pakistani activists Yousafzai Malala was delivering a speech at a special UN assembly meeting. We profile one of the golden female voices from Africa.
London Newspaper “The Daily Telegraph described her as “the undisputed queen of African Music. Born in the small West African State of Benin, Angelique Kidjo is probably one of the best known musical exports from Africa.
A goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, Kidjo was among the guests that attended last Friday July 12th special United Nations Assembly in support of Afghan teenagerYousafzai Malala’s campaign for girl education in her native Pakistan. Malala survived after the Taliban shot her in the head last October for campaigning for girl education and now lives with her family on exile in the UK.
“Today I met the most amazing young girl Malala. She stood up for the rights of girls – let’s support her!”, Kidjo tweeted after meeting the brave campaigning Pakistani girl.
Both “girls” might have been born thousands of miles apart in different continents but they have a lot in common.
Like Malala, Angelique Kidjo is passionate about girl education in Africa. The Grammy Award Kidjo runs a charity the Batonga Foundation that supports the education of girls in secondary and high schools.
Her Washington-based foundation was created to help eliminate gender disparity among boys and girls across Africa in schools and to raise awareness of the value of education to girls as well as boys.
But that’s where the similarities between these two female activists end.
Born on July 14 1960 in Benin, Kidjo is the seventh child in a family of ten. She followed in the musical footsteps of her parents; her mother was a performer in a dance and theatre troupe and her father was a banjo player. Her parents shaped her love for the stage. 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 explained when asked later why she left her home country Benin.
The political instability in her home country in the early 80’s later proved to be a turning point in Angelique’s life as she was forced to leave the country for France in 1983.
That was to prove a smart move because it helped establish her not only as one of the most celebrated but also the most electrifying female performers from Africa. During her more than forty years in music, she has experimented with various musical styles.
Becoming a musician was not easy for Angelique. In Paris, France, she had to do various menial jobs to pay for her education. Not surprisingly, she 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 have a teenage daughter.
As a teenager growing up in Benin, West Africa, Angelique says she endured verbal and physical abuse from friends and some relatives who thought her dream of becoming a singer were wishful thinking.
She had to battle against stereotypes.
“Some people believe that 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”, she said in a newspaper interview.
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 the Pili Pili band 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 like Carlos Santana, Youssou N’Dour and Alicia Keys.
When she relocated to France, she enrolled in a law school as she initially thought she would never make it as a musician.
Later on, she decided to start performing in pubs and her mixture of Afro-funk fusion around the world with her fun-loving personality, her onstage charisma and unique voice quickly won her fans.
Angelique Kidjo, whose real name is Angelique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin, considers the late South African singer Mariam Makeba her role model. Makeba was the first female African singer to achieve a global following in the 60’s and 70’s.
Like most well-known singers, she has had her fair share of criticism.
She has been criticized for fusing funk and other Western pop elements into her music which makes it distinctively un-African to some people.
“Well, most of these people who criticize me have never gone out of their country to see what’s happening in Africa, Angelique hit back at her critics.
“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”, she adds.
Forbes Magazine named her among the 40 most influential Africans and is fourth on the list after Chinua Achebe, Youssou N’dour and Didier Drogba.
According to U2 lead singer, Bono: “Kidjo uses her work and her growing fame to change the way the world views Africa… Most artists talk about doing good; few go out and do it. Angelique Kidjo is one of them”
In a paper she write about music titled ‘Songs of Freedom’ the 54 year old singer highlights the importance of music in society and bemoans the censorship that exists in some African countries.
“Music in itself is the expression of freedom, and in some parts of the world, the joy and liberty it invokes are unbearable.” She wrote.
She is particularly angry at the musical censorship that Islamists have imposed in some parts of northern Mali.
“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,”.
Angelique Kidjo does not appear to be slowing down and if and when she releases a new album, that will be welcome relief to her legion of fans.