It was in 1966 in Dahomey, old Benin. A little girl is standing under the glare of heavy spotlights at the Palais des Congrès de Cotonou, the majestic parliament building in the heart of the tiny West African country’s largest city.
She is only six and her slender legs sway and shake. Moments earlier, her mother, the theatre company director, had hurried her on to the stage. Her daughter was the only one who could fit into the sick soloist’s costume.
On stage, still shaking, the little girl forces the audience into laughter – they think it’s part of the program. She reads this as approval, she is the comedienne at home, and finds the courage to begin the song Atcha Houn. Her audience responds with shock and awe, the first of many apt reactions Angélique Kidjo’s voice would receive in her long and illustrious career.
Today, the 54-year-old songstress is radiant with confidence. After the death of her father, a photographer with progressive ideas, she began to return to her memories of the days before her award-winning music career. The memories, put to paper, became her seminal autobiography, Spirit Rising, released early last year. She remembers her childhood as particularly happy and adventurous.
“I was a little girl, always running and jumping around our courtyard on skinny legs,” she says.
Kidjo grew up with music all around her. Her mother’s first love, traditional Beninoise musical theatre, ended when she was nine. However, soon after, the family took on another musical project investing in a number of Western style musical instruments in an ambitious plan to groom their seven sons into a homegrown version of the Jackson 5.
She, brimming with curiosity, wanted to be a part of this new sound.
“After school instead of homework, I would stand in front of the kick-drum with my arms crossed and listen in awe as they rehearsed Get Ready by the Temptations in our little lounge.”
Soon, she was joining her brothers performing at a little bungalow bar on the Cotonou lagoon while still a schoolgirl. Her father would only let her perform two songs but it was something Kidjo looked forward to each time.
“Around midnight, my father would come to my bedroom I shared with my sister Mireille, to wake me. I was too excited to sleep, but I would pretend, holding my songbook and lying very still so I wouldn’t wrinkle my dress. I wore the same purple dress every time. My mother made it from fabric she used to sell…my father put his hand on my shoulder and gently shook me, telling me it was time to go.”
Decades passed, and Kidjo’s passion for music and performance did not wane. Instead, it took her to the bustling streets of Paris. Speaking to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA on the phone from London, Kidjo says that she was unwilling to compromise as an artist if she chose to stay in her country.
“In Benin, before the coup d’etat, it was a very easy-going country…and then the communist regime arrived and everything changed. The good teachers fled the country and education began decaying and music was hit because it was not possible to write your own music if you weren’t talking about the communist regime and the people in power. It was one thing I didn’t want to do. So the only option I had was to leave, otherwise I was going to end up in jail.”
On September 11, 1983, a 23-year-old Kidjo arrived in France. It was a chilly introduction to the odd European climate.
“I learned very quickly that when the sun is shining in Europe, it doesn’t mean heat like in Africa, sometimes the sun is out and you freeze your butt, for real!” she laughs about those early days in Paris.
Those days, unlike her childhood, were a challenge. She was living with her older brother, who was also a student in the city. Both of them had very little to survive and she often did odd jobs to make ends meet. But Kidjo says her mind was made up, she was going to be the musician she wanted to be on her own terms at all costs.
“It was not easy…my parents were not rich enough to send us money. It was very hard, I had to find work. I did babysitting, I did hotel room cleaning, I did hair-braiding, I was a back-up singer in a band. It was a matter of survival but I was free and that freedom had no price for me. As long as the work didn’t compromise my body or my brain, I didn’t mind working endless hours…”
The life of a musician came easily to her. She worked endless hours to make tuition to the prestigious Parisian jazz school, CIM. It was 1985 and she had just left a fledgling singing school in a hilly suburb of the city. The jazz school was in the 18th arrondissement and home to a burgeoning immigrant population. She took to learning, in earnest, the genre that would form the basis of the sound she is now famous for.
“I loved jazz because it helped me understand the connections between classical music, pop and African rhythms. I studied the way the musical notes flowed together,” she says.
Through a series of connections, Kidjo was introduced to Jasper van’t Hof, a celebrated Dutch pianist who was experimenting with traditional African beats. She joined his band Pili Pili soon after as a vocalist.
“Pili Pili was modern jazz with African lyrics and rhythms, and Jasper was a genius at improvisation…later on this music also had a great influence on my own jazz rhythms…the sound can be so complex and entrancing. It was my first glimpse of how to create something new out of the magic of traditional African music.”
Her time with van’t Hof’s band was a crucial step in her career. With them, she performed at the renowned Montreux Jazz Festival and often spent winters touring Germany where the band had a prominent following.
While still at CIM, Kidjo met her husband, jazz bassist Jean Hébrail. Together they composed a majority of her repertoire. As she grew more popular in the Parisian jazz circles, she met another key character in her history, a blue-eyed man named Chris Blackwell. She met him at the Island Records office in Paris.
“He was dressed very simply, just in a casual shirt, jeans, and sandals. If you passed him on the street, you would have no idea how rich and powerful he was.”
Blackwell gave Kidjo her big break in 1991, the record deal she had been working towards since she had landed, young and naive, from her home in Benin. She remembers having one stern condition.
“I told him, ‘I need to have the artistic freedom to sing what I want to sing and make the music I want to make’.”
Blackwell was true to his word. In 1992, her first mainstream album Logozo went to number one on the Billboard World Music Charts. She headlined at the Olympia Hall in Paris that year to rave reviews.
She recorded four more albums with Island Records, gaining her first Grammy award nomination in 1995 for the hit single, Agolo.
Two decades later, the determined girl from Benin has made her dreams happen and more. The Grammy award-winner is mother to a daughter currently at Yale University in Connecticut. At the same time, she is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, fighting for the rights of women of her continent.
Her heart remains rooted on African soil as her latest release, Eve, dedicated to the women of Africa, shows. Outside her music, Kidjo is also known for her cooking. Her book was initially imagined as a cookbook and she shares a few of her favorite recipes in the epilogue of her memoirs.
Despite her success, she still holds her beliefs on making it in the music business dear. Compromising on her artistic freedom is something she cannot fathom.
“One thing I learned as a young girl singing was always to be true to my inspiration, never ever give that up in order to please other people. If you cannot sing your song alone without instrumentation and be happy, don’t put it out there! You cannot be an artist thinking that you want to be somebody else. You need to know what kind of artist you want to be and why you want to be that,” she says.
Judging from the sheer scope and success of her career, these are words from the truly wise.