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The winner of five Grammys with 14 albums to her name, Angélique Kidjo is one of the greatest artists in international music today. Time Magazine has called her “Africa’s premier diva” and she has cross- pollinated the West African traditions of her childhood in Benin with elements of American R&B, funk and jazz, as well as influences from Europe and Latin America. She recently released Queen of Sheba – it’s on Spotify – with Ibrahim Maalouf from Lebanon. In an exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA from Paris, Kidjo says she is right now, in a moment where “things are blooming in her inspiration zone”. She talks life, work and the road ahead for her – and African music. Excerpts:
Q. At age 21, you became a star in Benin, with the album Pretty. But you had to quietly flee your home for Paris at 23, because of the regime that took over in Benin. It was Paris in the 1980s and you were at the prestigious jazz school, CIM. How did you connect with African music? What were you influences at the time?
A. My permanent influence in my music until now is always the culture and tradition of my country. The magnificent thing I learned from my musical journey doing my trilogy album tracing back the roots of slavery through music, is that there’s not one music in which I don’t find Africa, it does not exist. We live in Africa not knowing and realizing the power of our culture, how we have ruled the music on the planet. People can say no to it, but it’s okay. That fact is it’s never going to disappear. Because we are all from Africa – homo sapiens came from Africa. And for me, in that journey, looking back at my culture was something that empowered me the most. I wrote a song called The Sound of the Drums. Because I have to come back, after all this, I said to myself, ‘I have got to figure out if I am dreaming, if I am fantasizing, I am romanticizing the power of my drums and the music of my continent and my country’. And I went back, the awe was still there… And I’ve been booed, been bullied and asked ‘is this classical music, you can’t say this’, and I say ‘I will prove to you one day’. All the way, it’s proving to people that everything I do is to build cultural bridges for people to see not only through music that we have one music, but also we are one humanity, we are all unique.
Q. When you went on stage to receive your Grammy this year (Best Global Music for Mother Nature), was there any other emotion you felt that you didn’t the previous four times you received the award?
A. I did not expect to win, even though I was nominated three times in that category. Because the competition was tough. Being nominated is already a great honor. For me, each nomination is [proof ] my work is out there. People are paying attention to what I do. When I won, I was humbled and didn’t know what to do…
I was in total panic, because I did not expect to win. For me, winning a Grammy is not only my work – and I work hard – but also [that of ] the people that come and share the talent with me. And we have a conversation about climate change on this album with new artists.
Since I’ve written my autobiography (Spirit Rising), I’ve been doing a lot of talks at universities, and it’s always exciting, challenging, thrilling to speak to youth in campuses. They have so many ideas. I’ve been sitting with deans of universities, telling them how come we do not prepare our kids for
the workforce… You can’t just give them education and let them run out like that, it’s not productive or constructive for us, because we lose a lot of great people the way we are doing this.
Q. On young people and artists, your album Mother Nature also featured Africa’s young superstars, such as Mr Eazi, Yemi Alade, Burna Boy… what was that experience like?
A. What I learned from them is their professionalism – it’s mind-blowing. Every music that had been sent was spotless. I had waited for this day… And on top of being artists, these are entrepreneurs, they understand they have to be free. [In my time], I had to sign a contract for 10 years… These kids have the right to do whatever they want. They sat back and learned from my experience, and the experiences of Youssou N’Dour, and Salif Keita. And they don’t want to take that road. They want to be free in their own right and they are right to be free. And they have to learn that to last, they need discipline: when you say you have got to deliver, you have to deliver. Because when you come from Africa, it’s a double tragedy, because they expect you to be late, they expect you to do a job that isn’t good, everything goes against you.
You always have to prove that what you say is what it’s going to be and you can deliver.
Q. Is that perception changing globally now?
A. Not really. It’s changing but slowly, because those young artists are filling up big venues, and they are unapologetic and taking whatever opportunity they have to be here. Some people are resisting that thinking that it’s going to be a fashion that will dwindle, but it’s going to last and they’re going to come to the ball. They’re going to jump on this boat sooner or later.
Q. What is in the next phase of your career?
A. I don’t know what the future holds. But what I know deeply at the center of my work is that if you don’t see your own humanity, you can’t see humanity in anybody. If you have freedom and you are not fighting for the freedom of others, you don’t have any. It’s not just words for me, it’s fact. When we lose sight of those principles, of those self-evident truths, we put ourselves in danger. Because when we allow the bully to walk away with crimes without being punished, they will knock at your door and do the same thing. Our complacency and silence have allowed many people to live a very difficult life that was unnecessary.
So for me, my energy comes from the fact that I believe that what is true is true, what is fair is fair, and let’s work together. And in that, there is no concept of color, of language, of religion, nothing!
Q. You have global fame. What does fortune mean to you?
A. Fortune for me has never been a matter of money. Because money is a tool that allows you to buy things. But essential things, money can never buy – such as health, and the air you breathe, which is polluted. You can have billions of dollars in your bank account, but you can’t clean that air.
You have got to be happy with yourself and content with what you have to be able to live a balanced life… What is our purpose on this earth? And that’s the question I ask all the time, you have to find your purpose before making any plans. And when you start making plans, don’t make one, have plan A, B, C, D, E, as much as you can. If one door closes, get to the next one. You can fall all the way beneath earth, but you can always rise if you want it…
In business, having money is a good thing but my father’s mother always used to say to me that if you are given the choice to choose between your friend and wealth, choose your friend because your friends, when you need them, will be there. When you are down, they will come and talk to you.
Q. And is social media your thing?
A. That is part of the game. But being on stage is what creates a career. I never liked being in a studio, because I started my career on stage. But I knew that going through the studio was compulsory for me to be able to have a career. So doing both is equally important.
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