The Rotarian Conversation: Angelique Kidjo
Angélique Kidjo Photo by Joshua Jordon/Jed Root Inc.
Angélique Kidjo hauls a suitcase into the kitchen of her Park Slope home in New York City. She’s midway into an interview with journalist Warren Kalbacker when she pauses to pack for a trip to Africa. Born in Benin, Kidjo is known for multitasking on a global level, blending humanitarian work, far-flung travels, and music (she composes and performs) from multiple genres and cultures into her daily routine.
Kidjo, the Grammy Award-winning singer, will play several concert dates when she arrives in Dakar, Senegal. Kidjo, the activist, has something else on her mind: personal computers. Africa’s young women desperately need them, she says. She’s determined to expedite a delivery during her trip.
She has joined about two dozen celebrities, including Jackie Chan, Jack Nicklaus, and Jane Goodall, in Rotary’s “This Close” polio awareness campaign. The ads support Rotary’s US$200 Million Challenge, the effort to match $355 million in challenge grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more than eight years, she has served as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and traveled throughout Africa as an advocate for health care and education. She also founded a nonprofit that funds higher education for girls.
Kidjo grew up in Ouidah, a coastal town in Benin. Her parents endowed her with a love of music. She heard traditional African forms as well as music from Europe – “My father listened to Beethoven,” she recalls – and the United States. Her family led a fairly traditional West African life, she says.
As a young girl, Kidjo performed in a theater troupe led by her mother, and she sang with her brothers. In 1979, when she was 19, a local radio show invited her to perform. She sang her own composition about Winnie Mandela and the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa.
Kidjo studied music and movement in France, and her international career took off. She writes and performs her own work but often collaborates with other artists, including Bono and John Legend, or interprets their songs. She has recorded compositions as diverse as George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
In February 2008, Kidjo’s Djin Djin won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. The title refers to the sound of an African morning bell. This December, she received a sixth Grammy nomination, for her album Õÿö.
Kalbacker caught up with Kidjo at her Brooklyn condo, which she shares with her husband and teenage daughter.
The Rotarian: Why did you decide to campaign against polio?
Kidjo: I had school friends whose parents didn’t believe in vaccination or understand that UNICEF provides it for free. Some of my friends ended up with polio. And polio is not completely wiped out. I’ve campaigned extensively for vaccination in Africa, not only for polio but also for tetanus. What holds us back from 100 percent eradication is the people who say that vaccination causes other problems. It has been very difficult for us with UNICEF to overcome some strong beliefs. Once a rumor is out there, it’s really hard to fight. What makes me sad is that irresponsible people spread those rumors when lives are in danger. It’s not easy, but we’ll get there, step by step. And we’re much closer than before.
TR: You’ve been a UNICEF goodwill ambassador since 2002. What drives you?
Kidjo: How can you live in a world surrounded by people who have nothing? We do what we can, one child at a time. At first, I was doing only UNICEF radio and TV campaigns, urging women to send their girls for primary education. And then five years ago, mothers [in Benin] rang my bell. They said, “You grew up here. You know what the reality is. If girls finish their primary education and then sit home doing nothing, their fathers are going to take that as an excuse to put them in early marriage.” The idea of secondary education came to mind.
I was born and raised in Africa, and I know to be very careful about how a message is spread. I sit on the floor in a village with mothers and talk to them. I can speak to men only to a certain extent, because men – in Africa, particularly – don’t listen to women most of the time. Wherever I am, I say, “This is my continent. I grew up here. I always come back. So why don’t we find a way to do this?”
TR: We take it you subscribe to the idea that when you educate a young boy, you educate one child; when you educate a young girl –
Kidjo: You educate a nation. One of the reasons I campaign so heavily for education is the example of my own home. My dad and mom had been to school. If just my dad had gone to school, he could have pushed his views on my mother. But both of them shared the same views on education, on sanitation, on vaccination. They did not fight. They made logical decisions. A mother who is educated will make sure that both her boys and girls go to school. She will start teaching the boys to respect their sisters, which means they will have respect for women later on.
TR: You founded the Batonga Foundation to help educate young African women. Describe the challenges you face.
Kidjo: The gender gap in Africa is huge. We are struggling to close that gap. So far, Batonga is in five countries: Benin, Mali, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Cameroun. We have partners on the ground in each country because we want every dime that is given to Batonga to go toward the programs. We have to supply everything from clothes to pencils for these children because they have nothing. Our goal is to reach out to girls who are very poor, HIV/AIDS orphans, or disabled. Boys who fit into these categories are welcome. We don’t forget the fact that boys have to go to school too. But our goal is to reach out to the girls.
TR: You invented the word batonga. Can you explain its origin and offer a translation?
Kidjo: In Africa, when a girl reaches high school, it’s an achievement. You have to clear a lot of hurdles. The boys are taunting you, trying to make you drop out of school. They said nasty stuff. I came home and told my dad, “I am going to punch them in the face.” And he said, “If you get into a fight, that means your brain is dead. Your ultimate weapon is your brain. Use it and challenge them. Come up with something they don’t understand that’ll put them on guard.” He was right. I came up with the word batonga, which meant, “Get off my back. I can be whoever I want to be.” When I first started shouting that – I was loud – the boys would say, “What kind of nonsense is that?” They spent so much energy trying to decipher that word, they forgot to taunt us.
TR: Africa is so rich in resources, yet Africans often do not benefit from their countries’ wealth. Why?
Kidjo: The poverty rate in Africa is the result of political decisions made by rich countries. They come, take resources, and go. If rich countries had to pay the real price of raw materials, they couldn’t live in luxury. Period. The rich countries must also take responsibility by saying, “We are not going to deal with any African country that won’t develop the roads, the schools, and health care.” Democracy is never going to happen if people are not educated.
TR: Is music a source of power?
Kidjo: Yes. Every dictator, anywhere in the world, wants to kill the arts first, because the arts give you freedom.
TR: Your father is from the Fon people of Benin, and your mother is from the Yoruba people. Should tribal heritage inspire pride, or is that something to be wary of?
Kidjo: I stay away from talking about tribes. I am from the south of Benin just as much as I am from the center and from the north. In school, I heard students calling the guys who came from the north “bush guys.” I refused. Where you come from doesn’t define the quality of the human being that you are.
TR: Jazz and rhythm and blues have spread around the world. Are we all African when it comes to the music we love?
Kidjo: We are all African. And what we have in common is music. When I studied classical singing in Paris, the first time I heard Ravel’s Boléro, I said, “This is African.” And the other students jumped on my back. “Come on!” they said. “This is classical music. It’s not African.” And I said, “It is. It’s written in an African mode.” It lives in me.
TR: You’re a big fan of James Brown. What is it about the Godfather of Soul’s music that attracted you as a young African woman?
Kidjo: The way James Brown wrote his music, the way he used the drum, the bass, and the horn – that’s the way of traditional music. Every instrument sings a part.
TR: Is the music video the ultimate cross-cultural media?
Kidjo: I love to do videos, especially when I’m mixing it up with all different kinds of people. I like that, just to prove that music is a language we all speak equally. I grew up in a poor country miles and miles away from here, and I can sit with any musician in the world, and we can have a group session. We can talk about Carlos Santana or James Brown. Henri Salvador from France. Aretha Franklin. So many people.
TR: You have performed with Miriam Makeba – “Mama Africa.” How did the late South African singer influence your life?
Kidjo: She arrived during my teenage years, a time when I was struggling with people calling me a prostitute because I was a singer. And she was the first African singer, after Bella Bellow from Togo, who had a career outside of Africa. I said to myself, “If Miriam Makeba can have an international career, I surely can.”
TR: The song “Agolo” on your album Aye [the title means life in the Fon language] expresses concern about the environment. How do you convey a message in such a danceable tune?
Kidjo: I learned from the traditional musicians in my country. In most of Africa, culture is oral. Everything is taught through stories or songs. When you bury people in your family, you sing. You want to keep the person alive through the memories you shared – the good times and the bad times you spent together. You share your history, where you’ve come from, where you are now. And you don’t pay for that. It’s free. If you want to join in, you do.
TR: How can we become more aware of our own rhythms and our ability to dance?
Kidjo: We all can dance. When you walk, do you walk like a stick? A tree doesn’t walk. The only thing that makes the tree move is the wind blowing on the leaves. We are not trees. We move. We walk in rhythm. My mother always used to say, “When you have a heartbeat, you have a rhythm.”