Angélique Kidjo globally represents that which is - the African feminine divine, along with our ancestors such as the beloved Miriam Makeba, the fierce Queen Amina, the discerning Queen Moremi, and many other foremothers across the continent, including the new generation of young contemporaries shining the light on our heritage, upholding our traditions, our essence
We, the original storytellers... those who know where they come from
Like the town crier of pre-colonial African villages gone by
There is an African proverb, “to get lost is to find the way”
It is my hope that what she has done for West Africa through her work in music, film, and theatre – may it be exemplified in the beautification that flows from KOKOBÉRNA to you, our clients.
Read the article, click-through the links, explore, immerse, be curious, stay open, ask questions, leave your thoughts and comments below.
Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo, known as Angélique Kidjo, is a five-time Grammy Award winning Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activist who is noted for her diverse musical influences and creative music videos. Kidjo was born into a family of performing artists. Currently featured on the cover of Forbes Africa, the below is the full and complete article excerpted from The New Yorker Magazine. Interviewed by Julian Lucas, February 2022.
At sixty-one, the doyenne of African pop is recording with everyone from Burna Boy to Philip Glass—and still searching for new rhythms. ~ by Julian Lucas
By the time she was twenty-one, Angélique Kidjo was singing in more languages than most people will ever understand. The Beninese diva received her first standing ovation at six, for an impromptu rendition of a traditional Fon melody at her mother’s theatre. Before long, she’d moved on to French yé-yé, Cameroonian makossa, and covering Miriam Makeba with her high-school band.
After Kidjo’s first album made her a national star, her family feared that Benin’s government, under the dictator Mathieu Kérékou, might stop her from attending school in France. They arranged a late-night escape without official clearance; luckily, the customs officer at the airport was a fan.
Kidjo enrolled at the Centre d’informations musicales, a jazz school in Paris, and immersed herself in the city’s emerging world-music scene. Her début album with Island Records, “Logozo” (1991), vaulted her to the top of the international music charts, thanks largely to the swaggering dance hit “Batonga.” (Kidjo appeared on the album’s cover in a zebra-print catsuit.)
Her follow-up was the joyous earworm “Agolo,” whose iconic music video celebrated motherhood and African deities more than two decades before a pregnant Beyoncé staged a viral photo shoot as Oshun, the Yoruba river goddess.
Not content with pop stardom, Kidjo embarked on a genre-defying mission to sing the diaspora electric. In “Fifa” (1996), she recorded with percussionists in villages across Benin on a countrywide road trip; next was a globe-trotting trilogy exploring the African roots of musical traditions in the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean.
Kidjo comes from the former slave port of Ouidah, whose vodun religion left a defining mark on the diaspora—a fact that she’s savvily employed to position herself as its worldliest musical medium. As she once quipped about covering Jimi Hendrix, “Who could better claim to be a ‘Voodoo Child’ than me?”
In the years since, Kidjo has devised ever more surprising experiments—from album-length interpretations of Celia Cruz and the Talking Heads to a solo vocal arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro,” which unfurls in mesmerizing rhythmic chants. She’s won four Grammys, and has worked with Santana, Questlove, Alicia Keys, Sting, and Yo-Yo Ma.
Her latest release, the Grammy-nominated “Mother Nature” (2021), is a cri de coeur against global warming and political corruption, featuring African millennial superstars such as Mr Eazi, Yemi Alade, and Burna Boy. The album ranges from Congolese rumba to Atlanta hip-hop, but Kidjo’s voice is constant, an instrument of such power and clarity that it sounds equally capable of polishing glass or announcing Judgment Day.
Kidjo lives in Brooklyn, but when I spoke to her in late January, over Zoom, she was in Cape Town for the filming of “The Woman King.” Starring Viola Davis and John Boyega, the movie will dramatize the exploits of the Dahomean Amazons, a legendary all-female military unit in what is now southern Benin.
Kidjo couldn’t discuss her role in the film, but she has long spoken of the warriors’ empowering legacy. Many of her most famous songs are in Fon, whose percussive monosyllables give her phrasing its signature intricacy; she calls it “the language of the Amazons.” Our conversation, which took place in English, has been edited and condensed.
What can you share about your role in “The Woman King”?
It’s just a cameo. I’m not playing a big role. But it’s the story of the Amazon army, which was created in my country by Queen [Hangbe], who took the place of her twin brother, Akaba. When Akaba passed away, she took over and created an army of women—and, of course, they removed her from the pantheon of leaders.
You’ve recorded music with descendants of the Amazons in Benin.
Absolutely. It’s a very important topic for me because, while it’s true most of the time that men go to war, women have often fought by their side. And the fact that nobody remembers them shows the lengths we go to erase women from history. It’s crazy. How can you justify your being as a man, if a woman is not at the center of it? Who brought you into this life?
What’s your next musical project?
A musical-theatre work that’s going to première at mass moca in March. The play is about Yemandja, the goddess of the sea, and Oro, the god of wind, both of them talking about the slave trade. My daughter wrote the libretto. Kerry James Marshall is doing the scenery.
You also worked with him on the cover of “Remain in Light,” your tribute to the Talking Heads.
Yes. He said, “You’re gonna be the dealer of light!” That’s the cover—me, dealing light on a street corner instead of drugs.
And another record is going to be released soon, Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 12. It was commissioned for the hundredth year of the L.A. Philharmonic, and they asked him to complete his trilogy based on David Bowie’s Berlin [Trilogy]. He said, “I’ll only do it if Angélique is the soloist.” Then he called me and said, “Guess what? I threw you under the bus.” It’s complicated.
“How can you justify your being as a man, if a woman is not at the center of it? Who brought you into this life?” Kidjo says. Photograph by Rodolfo Sassano / Alamy
You became a singer at six. How did you start so young?
Well, it was not my doing. My mom started a theatre troupe. I was always around actresses and actors, and I was mesmerized by their transformation into characters. Somebody you had been talking with two minutes ago became another being. I was like a sponge, gathering everything, smelling all the chalk that they used for makeup. And I knew everybody’s line, so when you made a mistake you’d hear my voice from the back saying, “No, that’s not the phrase.”
The plays were two and a half or three hours, so my mom put music and dance in the middle, because if you do an intermission for a long show, in Africa, people leave. They don’t understand intermission. I kept asking my mom, “That little girl playing the princess and singing—why can’t it be me?” And, one day, that little girl was not there. I was in the dressing room, trying on the costumes and playing, when, suddenly, my mom grabbed me. “So you want to be that little girl? Come on.” I’m, like, “No, I don’t want to. I’m not prepared.” My mom’s, like, “You are going onstage!”
I had never felt that kind of fear. My skeleton was shaking. But the good part was that everything was dark. I had only the spotlight—and, for me, if I can’t see no one, they’re not there. So I did what I did at home: I sang and I walked off. There was a standing ovation, and the next day I was so happy about myself. It snuck up on me, the freedom you have onstage to sing, just sing.
From the very start, you were singing in so many different languages—
And I make up my own language when I don’t understand the language!
That’s right! Like your word “batonga”—“get off my back.” So you grew up in Cotonou, a fairly bustling city, in the sixties and seventies. What was the musical culture like? What were you exposed to?
Jesus Christ, so much. We had music from the D.R.C. (Democratic Republic of Congo), Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cuba, America, England, France, China—all over the world. My father and mother’s house was an open forum, and music was at the center.
And I was lucky that my older brother and I were ten years apart. He would bring all this music, and I’d get absorbed in it: Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles.
You saw Celia Cruz perform when you were around sixteen. What was that like?
Celia Cruz was the boss, I’ll tell you that. Growing up, I always thought salsa was music by men, for men. Because, if you looked around, most salsa bands were male-dominated.
She changed that.
Celia said, “Wait a minute,” and it completely changed my perspective on music. If she could have a male band, and she was the boss telling them, “Come on, you go to this, you go to the bridge”—from that day on, I said, “There’s not one music on this planet that I can’t do.”
Her voice is not just a singing voice. It’s an instrument, percussion. When she said, “Azúcar!” I was, like, “What’s she talking about?” When I was doing “Celia” [Kidjo’s 2019 tribute album], I found out that, because [racist] people called her “café con leche,” she said, “Café con leche? You need sugar, boy.” I love it.
You became a star in Benin and in several neighboring countries at only twenty-one, after the release of your album “Pretty” (1981). How did that come about?
Well, I used to play with my high-school band. All the high schools were doing competitions, and we’d always win.
There was a musician from Cameroon called Ekambi Brillant. He was a big star of makossa, and somebody said to him, “You should come and listen to this girl.” He came to one of my shows, and my father said, “We’re looking for a producer. Do you want to do an album?” He said it was going to cost this amount of money—my father didn’t have it. But, at the time, everyone could take out a loan to go to high school, and that became my funding to produce the album. I had to go to Paris, and we recorded “Pretty” in one night. I got into the studio at eight o’clock and finished at five o’clock in the morning, because the next day I had to go back.
Mathieu Kérékou took power in 1972. Your early success made it a little difficult for you to emigrate to Paris. Why was it so tough to leave, and how did you ultimately get out?
Under the dictatorship, you needed an authorization to leave Benin, and if you didn’t come back your parents were liable. When I decided to leave permanently, in 1983, I couldn’t ask for the authorization. I’d put my parents in danger.
So we secretly planned—it took a year of putting money aside. No one knew other than my mom, my dad, my mother’s mother, and my brother, who was living in Paris and was going to get me on the other side.
Kérékou was from the north, and there has always been friction between the north and the south. There was total distrust, even in our house. You can’t speak freely. You don’t know if your phone is tapped. If somebody is there, you have to call them “comrade.” All this was driving me nuts. I said, “My mom is not my comrade. My dad is not my comrade.”
When I arrived at the airport, I was lucky that a southern guy—a friend of my brother’s, they used to do music together—was on duty. He just said, “I didn’t see you. Run.” So I ran all the way to the plane and smuggled myself under the seat. When you’re young and your bones are still working, you can fold yourself quite well.
You’re lucky he was a fan!
It could have gone completely the other way. And the funny thing is that, eleven or twelve years after I left, I was on a radio show in Benin—my album “Logozo” was out—and the man found me and said, “I’m so proud to see what you have become.” He was retired and told me, “Everybody got upgraded from their job except for me. . . . I’m pretty sure because I let you go. But I don’t regret it one bit.”
He sounds like a good man. What kind of reception did you get in Paris?
My first experience was a very painful one. It was spring, and I caught a cold because I was wearing my summer clothes. That was the welcome of Paris: “Girlfriend, you ain’t wearing nothing like that here. I’m here to teach you that sun doesn’t mean heat.” And, of course, when I registered for music school people were very ignorant about Africa. They asked me, “When you’re grocery shopping, do you go there on the back of an elephant?” And I said, “Yes, and I have monkeys that carry my groceries.” And they believed it! I knew more about the country of my fellow students than they knew about my country. And I started wondering why, in Benin, we had been taught that our ancestors were the Gauls. Because we had been colonized. We had been enslaved.
You’ve also mentioned that classmates at C.I.M. told you that jazz wasn’t for Africans.
That was funny. But nothing ever stopped me. And the thing is, I feel sorry for people who are ignorant. Because a great deal of who you are comes from Africa. If you don’t see the beauty in Africa, there’s no beauty in you.
“It snuck up on me, the freedom you have onstage to sing, just sing,” Kidjo says. Photograph by David Redfern / Getty
In your autobiography, you write about Paris in the eighties as a “magical period when what they called world music was born: the encounters of the great Parisian studio sharks with the virtuosos of African and Caribbean music.” Who influenced you in that environment?
Salif Keita’s album “Soro”  was a game changer. I’d been told that I was not African enough in my music, and it showed me that I was on the right path by mixing everything up. At the time, there were people who said, “Modernity is not for Africans. Their traditional music has to stay as it is.” Like we all had to be sitting in a museum. I’m, like, “Are you crazy?” If our traditional music was no more than that, it would have died a long time ago.
Your first album with Island Records, “Logozo,” hit No. 1 on the world-music charts. What did you set out to accomplish with it?
When I signed with [the co-founder] Chris Blackwell, it was the beginning of a great collaboration. He helped me pick the producer, Joe Galdo, from [Gloria Estefan’s] Miami Sound Machine. I explained to Joe that the sound on this album, the centerpiece of it, was the percussion and the voice. We had to build from that ground. Because that’s where I come from. I come from a percussion country. We don’t have a lot of harmony, but rhythm is what I breathe.
The first song that we did like that, he looked at me and said, “Oh, man, this is exciting. I never thought of that before.” All of the songs on the album—“Batonga,” “We We”—all of them started with percussion. It let the keyboard player, and everyone else, just be free. And I said, “That’s what I want you to be: I want you to be free. I want you to let this music guide you to where you come from.” And that’s how “Logozo” started.
I found my own outfit for the cover because of all the clichés and exoticism around African women. People were expecting me to wear a boubou. My parents didn’t raise me in a village; they raised me in a city. You ain’t gonna put me in no boubou, man.
So you went with the zebra-print catsuit.
I found it in a store and said, “This is what I want.”
You’ve described it as a Pop-art look.
Of course. Modernity and exoticism—you want it? That’s my way of doing it. I’ve paved the way for many young artists to wear whatever they want to wear. I also decided to cut my hair in 1985. When I arrived in Paris, I had long hair but I didn’t have money. I didn’t want to spend the money for rent on my hair. So I went to the salon where I used to work and said, “Cut it all off.” And the hairdresser came up with the same hair style as Grace Jones.
So it wasn’t a statement?
No. I just didn’t care.
Your first Grammy nomination was for the stunning “Agolo” video, which includes a Zangbeto masquerade and the serpent deity Ayida-Weddo. Nowadays, African religions are referenced in everything from superhero movies to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” But did you have any precedents, at the time, for what you were doing with spirituality and popular music?
I come from a country with a massive culture. Even as a Beninese, I can’t tell you I know it all—it’s a learning process. “Agolo”—which means “please”—is about paying attention to Mother Earth. I started with that when I was pregnant. The Zangbeto are militias used to protect villages. They are grounded on the earth. Ayida-Weddo, the rainbow snake, in our religion, is the ring that carries the earth. I’m talking about how we need to take care of the earth. And because people don’t speak my language I had to use the imagery of my culture.
I know the director of the video was Michael Meyer, but I assume you were very involved in creating its aesthetic.
[Meyer] was really knowledgeable about my country. His wife at the time was from Haiti. The choreographer, Kettly Noël, was also from Haiti. We had an extensive discussion about our gods and goddesses, the slave trade, the gods who went to the other side. Ayida-Weddo is the same in Haiti, and, because most of the slaves in Haiti came from my country, both cultures were meeting to tell the story. So we used all that to tell a beautiful story of resilience.
Let’s turn to language. People talk about you fusing “African” music with European, Brazilian, and Cuban sounds, but they don’t always realize how much fusion you’re doing just among different languages and cultures in Benin. I know the two languages you sing in most often are Fon and Yoruba. How do you choose the languages of your songs?
It’s a matter of inspiration. Sometimes you try one language, and it doesn’t work. If a song has to be rhythmic, really tense, it has to be Fon, because it’s the language of the Amazons. Yoruba—or Mina, from Ghana and Togo—has melody in it. But I can’t sit here and tell you that it’s done on purpose.
“There were people who said, ‘Modernity is not for Africans. Their traditional music has to stay as it is,’ ” Kidjo says. “I’m, like, ‘Are you crazy?’” Photograph by Paul Bergen / Redferns / Getty
In your autobiography, you talk about the exhilaration of your first major concert after returning to Benin, “the one place in the world where the audience could sing along and understand every word” of your music. I wonder if it’s ever been a challenge for you, addressing a global audience in the languages of your country.
No, because music is a universal language. The twelve notes are there for everyone, and those notes don’t discriminate.
You’ve done field work while preparing for albums like “Fifa” and “Eve” (2014). How do you build relationships with those you learn from? Asking people to share the music of their communities can be a pretty intimate request.
It’s a lot of work. But I don’t come with any agenda other than singing together. When I did the trip for “Fifa,” it was an awakening for me. I had a wonderful driver who was from the northern part of Benin. We went deep, to Korontière, Djougou, Kandi. I didn’t speak any of those languages, and most of those places didn’t have electricity. We had to buy a second car battery, because we would plug everything into the car battery to have our recording.
That’s the first time I witnessed how much I was loved in my country. Every time you arrive in a village, a little boy or little girl sees you—“Angélique Kidjo is here!”—and everybody comes out. I always explained what I wanted to do, and I would tell them, “I have to pay you.” They would say no, and I would say, “If I don’t pay you, I’m not doing it.” The hardest part was getting them to accept being paid, and to give me their names so they could be recognized on the album.
But I come from that culture, and nothing else makes sense without it. If I can’t understand something, my only compass is to go to traditional musicians and say, “Can you play this music with me?”
You kept travelling for the trilogy on the diaspora: “Oremi” (1998), “Black Ivory Soul” (2002), and “Oyaya!” (2004). How did the idea for that project come about?
When I was nine, my brother would wear a wig and put on Jimi Hendrix and play the guitar. And I’d say, “He’s African, right? What language is he singing in?” My brother said, “No, he’s African American.” I’m nine, thinking I know better than anybody else, so I said, “How can that be possible? You can’t be African and American at the same time.” And then he said, “Well, he’s a slave descendant.” I said, “What is a slave? What is a descendant?” When my grandmother told me the story of slavery, I couldn’t believe it.
Fast-forward, and I’m fifteen, learning about apartheid in South Africa. And then it’s just, like, “You guys have been telling me that I can go anywhere in the world. Now I find out that my skin color is a liability. I can be killed because I’m Black.” I said to myself, “There should be a way to do something.” The idea to meet the diaspora through music was born at that moment.
But I knew it was going to take time. As I grew, and learned more, I decided it was time to move to America. I went to my publisher and told them that I wanted to work with every artist, not only Black ones, to tell the story of slavery, because it’s our story. That’s how we started with “Oremi.” Then I went to Salvador de Bahia, to the Caribbean, to Cuba. And I just said to people, “Not talking about slavery doesn’t make it go away. It still impacts everything we do. And the way to talk about it is by building bridges between culture and people, because our story is so intertwined.”
Many of your albums have been interpretations of musical traditions or, more recently, particular artists. Do you have a philosophy about how to cover music? How do you make a song like Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” your own, while still respecting its spirit?
I always try to find one original idea that will make the song completely different, but once it’s done I try to respect the original melody. For “Voodoo Child,” the idea was to replace the guitar riffs with a traditional Beninese chant—and, magically, it worked.
How did you approach “Remain in Light” (2018)
The Talking Heads album began when I first heard “Once in a Lifetime,” three months after I arrived [in Paris]. I was still homesick, and the chorus was so similar to songs we’d played [back home]. Years passed, and I never, ever linked David Byrne to that—even when I met David, in 1992. I didn’t put it together until, one day, I was humming the song and said, “I need to find this song and do it.” And a friend of mine said, “That’s the Talking Heads. That’s an iconic album, ‘Remain in Light.’ ”
I started really listening to the album for the first time four or five years ago. And I said, “I’m gonna do the whole album.” People looked at me, like, “Are you crazy? Those songs have no meaning. They’re absurd, long words. . . .” I said, “You didn’t grow up with elderly people talking to you in proverbs that take months to figure out. This is easy. I’m doing it.”
I’d just finished the album “Eve,” when I went to Africa to have women sing with me. [“Eve” features collaborations with several traditional Beninese choirs.] I found out that the Talking Heads were influenced by the album “Afrodisiac,” by Fela Kuti. So I said, “Well, let’s take this back home. I’ll have the voices of those women answer the music of the Talking Heads.” So “Born Under Punches” goes with a Fon proverb that says, “Beware when you start a fire, because if you don’t know how to stop that fire, it will eat you.” “Born Under Punches” is about corruption. Corruption is killing us, because money is siphoned away from education, health, infrastructure. That corruption is gonna eat us all. So that’s how I did it, one song after the other.
On your tribute album “Celia,” which won a Grammy in 2020, there’s a version of “Quimbara” that sounds like an African homecoming parade for a Cuban song. I wanted to ask you about the changes you made, particularly to the song’s rhythm.
I was able to do the album with a producer from Martinique. The conversation we had was—a salsa album, I cannot do better than any Latino. I’m African, I want to pay tribute to Celia Cruz’s African power. So that’s how we started working: I would just send him my voice, and he would build the song. Because “Quimbara,” you can beat 6/8 and 4/4 on it. So the 4/4 is one part, and the 6/8 that comes from Africa is there. So I brought both of them together in one song, going from one to the other, to show how easy it is. If you let the music be, it’s terrific.
Rhythm is so important to your music. And yet some of your most powerful songs are orchestral: “Lonlon,” your interpretation of Ravel’s “Boléro”; your version of Gershwin’s “Summertime”; the version of “Bahia” that you recorded with the Luxembourg Philharmonic. What have you learned from working on a large scale like that?
When people started telling me, “You should work with an orchestra,” I said, “What have you been smoking?” Then I met [Gast Waltzing], the conductor from Luxembourg, at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He [arranged] a couple of songs like “Agolo” and “Bahia,” and I said, “Now I see. O.K., let’s go for it.” We started with a show in June, 2012. It was a success, and I realized that singing with an orchestra is a completely different ballgame—there’s no amplification, so your voice becomes one of the instruments. And that’s when you discover the endless possibilities of vocal cords. You just put them to work.
Is it true that you made a deliberate decision, in jazz school, not to learn to read music?
I was in school to learn how to read music. My teacher came to me and said, “Angélique, I would kill my mom and dad for your musical memory. Get out of here!” And I was getting bored, I’ll tell you that—do re do re do re mi, I didn’t like it at all—so I said, “Thank you, sir!” and dashed out. I was so happy. I wish I’d stayed a little longer, because written music, when you work with classical musicians, is easier. But my memory has helped me through.
The new album, “Mother Nature,” which is also Grammy nominated, features several collaborations with the new stars of the continent—Burna Boy, Yemi Alade. If you were starting your career today, would you feel able to do it at home, in Africa? Or would you still leave for Paris?
If it was still the same dictatorship I ran away from! But, if today’s technology had existed, probably I’d still be home. The younger generation doesn’t have to migrate to have a career. If they decide to leave the country, it’s willingly, because they know they can go back.
How did you develop the concept for the album?
I grew up with my grandmother, an herbalist, who used to tell me that we’re nothing without the earth. And climate change is really impacting the poorest of the poor in my continent. I’ve been hearing people say that we have to stop using wood to cook. We know it’s bad to cut trees. But what alternatives are we offering? We’re going to tell poor people, on top of poverty, you have to sit down and watch yourself die from hunger because you want to save the wood?
The next generation in Africa is going to suffer the most from climate change, and I couldn’t do the album without asking them to come on board. I wanted to give them a platform to express themselves through song. It’s interesting to see how they experience the anxiety in different ways. And this new generation, in Africa, is a lot more aware of the dysfunction in the political landscape.
Your song “Dignity,” with Alade, speaks to the #EndSARS protests against corruption and police brutality in Nigeria.
I never thought I would see the youth in Africa going into the streets and saying, “Enough of this nonsense.” Most of the time, they don’t get engaged, because the thinking is, "Why bother?" The politicians are corrupt, they don’t care about us, and we don’t care about them either. But when it comes to violence against somebody in society the whole thing changes.
So you’re optimistic?
Of course! Always. Because the dictator is, for me, basically a coward. If you want to call yourself a leader, you have to be able to stand and discuss your position.
In “One Africa (Indépendance Cha-Cha),” you revisit a joyous Congolese rumba from the independence era, when you were born, and give it an unsettling spin: “Dreams have been crushed, maman / Who can I trust, maman?” How do you feel about the political outlook on the continent?
We never truly had independence in Africa. I don’t know how we ended up being the richest continent on the planet, with our resources controlled by a mafia of rich countries and C.E.O.s. They know their economies can’t be sustainable if they don’t have access to our resources. And, if you don’t go with the interests of rich countries—look what happened at the beginning of independence, [with the assassination of Patrice] Lumumba—you can be killed.
So that’s why the song is like that. We are told to accept that Africans have to live in poverty for the rest of the world to live large. That’s not going to work because we deserve better. These rich mafia of countries, dictators, and C.E.O.s made a mess of things and continue to do so. We need to take responsibility and bridge the gap to build a system where resources are shared equally and improve our lives.