Singer Angelique Kidjo to girls: Don’t let others define you

Editor’s Note: Grammy Award-winning singer Angelique Kidjo was hailed by Time magazine as Africa’s premier diva. This open letter to the girls of the world is part of the “Girl Rising” project. CNN Films’ “Girl Rising” documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world.

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Angelique Kidjo writes an open letter to girls of the world

"Don't let anyone define who you are," Kidjo writes

CNN  — 

Dear Girls of the World,

I was a 12-year-old girl living in the center of Cotonou, Benin, in West Africa. Music was all around us, with the traditional singers and their drums and with the radio blasting songs from the entire world.

Singing had always been my passion. My mom even told me I sung before I spoke. One day, I discovered an uplifting song that made everyone dance. It was called “Pata Pata.” The power and beauty of the voice singing it mesmerized me. I had to get the 45 rpm single right away. That’s when I first heard the name of Miriam Makeba, the famous South African singer. I also learned her struggle against apartheid and her success all over the planet.

Angelique Kidjo

Even though at home I could see the respect that my father had for my mom, I could feel the world was unbalanced and that it was so hard for girls and women to succeed. Many of my girlfriends at school were dropping out at an early age as the social pressure was huge. Most of them could not choose their own destiny. It was as if they would always be the daughter, the wife or the mother of someone.

But looking at Miriam’s smile on the cover, her confidence and the respect she inspired, I started to dream. If an exiled African woman born from a poor family had been able to accomplish so much, there might be a little chance for me to follow her steps. Lost in my thoughts, lying on my bed, listening to her music for hours, learning by heart the lyrics of all her songs – in my imagination, I was already traveling with her, singing with her, meeting world leaders and advocating with her for the freedom of her people.

That dream has never left me. I grew up and I experienced much rejection, many obstacles, but Miriam’s voice was always singing in my head. I started to have some success singing on the national radio.

One day, on the way back from school, a group of teenagers recognized me and insulted me, calling me a whore because I was a singer. I came back home, crying, and wanted to give up singing for good. Mama Congo, my maternal grandmother, happened to be home. She asked me why I was crying so much. Once I explained, she gave me a piece of advice that I have never forgotten and that I want you to remember when you feel your dreams are shattered.

She told me: “Do you want to be a singer?”

“Yes, Grandma”

“Then, you can’t let the opinion of other people discourage you. Don’t give up on your dreams, don’t allow them to define who you are or they would have won!”

Many years passed. I left my country like Miriam had done. I worked hard, listening to constructive critics and ignoring the naysayers, keeping Miriam’s songs close to my heart. Then, in a different decade, in a different country, the day finally came when I was asked to sing as the opening act of my beloved idol. I could not believe it.

Please remember girls: Don’t let anyone define who you are!

– Angelique Kidjo

More: CNN’s “Girl Rising”

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