Angelique Kidjo celebrates her win for "Best World Music Album" at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Angelique Kidjo celebrates her win for "Best World Music Album" at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

Story highlights

Angelique Kidjo is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter

She is performing at London's Southbank Centre Friday, November 14

She has spoken out on Ebola hysteria, AIDS, female genital mutilation and homosexuality

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa’s most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

CNN —  

It was in a New York cab. That’s when Grammy Award-winning signer Angelique Kidjo realized the extent that “fear-bola” had spread.

“The driver just asked, ‘where are you from?’ Of course I have an accent, and I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m from West Africa. Then he said, ‘Ebola’, and I said, ‘do I LOOK like I have Ebola?’”

Later, when announcing her recently wrapped up Carnegie Hall tribute to South African singer Miriam Makeba, aka, Mama Africa, the trolls came out again.

“It should be Mama Ebola,” one wrote, and “I wonder if she is bringing any Ebloa (sic) with her?” chimed in another.

“Until that point, I felt the hysteria of it, but I kept saying to myself, ‘it’s just the media.’ Then it comes to you direct.”

Kidjo is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador
Mark Mainz/Getty Images for NAACP
Kidjo is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador

Overall, she’s not been impressed with how the Western media has covered the epidemic. In her opinion, the current coverage represents a tragically lost opportunity.

“I thought Ebola would bring greater journalism, that they’d write about the need for great nurses and great doctors, or how every human being on this planet has the right to a good healthcare system,” she confesses. Clearly, she’s been disappointed.

“I hoped they’d show the beauty of the people. But it’s much more dramatic and more entertaining to show us dying.”

In typical Kidjo fashion, she channeled her outrage into advocacy, and penned a New York Times op-ed. That is how the Benin-born singer-songwriter operates. When something makes her angry, she speaks out.

In 2006, she was nearly dragged off stage at a concert in Zimbabwe when she criticized the regime of President Mugabe. Earlier this year, in a CNN interview with Christian Amanpour, she expressed her contempt for Uganda’s anti-gay laws. As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador (a role she’s held since 2002), she’s campaigned heavily for AIDS and HIV prevention.

Her critics are quick to dismiss her, and some have spread rumors that she is gay, or HIV positive, in an attempt to discredit her.

“If you search me in the French Wikipedia, I am listed as homosexual. I say well, it doesn’t really matter to me. If it helps you understand that a homosexual has the same rights as any other human being, fine. If you think that me having HIV can help people protect themselves, then I will take that. I cannot be stopped by those things, because every time you keep silent, somebody dies, and we don’t have endless resources of human beings.”

Later this week, Kidjo will tackle another one of her passions – female empowerment – at a concert at London’s Southbank Centre. She will perform songs from her latest album, Eve, which she made as a tribute to her mother (for whom the album is named) and to women in general.

“We woman around the globe, we carry the world on our back. We build society,” she says.

Of course, it wasn’t always easy for Kidjo growing up as an outspoken woman in Benin – a country which adheres to traditional gender roles.

“Some people look at you like you’re a piece of meat, or they think because you’re a woman or a girl, you don’t have a brain,” she admits. Kidjo’s house, however, was atypical. Her mother taught the boys to cook, and her father valued female independence.

02:25 - Source: CNN
Kidjo on homophobia in Africa

“My father used to say, ‘sexism is cowardice, it’s insecurity,’” she recalls.

Angelique Kidjo will be playing Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on 14th November as a part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Questions from readers

We asked and you delivered. Angelique Kidjo answers questions from CNN readers.

What advice do you have for African women in the Western world? How can we keep a balance between Western culture and our roots?

Well, when you go somewhere, you come with your culture, right? The balance you find is how you bring it to the table. It doesn’t matter where I go, I’m always going to be an African woman. I take what I need to strengthen myself, to move forward and grow as a human being. But I ain’t giving away my culture and identity for anything in this world – never.

What does “Batonga” [the name of one of your songs] mean?

Batonga is a word that I made up. When I was in high school, and boys would insult me or make stupid comments, like “come here and clear my food”, I’d turn back and say, “batonga”, which for me means, “Take a hike! Get off my back. I do what I want and I will be whoever I decide to be, despite your stupidity.”

You speak Yoruba. Do you have Nigerian roots?

Yes, from my grandfather. He came from slave descendants.

What singers inspired you the most growing up?

One day a friend of my brother’s brought over a Miriam Makeba album and it was the first time I saw a black woman on the cover of an album. Before that, I only saw white females, white males and black males on vinyl covers. When you start doing things, you want somebody who looks like you to be doing it too, to get the courage to do it. That’s when I started thinking that one day, if I don’t become a human rights lawyer, I will become a singer, like her.