Angelique Kidjo has the kind of staying power that today’s pop stars would give up their Instagram followers to get. With a new album, Sings, out this year, two Grammy awards under her belt and another nomination this week to boot, the 55 year-old Benin-born diva is showing no signs of slowing down.
On top of her music is her activism and her passion for Africa’s women and girls. Ahead of her performance at the VSO Christmas concert in London, she talks to CNN African Voices about Africa’s influence in the arts, the power of music and her plans for the holidays.
You are renown for experimenting with different styles of music, from jazz to gospel, Latin styles and now, in your collaboration with composer Philip Glass, classical music. How do you do it?
Everywhere I turn, Africa is present. No matter what kind of music I touch, the only way I can do it – I can make sense of it – is if I come back to my roots. Music connect us directly back to Africa.
Not everyone acknowledges that close connection to Africa. Do people argue with you about Africa’s place in cultural history?
Of course! For the longest time people have denied the fact that Africa is the source. They prefer to talk about ‘world music’ or ‘primitive arts’ but that primitive art influenced Picasso. If you love Picasso, how can you not see the beauty of my Africa?
In the business world, they talk about ‘Africa rising’. Is the narrative also changing in the music industry?
It is. It will take a long time and it needs Africans to play their part. We Africans have to realise what we are to the world and be proud of it. From the day I arrived in Europe [Kidjo moved to Paris in 1983] that’s what I did. My father challenged us to be open, to use our brain and to find similarities with all people. He taught us to adapt.
Do you worry that the gains we have made in improving the image of Africa will be undone by the reporting around the migrant crisis, as thousands of people from across the continent try to enter Europe?
If people understood the reasons for the crisis, they’d understand Africa better. The negative narrative is [driven by] economics and politics.
The first crime against Africa was slavery. It was a crime against humanity. Even in America racism is about economics and power: you dehumanize the people you want something from; that’s how you make money from them.
The question is how do we create a world where all people participate and have value? Whether Africans or Syrians, these people live next to you, have the same desire and dreams as you. We need to include everybody’s talents and everybody’s difference and that’s what music does. It has the power to bring everyone together. Everything I do is always in that regard: how do we move forward together?
That’s the African philosophy, Ubuntu…
I don’t find any solutions in racism or violence. We’ve tried it and it brings no solutions. So it’s time we listen and hear people’s pain and see what they can contribute.
Is that why you started your own foundation, Batonga?
Yes, I started Batonga in 2007 and since then we’ve worked in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Benin, Cameroon and Mali. [Batonga focuses on educating African girls].
I’ve had no news from the girls I was putting in school in Kidal, in Mali and it’s heartbreaking. [In May 2014, the UN reported deadly violence in Kidal as Tuareg rebels fight government forces and radical violent Islamists extend their reach.]
Secondary school education is a game-changer for girls. It’s not an area that produces quick success stories – that’s why no one is involved – but I want to work with the ‘dirt road girls’, girls in rural areas, the Aids orphans and teenage moms.
At the moment we’ve pressed the pause button so I can think about how to scale up.
2015 has been a very busy year for you. You’ve released a new album, won a Grammy for your last one, Eve, taken home the 2015 Crystal Award at the World Economic Forum and performed at the opening of the United Nations sustainable development goals summit. How do you intend to relax this Christmas?
Over the holidays I tend to travel a lot. Nieces and Nephews are having kids, it’s scary but that’s how it is. I’m planning to spend Christmas with my in-laws in Belgium then I’m going to Benin to celebrate my mom’s 89th birthday. I want to see my family, replenish my energy and be ready for the New Year.
What do your fans have to look forward to in 2016?
My fans have to wait for the next album! Right now, I’m in bubbling mode: I’ve got lots of ideas in my brain and I need to make sense of them. After the holidays I’ll sit down and start to write new songs.