It’s best not to speak about the purity of music with singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo. She simply doesn’t believe it exists. While this might sound odd coming from a woman born into a musical family in Benin who traces her ancestry to the female warrior Amazons, Kidjo couldn’t care less about adhering to a “traditional” sound. Heralded by luminaries such as David Byrne, Gilberto Gil, and Carlos Santana as one of the most important singers to come out of Africa in the last twenty years, Kidjo, with relentless curiosity and mutability as an artist yields a music composed of samba, zouk, rock, Afro-funk, world beat, Caribbean pop, and other less identifiable but equally surprising genres.
Kidjo’s liberal upbringing was incompatible with the Communist regime that took power in Benin when she was a child, and so, with her father’s encouragement, she fled to France. After a few years studying law in Paris, she began using music to speak to and for those forced into the margins of society. In the past twenty-odd years, Kidjo has topped the charts in numerous countries, written and recorded nine albums, and served as an honorary ambassador to UNICEF.
At a recent show in San Francisco, she jumped down from the stage and began mingling with the audience, asking them to sing along in a jubilant call-and-response. Chances are that most people didn’t know what they were actually singing, as Kidjo’s language of choice is Fon, Benin’s primary language, but it hardly mattered. She swept though the crowd, and one could hear each section singing louder as she passed. Older blushing hippies found themselves calling out with beautiful, tone-deaf voices, while younger audience members challenged Kidjo to what seemed like a preemptive dance routine. The young clapped their hands along with the old and everyone followed the petite, strawberry-blond-haired woman like sailors to a siren’s call.
This interview was conducted over the phone from Kidjo’s house in Brooklyn. Her voice engaged even as it disarmed—as if she were singing her sentences.
I. “I WOULD BE WALKING BACK FORM SCHOOL AND THEY WOULD SAY, ‘LOOK AT HER. THE SINGER, THAT PROSTITUTE, PHEW!'”
BLVR: What was it like to grow up in Benin in the 1970s?
AK: I grew up in a big town—well, compared to the rest of the country it was like a big city. [Laughs] When I was growing up, it wasn’t as developed as it is now. I had more space to play in the street where I used to live. But now all of the empty spaces are taken. People have built things all around. The roads are modern and paved and you have internet cafés on all the corners.
BLVR: What kinds of games did you play?
AK: I played soccer with my brothers. I never liked to play with Barbie dolls or anything. I was a tomboy. I followed them around and climbed trees with them. I tried to do everything they did. I even tried to pee standing up, because I didn’t want to be a girl. I just wanted to be like my brothers. They would be like, “Oh, sorry, but you’re a girl and you’re going to stay a girl.” That would make me pretty mad. When you’re young, you always want to be someone else.
BLVR: You eventually started singing in your brothers’ band, right?
AK: I was number seven in the order of kids. My brothers’ band would use me as a pickup player because I could sing certain songs that their singer couldn’t sing. They had two different singers at the time. One sang regular, traditional African and salsa, and the second one completely copied James Brown—the step dancing, the screaming, everything. We called him James Brown, because he really looked like James Brown and he would sing wearing an Afro. It was absolutely another era—something that I really miss today, because the modern music scene in Africa becomes exactly like everything else—it’s all just a format. When I was growing up, I was exposed to so many different types of music, language, rhythm. It was much more diverse, and nobody felt guilty for listening to different types of music.
BLVR: Do you remember when you first appeared onstage?
AK: It was with my mom’s theater group. I didn’t want to go, believe me. I opened the curtain and I saw the audience. And I was like, “You think I’m going to go out there in front of all those people?” And my mom was like,“Sure, you will.” I was like,“Hell, no. I’m not.” So I went and hid.
BLVR: Where did you hide?
AK: Behind the curtains. And she found me. I didn’t know that because there was a mirror behind the stage she could see all of my whereabouts. So when it was my time, she just went and grabbed me and sent me out to the middle of the stage. They opened the curtains and I felt so tiny there. I opened up my eyes wide, and I was so skinny that I could feel my heart going click, click, click, click against my jaw. People were so surprised at me coming onstage; this little kid, that they started to laugh.The moment they started laughing I said to myself,“Oh, I guess everything is cool. I can do this.”
BLVR: You didn’t take offense?
AK: No, not at all.
BLVR: The laughing actually helped…
AK: My mom had said,“Just do the same thing that you do at home. We all crack up when you’re singing and laughing.” So I did the same thing.
BLVR: What part did you play?
AK: I was the daughter of King Akaba of Benin, who had one of the most beautiful wives ever. He was so jealous—any man who even smiled at his wife got his head cut off. Once a month he tried the criminals, and one of the guys who was supposedly smiling at his wife was actually innocent.The queen put a scene together to distract the king. He loved to see his daughter sing, and that’s were I came in. Once he saw his daughter singing and laughing, he let the prisoner off easy.
BLVR: How long after that did you start performing with the Kidjo Brother Band?
AK: The first concert I did with my brother, I was nine years old. They used to play every weekend in a club. My dad would take me there to sing, and right after I was done he took me back because they were serving alcohol and I was too young to hang around.
BLVR: What kind of people showed up to these clubs?
AK: Mostly tourists.
BLVR: Did you tour with your brothers?
AK: Well, I was too young for my dad and mom to let me go out of the country. But even before I started touring, when I was in high school, the Communist regime decided that, every Friday from five to seven, every student should devote two hours to studying something other than history, math, or anything. We had to study something else, like gardening, sewing, poetry, theater, or music. At my school, there was this band called the Sphinx. I started playing with them and they would go from college to college playing in competitions. We would always win. We were very, very tight and we were edgy. Every time we decided to cover a song, we would rehearse like crazy until it was perfect, until we could play it with our eyes closed.That was our power.
BLVR: So when did you start touring on your own?
AK: When I did my first album. I wrote my first song when I was thirteen, and I did my first recording for the national radio station in Benin when I was sixteen or seventeen, and then I did my first album at eighteen. That’s when I started touring outside of Benin to other countries in Africa.
BLVR: What was that like? Did you travel by yourself?
AK: Oh-ho, no! By myself? You’re kidding me!
BLVR: Oh—well, I mean…
BLVR: So, I guess not. Was Sphinx your backup band?
AK: I recorded the songs with that band, but when the promoter hired me, they would hire a local band in the country where I was going to perform.I would send the music ahead of my arrival, four or five days before the show, and when I got there I would give them hell. I would know every part of the songs—the guitar, keyboards, and every single instrument. If they didn’t get it, I would sing it back to them. They called me “white girl” because they would say,“You’re always on time and you are too picky.”
AK: Yeah, because I was always on time and wanted my music to be done perfectly. In Africa, that isn’t the custom at all. You can just forget it. [Laughs] Even today, they call my parents white people because they are very liberal. It was unique for me to have the parents I had in Africa, period. The house was always open to people.
BLVR: Is it still that way?
AK: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll vacation there and I’ll walk into their house and ask, “Who is this guy?” Nobody knows where the guy comes from. He’s in the living room watching TV, just chilling out. Now I realize why my dad was yelling all of the time,“I don’t work to pay for the food of the whole country. Why don’t they stay home?”And my mom would be like,“If they are going to come, you can’t sit and just watch them, you have to cook and feed them.” My dad would say, “I don’t care. Just get them outta here.” And of course my mom would never get them out. [Laughs]
BLVR: You don’t seem like the sort of person who would take being called “white girl” too seriously, but was that difficult for you at the time?
AK: The thing that was difficult was to be called “prostitute” for singing in public, because the ’60s and ’70s, when I was growing up,was the period of sex,drugs,and rock and roll, and everything that was happening in America and Europe in terms of image, sound, and the news. So here you have the parents going,“Music? Hell, no. If my kid is going to look like those guys, the ones who can hardly open their eyes from doing drugs, and all of the half-naked girls, no way, no music.” I was doing my music while I was going to school, which made it even harder, because most of the people who came to see me perform were the ones I had to deal with when I went back to school the next day. They would clap and have fun with me at the shows, but suddenly two or three days later, it completely switched. I would be walking back home from school and they would say, “Look at her.The singer,that prostitute,phew!”And they would spit on me. And sometimes it was hard.I didn’t care what they said, but sometimes I would come back home and found myself crying to my mom and saying that I didn’t want to sing anymore.And my mom would tell me,“Do you want them to run your life or do you want to run your own life? Just forget them. If they’re not talking about you, that means you’re dead. Rather have them talk bad about you than not talk about you at all.”
II. “I PREPARED MY EXILE IN SECRECY. I TOLD MY DAD, ‘I CAN’T STAY HERE ANYMORE—I CAN’T KEEP SITTING AROUND AND SINGING TO THESE SCUMBAGS.’”
BLVR: You eventually left Benin—was that because of the Communist regime?
AK: Yes. My father was an intellectual. He had political views, of course, but he always refused to do politics. When the Communists came into power, they wanted him to be part of the government, and my father said, “No, thank you. I’ve never done politics before and I’m not going to start today.” So they became suspicious. The freedom we once had at home, where we could talk about every subject, was the rule. My father and mother decided that the house was going to be open to every type of subject and there would be never a taboo subject—even the most difficult things, we could discuss.
BLVR: Communism changed that.
AK: Communism came and put a strain on it. We couldn’t talk because they would send spies to see if we were talking badly about the revolution and Communism. If you said something bad, you would find yourself in jail. So my father said, “OK. Now we have to watch it. Now is not the time to talk about what we think and what we want to do.” So it was very odd to be in our house that was once so open, liberal, and comfortable.
BLVR: What tactics did the regime use against your family?
AK: Well, they knew they could get to my father by using me, because I was a public figure. They would ask me to do shows. I was always able to say, “No, I can’t, because I’ll be touring and out of Benin, and I’ll be here or there instead.” That was how they would try to be controlling, trying to see whether I was supporting them or not.There were two times when I couldn’t find any excuses and had to do a show. Those were very hard, because there would be people in the dressing room asking me questions like, “What’s your next move? What do you think about this? Do you have any songs you could sing about our revolution?” Every time I was put in this position I would think, “Oh, my god. I don’t want to talk about my feelings about the politics of these people because what if I say something wrong?” You can’t sing or say anything. I hated it, and that’s why I prepared my exile in secrecy. I told my dad, “I can’t stay here anymore— I can’t keep sitting around and singing to these scumbags.” I couldn’t take it. My dad said that I didn’t have any other choice but to leave the country. I couldn’t say what I thought, I couldn’t do what I wanted, and no one could take that freedom away from me. So I fled. Only my dad, mom, brothers, and sisters knew, not my uncles, aunts, or anyone else. Because you didn’t know who would give you up; it could even be your neighbors. At that time, it was still a good time, where you didn’t need a visa to get to France and there was an African airline company that took that trip.
BLVR: How did you prepare for that?
AK: There was one last flight that would leave around midnight. A friend of mine was having a wedding that Saturday evening, and their house was very close to the airport, so I got dressed like I was going to the party. My dad brought the car inside the house and loaded my suitcase. The only other person who knew about this was my girlfriend, the one who was getting married.We got to the wedding dinner, had some food; I went to her room to change into my traveling clothes and drove to the airport. I waited until the last minute to go so there wouldn’t be as many people. I should say that, at the time, not many people were allowed to leave the country. One guy, one police guy who was a friend of my family, was working there. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was trying to leave. He said, “I’m going to help you, but never tell anyone what I did.”
BLVR: He got you through quickly with the paperwork?
AK: Yes. He made it look like I was accompanying somebody. That was how I left the country. But people saw me with him so he never got—what do you call it?—a promotion. He never got promoted because he was on duty that night and helped me. They threatened him after that and he never saw anything good come of his job.
BLVR: Did you ever see him again?
AK: Every time I go back, I see him at the airport. He’s still doing the same job for twenty years without any raises. I told him that I couldn’t thank him enough.
BLVR: How did he respond when you said that to him?
AK: He said, “Don’t even go there. I’m proud of what you’re doing now, and the whole country is proud of what you’re doing for us.” We keep in touch. I try to send him money.
BLVR: What did you have lined up waiting for you in Paris?
AK: My two brothers were there as students. For two years, I couldn’t speak to my parents or send them any letters. So my brother developed a code for when I sent letters or called them on the phone because the phone was tapped. I couldn’t go back, even after a couple of years, when my grandmother died. She died in 1985 and the regime changed in 1989.
BLVR: What was in the suitcase?
AK: Just some clothes, some of my music, and that’s it. I couldn’t take more than that
BLVR: Was Paris a culture shock?
AK: I spent a month there to record my first album, but I rarely left the studio. I knew the subway, but that was about it.The real shock came when you said hi to people on the street and they would not answer back.That was a very, very hard thing for me to deal with.These people are living in the same building; you see them every day. You say hi and nothing. I wished the walls around them would just open so I could grab them.You could be run over by a car and no one would stop. I thought,“This is what they called civilization, a developed country, where people live like animals? What kind of crap is this?”My first album was about that summer and my experience in the developed world.
III. “THE SOUND OF THE BIRDS IS MUSIC BECAUSE YOU CAN PUT NOTES TO IT—SAME WITH THE WIND IN THE TREES. I THINK WE STARTED MIMICKING THESE SOUNDS BEFORE WE STARTED SPEAKING.”
BLVR: You’ve always held the musical traditions of the Caribbean diaspora in high regard—in 2004, while recording Oyaya!, this passion led you to record and study in Cuba. What was that like? Was it possible to look past the regime politics and see how the music enriched peoples’ lives?
AK: You see the freedom in them when they start playing music.You see their lives come to light. Basically, that is what music can make happen. It can make you keep your identity straight, and the little happiness they can have, they have from music. Apart from that, I hated that feeling of being spied on,like when I was living in Benin.You never know who is going to report what you did. In Cuba, we weren’t living at a hotel—we were living in somebody’s house and we became friends with the neighbors. Once we left, the neighbors were questioned. They were checking to see whether the neighbor had made money from us, and how she knew that I was speaking French. Even the neighbor who seems cool to you, you don’t know what they’re reporting to the regime.
BLVR: You said that your father did not want to get pushed into politics. He was an educated man, well read and learned, and your house was a safe haven for liberal and progressive conversations. As an artist, are you hesitant to speak out directly against something specific, like the Bush administration, or do you find it more effective to set a more general tone and have listeners apply it for themselves?
AK: I have done that. When the Bush administration wanted to go into Iraq, I and a few other acts, like David Byrne, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times saying that the war in Iraq was wrong. The rest belongs to the population of this country. The first time around, they were given the benefit of the doubt; the second time around, everybody voted for him.When there is a majority, you have to respect the decision of the majority. The American people thought Bush should be in power, so let them go all the way through. People are meant to learn from their mistakes. We’ll find out whether or not it was a mistake. For me, personally, I don’t care, because I don’t think he has any impact in my life. I don’t give him that power—not him or Chirac or anybody. When I do it, my music gives strength to other people.That’s what we need.We need strength,joy and to believe that tomorrow can be better even if we are making mistakes today. If we don’t have hope in the future, if we don’t think that we can improve our lives in a good way, then there is no need to believe in this instinct that we are talking about.
BLVR: What about the process of making music and implementing new genres and music in your repartee— I’m hearing rock, salsa, samba, Caribbean, pop, dance, Indian, Arabic, Afro-funk, call it what you will. How do you incorporate these seemingly incompatible sounds?
AK: I’ve been connected to so many different types of music ever since I was a child.When you have parents who are smart enough to encourage different types of music in the world, it helps develop your brain. I think I have a very good musical memory. So I will listen to Arabic music,Asian music… and whatever music is out there is mine. No one can tell me that in all the music of the world there is a “pure music.” It’s always a mixture. If the black slave was never brought to America, you guys would never have blues or rock and roll. You would have music, but it would definitely be different from what it is today.
BLVR: Do you believe that sound evolves with us? Or do you think that, at its core, music can speak to something greater, maybe something already inside us from our first waking moments?
AK: Singing comes before speaking. The first human being on this planet, even before he or she was able to speak, was surrounded by music. The sound of the birds is music because you can put notes to it—same with the wind in the trees. I think we started mimicking these sounds before we started speaking, so that is why music is so deeply involved. It speaks to us.Any music is mine. I don’t care if I don’t understand the language—I’m going for it.
BLVR: I assume that’s how you’d respond to critics of your music who say, “Well, Ms. Kidjo doesn’t sound African enough.”
AK: Those people don’t piss me off anymore. Most of the time, you see them writing or saying things like that, and they’ve never stepped foot in Africa.Africa is a continent; some people in Africa don’t even know the diversity in our own continent. How can somebody who comes from America or Europe tell me what I should sound like? Does the person speak my language? No. I probably speak his or her language. If you start getting into that, you play into that view of racism and categorization. But the human being is so complex, and our common language is music, so how can you categorize it? When I hear about purity, I’m just scared. Hitler had it in his campaign about purity of race, and we know the results. When it comes to music, how can we talk about purity?
BLVR: Many different musical traditions have been adopted in Benin over the years. It almost seems as if the act of sharing ideas across a country’s borders is, by nature,“traditional.”
AK: Yeah. One of the things I’ve learned from the traditional musicians in my country is that our music is something that we were born to see and born to hear. The way it was before we came into the world is no longer the same because we’re no longer the same people. In Benin, a lot of instruments are disappearing from the traditional music because the youth are leaving the villages to go to the cities. So in order to make traditional music attractive to them, some musicians are incorporating reggae or whatever the young people are singing. You’ll find elements of that when they play traditional songs, so everyone can sing along. Usually, older people are just sitting back laughing, but they’re also learning what the youth is listening to. For me, music is a matter of being flexible. Being open to absorb what comes your way and to be able to give back and see how it will rebound in somebody’s heart. If traditional African music wasn’t flexible, it wouldn’t exist today. There’s a saying in Benin: “Does your head know where your feet are taking it?” It doesn’t. Your feet move and your head follows. So I’m just following my feet and keeping my heart steady. My identity comes with me, and doing hip-hop or R&B or anything tomorrow is part of the art form because it comes from my continent. I mean, why can’t I do that? Why is it cool for Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, or anybody else to incorporate African chants and rhythm into their music? But as soon as you are African and your music becomes modern, you are seen as a sellout—you’re no longer truly African, and some white boys are out there with record labels, deciding who’s African enough to be signed on their label. Fuck them. I don’t care.