Angélique Kidjo puts Africa at the centre

Her latest project, Mother Nature, continues a musical trajectory that reflects on Africa’s history, the world’s perceptions of the continent and its influence on music everywhere.

Born just a fortnight before Dahomey, present-day Benin, gained independence from France in August 1960, Beninese artist Angélique Kidjo says she was “born in a storm” of independence that blew across Africa in the year of her birth.

Seventeen African nations gained independence in the “year of Africa”, 1960. A month before Kidjo was born on 14 July, the Belgian Congo gained independence and was renamed Zaire. At the time, a hit song, Indépendance Cha Cha, written by Le Grand Kallé, was all over the radio, calling for unity in post-independence Zaire.

Although the infant Kidjo was too young to remember its impact, Indépendance Cha Cha became a pan-African hit, summing up the hope and optimism evident across the continent that year.

Last year, Kidjo looked back at the history of 1960 and a song, One Africa (Indépendance Cha-Cha), was born. Via a Zoom call to chat about her new album, Mother Nature, Kidjo explains the genesis of One Africa (Indépendance Cha-Cha), which involves Cameroonian legend Manu Dibango.

“I had a show in March 2020 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 17 African countries that became independent in 1960,” says Kidjo. “And I was turning 60 at the same time.” Kidjo recalls how she sought out her friend Dibango for some advice on how to understand this period. “He told me that the defining moment of the time was that song Indépendance Cha Cha,” she says. “It was a song of hope.”

This feeling of hope is something Kidjo manages to capture in her tribute to Le Grand Kallé’s song. Kidjo’s song, however, has the benefit of hindsight. The line, “Who can I trust, mama, oh Sankara,” acknowledges the failed dreams that followed the wave of African optimism in 1960.

The reference to Burkina Faso’s socialist revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated in 1987, seems to acknowledge that while independence from colonial power was gained, genuine revolutionary leaders still faced being removed by counter-revolutionary predatory elites.

Left: The cover of Angélique Kidjo’s recently released album, Mother Nature. Right: The singer’s 2019 release, Celia, which earned her a fourth Grammy Award.

Outspoken women

In Kidjo’s 2014 memoir Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, she writes about the open-door policy at her family home, which she describes as a “melting pot of people”. She recalls how during this time music was her “compass” and explains how she drew inspiration from a handful of strong women whose records she listened to on the family turntable.

A fire was lit in her as she stared at the powerful album covers of soul star Aretha Franklin, Togolese singer Bella Bellow and South Africa’s Miriam Makeba while listening to them sing.

By the time Kidjo was a teenager, she was composing her own songs, her first written for Bellow in 1973, the year the Togolese singer died in a car crash, and the second a song titled Azan Nankpe, written after Kidjo watched an interview with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela talking about the horrors of apartheid.

“My blood boiled,” recalls Kidjo in her memoir. What a young Kidjo saw occurring in South Africa ran counter to how her parents raised her. She recalls her father once telling her, “Your skin colour does not define you. Don’t let anyone reduce you to skin colour. You are a human being.”

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In her memoir Kidjo recalls the consequences of the 1972 communist coup in Benin, where local radio broadcasts became less about music and more about propaganda. She recalls how the music of Congolese stars such as Franco Luambo and Tabu Ley Rochereau and Cameroonian Dibango, which had been so prevalent before, began to disappear and how local musicians had to placate the communists in order to survive.

The coup would ultimately result in The People’s Republic of Benin being established on 30 November 1975. A young Kidjo was starting to see the writing on the wall. “I can’t study and do music here,” Kidjo told her father. “I’m not spending my life singing, ‘Ready for the revolution, the fight goes on.’” 

In 1983, a 23-year-old Kidjo fled Benin for Paris to pursue her dream. Eight years later she exploded onto the global music scene after signing to Island Records for her 1991 album, Logozo.

Africa is always at the centre

Reclaiming Africa’s influence around the world is a thread that runs through almost all of Kidjo’s recorded work of the past three decades. 

For her, “Africa is always at the centre”. Her motive is to “break the negative narrative of Africa that the West is in love with”. “To travel to developed countries and see people so ignorant about Africa, there is something definitely wrong,” she says. “Why are they not curious to know where they came from? Africa is the cradle of humanity no matter how hard they try to brush it off. DNA [doesn’t] lie.”

This was at the heart of her trilogy of albums, Oremi, Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya!, which explored the influence of African music in the Americas.

29 July 2016: Angélique Kidjo performs a tribute to Cuban-American salsa star Celia Cruz as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in Prospect Park in New York City. (Photograph by Al Pereira/ WireImage)

Covering Jimi Hendrix, dueting with Cassandra Wilson and co-writing with Branford Marsalis, Kidjo explored the relationship between Africa and the music of Black America, in Oremi (1998). Black Ivory Soul (2001) did the same for Brazillian music through collaborations with percussionist Carlinhos Brown and a cover of Gilberto Gil. Oyaya! (2004) explored the relationship between Latin Caribbean music and Africa through songs such as Congoleo, an exploration of the many Atlantic crossings of Congolese rumba.

Africa’s musical influence is also present in Kidjo’s two later works, Remain in Light (2018), which reclaims it in the music of New York’s Talking Heads, and Celia (2019), which did the same for the music of Cuba’s queen of salsa, Celia Cruz.

Proving a point

Kidjo has been in unstoppable form for the past five years. Her diversions into the songs of others for Remain in Light and Celia were revelatory, illustrating new elements of both her own artistry and the source material with which she worked.

Kidjo says she first heard the Talking Heads’ 1981 hit single Once in a Lifetime on a cassette tape in 1983. “The melody sounded exactly like the kind of easy melodies we sang in Benin,” she recalls. She had no idea who sang it but she loved the song and felt particularly affronted when a fellow music student in Paris asked her why she was dancing to the song.

“This is rock and roll. This is not your music,” the student said to Kidjo, whose response was, “I’m sorry for your ignorance. Rock and roll comes from Africa.”

Kidjo says at that moment a seed was planted to one day prove her point. Decades later the melody of Once in A Lifetime just wouldn’t let her go. “The song was stuck in my head,” she says. “But I didn’t know who wrote it.” 

After singing the melody of Once in a Lifetime’s chorus to a number of friends, she discovered it was Talking Heads. “I was like David Byrne?” she says, laughing. She had met Byrne before, but had never connected him with the song. The end result was Kidjo’s magnificent rerecording of the Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light, which features Tony Allen, Alicia Keys, Lionel Loueke, Blood Orange and Questlove.

Remain in Light’s follow up, Celia, a reimagining of songs that Cruz sung, was another inspired album. In her memoir, Kidjo writes of the popularity that Cruz enjoyed in Benin when she was growing up and of going to one of Cruz’s concerts in her late teens, “a show I’ll never forget”.

Celia, which would go on to win that year’s Grammy for Best World Album, featured another stellar cast of musicians, including Allen, Shabaka Hutchings, Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello and Sons of Kemet.

Looking back at these two projects, Kidjo says it is funny how music leads you to places you didn’t know you were going. “Only after I had released the Remain in Light and Celia albums did I have a conversation with David Byrne and I found out that Celia Cruz and him had sung together,” she says.

Mother Nature

Kidjo says that when Celia dropped in April 2019, she was already in the planning stages for what would become her latest album, Mother Nature, released in June this year. 

Kidjo returns to her own compositions in the album, offering her first new songs in five years, with plenty of guests along for the ride. Mother Nature is a highly collaborative album featuring an exciting mix of African talent such as Burna Boy, Sampa the Great, Salif Keita, Mr Eazi, Shungudzo and Lionel Loueke. 

“I’ve always worked with the younger generation of artists. When I tour, I always have a newcomer as the opening act, because that’s how I started,” says Kidjo.

Many of the young African stars definitely take their moment to shine. In Africa, One of a Kind, which also features Keita, Nigerian songwriter Mr Eazi brings his Banku music sound to the table, a mixture of Ghanaian highlife and Nigerian rhythm, while Zambian star Sampa the Great delivers a great performance on Free & Equal, a call to oppressed people to stand up for their dignity and rights.

But, for all the collaborations that Mother Nature offers, it is moments where Kidjo is singing alone in which she lets her artistry really shine, such as on the album’s title track. Mother Nature is an environmental protest song built on the kind of hybrid rhythms listeners have come to expect from Kidjo, where the music from the diaspora collides to form new shapes. The song doesn’t rely on an us-versus-them dichotomy. It’s a song about interconnectedness, a song that stands in solidarity with the Earth, without trying to subjugate any other struggles.

“The rhythm of Mother Nature is not fast. It’s steady, and everyone can dance on it,” says Kidjo. “It’s there to make you think about your relationship with the Earth on which you are standing.”

Mother Nature is a perfect example of what makes Kidjo great. The song is so infectious, you’ll be stomping your feet and shaking your ass long before you take in the power of her message.

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