Angélique Kidjo is an expatriate who is always looking back. Although she left the Republic of Benin in 1983, she never really left it behind. Themes of African pride, female empowerment, village traditions and a spirited stage presence have remained constants in all four decades of her professional career.
Kidjo’s very approach to songwriting follows its own African tradition: She sings as “the conscience of a community” — many communities, as she writes most often in the various West African languages she grew up speaking. Fon is her father’s heritage, Yoruba, her mother’s. She also speaks two more of Benin’s local languages, Mina and Goun, along with French, English, the German she studied in school and the Portuguese and Italian she began learning on her own in 2014.
“It’s the song that brings the language,” Kidjo told The New York Times. “Fon is the hardest language in which I write music. But if the song came in Fon, I have to stick to it.”
Kidjo, a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, will perform an African-infused “Evening with Angélique Kidjo” at 5 p.m. EDT Friday, July 31, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.
For Friday’s program, Kidjo has prepared a combination of her last two albums, Remain in Light and Celia. Her 2018 Remain in Light began as a live project, a reimagining of the Talking Heads’ 1980 album by the same name. Kidjo performed her version of the record at Carnegie Hall in 2017, with an appearance from Talking Heads frontman himself, David Byrne. Her 2019 album Celia is her tribute to Cuban vocalist Celia Cruz. Throughout Cruz’s 50-year career, her recordings were steeped in her Afro-Cuban tradition, but Kidjo brought the African roots of Cruz’s music front and center in the “Afrobeat grooves.” Celia won the Grammy for Best World Music Album in January.
“It is mainly upbeat songs that I hope will give you some energy, but there will also be a nice ballad,” Kidjo said. “I like the fact that my music gets its inspiration from all over the world and knowing that the African rhythms have influenced the whole planet.”
Kidjo said she “can’t stay still,” so taking a break during quarantine wasn’t a viable option. She began performing via livestream “almost immediately,” the first one a concert celebrating the “independence of African countries” for Carnegie Hall on March 14.
“That first livestream taught me a lot — once a musician, always a musician,” she said.
Since then, Kidjo has also recorded a three-song set for Rolling Stone’s “In My Room series,” where she covered the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the Talking Heads’ “The Overload” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” For the #PlayAtHome music series on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” she covered Midnight Oil’s 1987 song “Beds Are Burning.”
However, her favorite digital project was recording a fresh take on Miriam Makeba’s 1967 hit song “Pata Pata” for UNICEF.
“It was created as a message for the African population about social distancing and it got 24 million views in a couple of days,” she said. “It showed me the power of this new digital tool. I haven’t taken a plane for a few months, but through music, I have traveled and collaborated a lot.”
Kidjo was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2002, a partnership that was inspired by her Batonga Foundation, which supports both secondary school and higher education for girls in Africa.
“For me, education is so crucial because everything goes with it — like healthy politics and development,” Kidjo told UNICEF. “Young people are the hope of my continent. When I watch the children of Africa, all dreams seem possible.”