At 23, Angélique Kidjo found herself planning and executing an escape from Bénin to Paris in search of greater freedom.
When her home country faced a military coup in 1972, led by Mathieu Kérékou, musicians’ freedoms were curbed, and instead they were encouraged to sing in praise of the new leadership. For Kidjo, who was already a touring artist at the time, this went against her principles. Family and friends urged her not to speak up, but she persisted, and as a result had to go into a self-imposed “exile,” leaving behind her loved ones.
While her parents were worried for her safety under Bénin’s strict laws, Kidjo had decided: “Whatever happens will be my choice.”
Kidjo, a five-time Grammy Award winner and UNICEF and OXFAM Goodwill Ambassador, spoke about the need for global solidarity and connection through personal anecdotes and her journey as an artist and activist, as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Nine theme: “The Global South: Expanding the Scope of Geopolitical Understanding,” at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater.
Growing up in a household that advocated for love, education and equality, Kidjo was raised surrounded by open-mindedness and acceptance. Not knowing life any other way, she described first learning about racism while watching Winnie Mandela talk about her husband Nelson Mandela on TV, and not understanding it. Instead, she turned to her parents in disbelief.
“For the first time ever in my life, I insult my parents,” she said. “I say (to them), ‘You are liars – you’ve been telling me that this world belongs to everybody, (but) my skin color can be a liability.’ ”
So deeply was Kidjo affected by it, that it made her write her first song, titled “The Day Will Come.” She described the first draft as “hateful,” coming from a place of anger toward the realities of the situation. It was her father who reminded her of the rule of their house – no hate.
“ ‘As an artist, you are the one that holds the keys that opens the door for people to sit around and talk,’ ” she remembered him saying. “ ‘ … You have to sit back and think about what you can do about the situation, finding solutions. … That’s what I teach you in this house. Not hate.’ ”
After considering her father’s advice, Kidjo transformed her song into an anthem of peace.
While her father has since passed, his lesson lives on in Kidjo’s work.
“The thing that is important for me, for my music,” she said, “is to create … bridges between cultures.”
In 2002, Kidjo was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, which provided her a platform to continue on her journey of building bridges. Her focus, she decided, was going to be women’s and children’s rights.
Kidjo’s life, within and outside the Global South, had taught her that women and children were always affected the most during difficult times. The men in power never make decisions that prioritize women or children, she said. They are always at the end, the last thought, and the collateral damage. She cited the example of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where a large portion of affected women and children were infected as a result of unfaithful husbands.
“I decided that I was going to empower young girls, young women, to change the tide,” she said, just as her family environment growing up had empowered her.
This led to her starting her own foundation for secondary education in 2006, the Batonga Foundation, which strives to empower women and provide them with the knowledge and skills they require to bring about change themselves within their communities. The foundation works alongside local NGOs in several countries in the Global South to ask the best questions to address specific issues in each region.
The girls and women who receive help from the foundation later go on to uplift their sisters and other members of the community. Thus, the work continues to spread, teaching Kidjo “when you partner with people, it works better,” she said.
Batonga’s Men and Boys Engagement initiative also reflects this, aiming to educate young men in the same way.
“We cannot empower the girls when we leave the boys behind,” Kidjo said.
She realized that for real change to take place, people need to come together and have group discussions. They need to talk to their parents, people of other generations — as well as those from other backgrounds — in order to solve the larger issues the Global South faces.
However, Kidjo stressed the need for these concerns to be addressed on the ground level. During the pandemic, some of the young women who were in communication with Batonga requested enough money to be able to manufacture liquid soap. They used the funds to distribute the product to communities that could not otherwise afford it, or did not know the benefits of using it. This helped save many people from spreading or contracting COVID-19, she said.
“That dedicated were those young girls — to do everything they (could) with the money we gave them, to be there day in and day out,” Kidjo said, “to be on the radio stations, and knocking on doors to help people.”
If not for them, those communities would not be aware of the dangers of the pandemic or the solutions needed to save their lives, Kidjo said. The work done by these young women helped deal with the issue at its root.
Personal connections are the most important way to create positive change, Kidjo said. Solidarity can only work if the Global North stands alongside the Global South – and this must start on an individual level.
“People always think that the Global South is always at the receiving end,” Kidjo said. “No – Africa is the richest continent on the planet. The question we should ask ourselves is why our wealth doesn’t serve us (to) reduce poverty.”
French-speaking countries in the African continent do not have their own currencies, but are instead tied to the Euro, making it difficult for these former colonies to be completely independent. Even the interest rates of the banks in West Africa are dictated by the World Bank. On the ground level, women-owned small businesses, or “women of the markets,” have difficulty taking out loans due to high interest rates – collateral damage caused by this economic system, as well as the patriarchal society they are a part of, which makes it nearly impossible for women to borrow money without support from male relatives.
“That’s what I’m working on with the African Development Bank,” Kidjo said. “They have to get down to the level of the women of the market.”
Kidjo restated her firm belief in reaching out and making connections to bring people together, and the immense power of music to do so. Young musicians now are more connected and have access to platforms where they do not need to rely on institutions and companies to put out their music. The result of this, Kidjo said, is that now — more than ever — music can act as a catalyst for change.
“The world in which we live in is like a classical orchestra,” she said. “ … In order to work in harmony, everybody (does) what they have to do.”
As she had done in the opening of her presentation, Kidjo embodied her message by singing a song of love: “If you walk away, take my soul with you,” she sang, while encouraging Chautauquans to sing alongside her in yet another act of unity.