Music icon Angélique Kidjo is celebrating 40 years in music this year – marking the occasion with a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
When we met up with the Beninois superstar, who has released 16 albums and won five Grammy awards, she told us that since childhood she had been driven by curiosity.
“My nickname was ‘When, Why, How?’. I want to understand things, to understand my place in this world… And I hate to be bored,” she said.
“If I get bored, God help you, don’t be with me! I’m hungry and I’m bored, you don’t want to talk to me at that point.”
This Friday the 63-year-old will be joined on stage by other world-famous artists, namely Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, Grammy-nominated French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Malouf, Stonebwoy, one of Ghana’s most popular dancehall stars, and Britain’s Laura Mvula.
Significantly, Kidjo has also chosen to be accompanied by Europe’s first majority black and ethnically diverse Chineke! Orchestra.
Seemingly everything Kidjo does is guided by her passions, and one of these is tirelessly correcting negative perceptions of Africa and challenging Eurocentrism.
“The classical world is really not a diverse place and I chose to play with Chineke! because we can do anything that we want to do.
“It’s proof that if we put ourselves in the mindset of ‘nothing is impossible for us to achieve’, we do that. Those kids playing in the orchestra, they’re second, third and first generation immigrants from Africa and they’re excellent.”
Apart from her phenomenal energy as a performer, one of the things most notable about Kidjo is her appetite for engaging with music and musicians of different genres and from other parts of the world.
Talking Heads and Cuban Salsa singer Celia Cruz have both been treated to an Angélique Kidjo make-over, and she recorded a sublime version of Ravel’s Boléro back in 2007.
She said when she first heard Boléro in Paris and commented on how African it sounded, she was completely derided.
“I’m like OK, you go ahead and talk – I’ll prove it to you.”
She went on to record a cover doing most of the instrumental parts with her own voice.
“I’m the only artist today that received the authorisation from the Ravel family to do this,” she says with evident pride.
Kidjo’s latest collaboration is with cellist Yo-Yo Ma – and they will be performing a version of JS Bach’s Sarabande in Paris in December.
“Diversity for me is never a threat, I see it as opportunity and a challenge.”
The singer takes every opportunity to use her voice and her platform to campaign for the betterment of humanity, as she sees it.
She is a Unicef and Oxfam goodwill ambassador, and has her own charity, Batonga, dedicated to supporting the education of young girls in Africa.
She regularly attends the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, in the hope of influencing world leaders.
Kidjo remembers her surprise when the UN asked her to do a concert in 2012 to entice African leaders to sign a resolution on banning female genital mutilation (FGM).
Kidjo agreed and, as the organisers had hoped, the leaders showed up in their numbers. She used the example of her own father to appeal to them:
“I said to them, ‘I grew up in Benin, my father was an African man. He fought for us, his kids, boys and girls, for our right to choose to be respected, and any traditional ceremony out there that can harm us he stood against it, he said, “That’s my job, I’m your father.”‘
“And I said to them, ‘If my father was able to speak up against his society, none of you sitting here can tell me that you don’t have the power to stop the stupid, painful [practice] that you are inflicting on your girls. For what?’
“In December of that year, Nigeria was the first country to sign that resolution into policy and all of the countries have signed it.”
She also gives credit to her father for believing so strongly in the value of educating his children that he was willing to get himself into debt to pay for their schooling – and for the schooling of children of friends and neighbours.
The home Kidjo grew up in was a haven for free speech. Her father refused to have a doorbell because he wanted anyone to feel free to enter at any time.
But Kidjo’s idyllic childhood was interrupted by a coup 1972: “From the moment the communist regime arrived in Benin I became aware that the freedom we enjoy can be snatched away in a second.”
Kidjo says this realisation made her who she is, as did learning about the transatlantic slave trade and about apartheid in South Africa: “It was like a huge wake-up call.
“In the middle of the communist dictatorship in my country it was too much for me to stomach, and I wrote a very violent song. My father said, ‘I understand how you feel but we aren’t going to write about hate in this home. We never brought you up to think that hating and violence is a good thing.’
“So I re-wrote the song – I was 15 – and it became an anthem of peace.”
The song became Azan Nan Kpe, released in 1994 on Kidjo’s ground-breaking album Aye, which also contains Agolo, probably her biggest hit of all, written when she was six months pregnant.
“Agolo in my language means ‘Please pay attention I have something to tell you.’”
The song was inspired by Kidjo’s shock at the amount of rubbish she and her husband were generating while living in rural France.
She was reminded of the way her grandmother, who was a herbal healer, had taught her to value nature, and she realised she needed to do better to protect the planet for the next generation.
“When I wrote that song, that’s when my commitment to climate change started.”
When asked what she considers the greatest achievement of her 40-year career, it is not any of the many accolades or any of her many wonderful songs that Kidjo chooses: “The most important achievement for me is giving birth to my daughter, that is beyond any Grammy.
“I mean to have a career and have a family, to have been married for 36 years.”
But she admits it has been a challenge with all the travel and she was pressured by her relatives – her mother, mother-in-law and sister – to let them raise her daughter.
“I said, ‘Hell no.’ I never left my daughter behind. By the time she was three… she’d already been to at least 45 different countries.”
So what of the new generation of African musicians? Does Kidjo feel like a parent to them? Does she feel they are following in her footsteps and using their influence to the good?
“I’m so happy that the technology arrived at the right time to unleash the potential of the young generation of musicians. Throughout my career it has always been a struggle for me.
“People try to put us in pigeon holes and always expect the worst from us,” she says about how African musicians are treated.
“I faced this my entire career, and I said to people all the time, ‘For all this 40 years and more that you are underestimating my continent, therefore you are not prepared for the change that’s going to come. It’s going to come as a tsunami and it’s starting with music’.”
Young African artists have an opportunity to bring about positive change for a continent facing many challenges, she says.
So is she mentoring any of these younger artists?
“We talk,” she says. “Like at this concert. Apart from doing music I always tell them, ‘You have a responsibility. It’s not all about you. It has never been all about me, never.
“So if I am able to do it, you surely can.’”