Angélique Kidjo's Memoir
BY KRISTI YORK WOOTEN
FOR THE ECONOMIST
ANGELIQUE KIDJO’S childhood in Benin was a whirl of different languages and cultural influences. Hers was a family that spoke French, Fon and Yoruba, and placed equal emphasis on Catholic rites and indigenous spiritual rituals. This mixing has had a continuing impact on her career as a singer, which began with her mother’s theatre group at the age of six and has now made her one of Africa’s best-known performers, a woman who headlines concerts with Alicia Keys, Bono and Peter Gabriel.
In her uplifting new autobiography, “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music”, she revisits the childhood she spent living under Benin’s Marxist regime and illustrates how a supportive family and an intense passion for music allowed her to move onto the world stage.
It was not easy for a girl to sing in Cotonou, the town where Ms Kidjo grew up. Though it was mostly matriarchal, it was still a society where females who performed in music clubs were assumed to be promiscuous and uneducated. By the age of 12 Ms Kidjo was being called a whore by classmates for trying to pursue her singing dream. And locals continued to taunt her into her 20s, even as they ensured her success by attending her energetic concert tours.She went on to sing at an economic summit for West African leaders where, she says, heads of state ogled her and treated her like a piece of meat.
The irony that a woman could be a notable entertainer at the continental level yet not escape sexist mores was not lost on her. With her work as an artist being hamstrung by government rules, she accepted the help of a customs official to escape to Paris in 1983. In France, she attended jazz school, signed a record deal with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, and met her husband, musician Jean Hebrail, with whom she now lives and writes music in New York. Over the years, the pair have crafted a blend of African beats and modern pop that has become Ms Kidjo’s signature sound.
In “Spirit Rising” she recalls listening to Jimi Hendrix on Beninese radio and idolising Miriam Makeba, a South African activist whose “Malaika” is still her favourite song. (“She was African, she was a woman, and she was a star,” Ms Kidjo writes of Makeba. “I wanted to be just like her.”) The memoir follows Ms Kidjo’s career from her first recording for Island Records in 1991, via her Grammy win in 2007, to her latest album, “Eve”, released this month. It includes titbits about taking a phone call from James Brown, making an album at Prince’s Paisley Park Studio and recording the sounds of African musicians in remote villages with scant electricity and water. Along the way, she meets Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates and performs at practically every major venue on the planet.
None of Ms Kidjo’s namedropping detracts from the central story, which concerns her efforts to achieve success in an international music industry where few Africans are represented. In this regard, she has become a symbol for her entire continent.
Branford Marsalis, an American saxophonist and a collaborator and friend of Ms Kidjo, says her ability to break cultural barriers is a positive affirmation for African culture and African ability. “She is unabashedly Beninese and even now performs primarily in African languages,” he says. “Yet she’s been told her whole life, ‘You’re a woman, you can’t be a singer.’ It is not a mistake that she has been able to succeed; she is not an empty vessel.”
On “Eve” Ms Kidjo employed ten different all-female African choirs to sing alongside guest performers such as Dr John, a renowned New Orleans-based pianist, and the classical strings of the Kronos Quartet. The album was inspired by a visit back to her family home in Benin and to a Kenyan village where women participate in UNICEF’s economic empowerment programmes. “The image of Africa is always about the child who died in the lap of the mother with the fly in the eye,” says Ms Kidjo. “But nobody ever ever takes the time to show the beauty and the resilience of African women. I wrote these songs because I want to talk about women’s stories and be the voice of the ones that have no voice.”