Leading up to her Chicago concert performance to take place February 11th at City Winery, Angelique Kidjo was gracious enough to speak at length about overcoming obstacles and heartache in her growth as a music artist and now author.
From her birthplace in Benin, to Paris then New York she reveals how she has made it through from finally winning a Grammy to the unexpected passing of her father and how she has been able to keep it all together.
A what moment did you feel that singing and performing could be a way of life?
As long as I can recall I've always been singing as a child, always humming. Because you know, as kids in school we had games where they would play a song and you jump-you do this and you do that. But for me it was more than that-I learned so quick-I could memorize a song so quick. My mom once expressed to me that when she was pregnant my aunt would sing to her belly-and she would say "this one is going to be singer…it's going to be a girl!" And my mom was desperate for a girl and then I came.
Do the arts run through the family?
My father used to play the banjo. My mom was a theater freak. My brother-a musician that started the first modern music band in Benin. I have another brother that is a drummer and music engineer. And I have a brother once a cultural minister deputy in Benin-who taught himself to play guitar, drums and has a recording studio out of his home now-where he records manys artists and who I collaborate with on music and shows from time to time.
Were there any challenges growing up that made you doubt becoming a singer as a career?
Becoming a singer is something that went through my thinking early enough-but I was much more contemplating becoming a human rights lawyer to help those in distress. I wanted to be able to defend any human being without skin color being the most important thing-where we can judge everybody based on the facts that we have. Then I went to law university for three months and thought…no I'm not doing this!
My father used to say that whenever you do a job-you've got to learn if fully-inside out-at length to know your capacity, ability, strength and weakness. You have to know-because you will always be challenged. Work hard enough to give yourself room to play with. So when I finally decided to go to musical school-I always kept this in mind.
What were your inspirations for the new album "Eve" and your autobiography "Spirit Rising"?
The inspiration behind the book was an unfortunate thing that happened in 2008-when my father passed away and in the same months two weeks before my brother passed away. 2008 had been very difficult for me. And a couple months later Miriam Makeba passed away-so that was the year of death as I call it.
The year before I had won a grammy-so I say perhaps because I won a grammy I had to pay a price-it was painful for me. After his passing I kept on talking about my father this, and my father that-when a friend suggested I sit in front of a camera and just talk. They felt it was going to be a release. I decided then I was going to write about all the things I remembered from my childhood.
How long did it take you to pull the album together?
I started writing these things in 2011 based on trips that I had taken in Africa working with women during the Dafur conflict-dealing with all the issues women have to face-not only in Africa.
Once you start working on issues regarding domestic violence you realize it's not only an African issue it's a world wide issue. Most of the time women are killed by their partners and they walk away free most of the time-and we are too complacent about it.
And for me music is the best way to tell a story. One of the things I learned about women in Africa was their resilience. They refuse to be seen as victims and they don't want nobody's pity. They just want to be left alone and in peace to go on and live their lives not feeling threatened anymore.
Because of your world travels and experiences is there a universal theme that runs through you and your relationships?
One of the things I learned growing up was the ability my parents gave us to live anywhere to go anywhere not feel threatened and to adapt. My father used to say when you get somewhere you know who you are, you are who you are. You have to accept other people and see what you have in common with that culture and how you live with it. I've always been a flexible human being, I always give the benefit of the doubt. It's your actions and your words which count more than your skin color to me…I don't care really.
As for relationships, if you don't know pain you don't know love. And if you don't suffer you don't know what kind of human being you are...you don't know your guts. So when in front of hard circumstances-I don't let that define me or humiliate me.
What is your mission as newly appointed vice president of International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers?
My mission is finding ways to preserve this form of art. Finding ways for people who create and write the music to make a living out of it-keeping in mind today's technology which makes it more difficult.
For example my nephew who was with a company and very passionate about music-who plays wonderfully with a guitar and has a band-he had to quit because he could not make a living. When he was younger I used to tell him not to download for free other people's music because it is taking income from those artists. And when he began to tour-he discovered how difficult it was to sell CD's to make any money and understood what I was trying to tell him.
That's the danger-the renewal of music for new talent coming in. Music can not become the token of the elite. Those that have the money to be on TV-to buy everything-are not only to be the one that does music (for a living). Music is the only thing that shouldn't take this into account...ever.
As your career continues to evolve…are there any other areas you may want to explore?
When the opportunity comes and it fits into my philosophy of life I will go for it. Because every thing is laid. You can not take a human being and remove their instrument from human rights...from social justice and this means access to good education-good health care and when you make something-you can make money out of it.
Filed under: Afro-Beat