Spokesperson for Nuits d’Afrique 2023, Angélique Kidjo still has a lot to say and sing

Interview by Alain Brunet
Genres and styles : Africa / Afrobeats / Afropop

Additional Information

Who is the most globalized African singer of her generation?
Which African singer has achieved the greatest recognition in the West in recent decades?
Who is the winner of 5 Grammy Awards and a recent Polar Prize?
Who was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2021?
Which African singer is a UNICEF ambassador?
Who was the patron of the Nuits d’Afrique international festival in 2013, and who will be its spokesperson in 2023?

Interviewed via videoconference while in Paris for studio sessions before heading off to Denmark and the UK, Angélique Kidjo answers PAN M 360’s questions. Shortly before her return to the Montreal stage, this Wednesday July 12 at MTELUS to kick off Nuits d’Afrique 2023, the Brooklyn-born Beninese artist still has a lot to say and sing!

PAN M 360: You’ve been a figurehead of cultural Africa for a long time, and you remain so. You’ve won awards in the United States, Europe and Africa. Obviously, your role as spokesperson for Nuits d’Afrique is more important than ever. How do you see this role in 2023?

Angélique Kidjo: I simply want to make things clear. My role as an artist from Africa is to make music that knows no borders. The music I listened to as a child came from all over the world. As Miriam Makeba used to say, why then do we call our music world music? Who gives themselves the right to define who is the first world? The second? The third? That really annoyed Miriam, and she was right.

PAN M 360: Yes, world music, which refers to music from non-Western countries, is an expression that should be banned.

Angélique Kidjo: Over time, it’s become a category that designates the ghetto. In other words, you can’t get out of that hole. Music is music, no matter where it comes from, and that’s why I’ve always refused to be put into a box, a category, a precise genre. I’m a human being, you can’t tell me that just because I’m from Africa, I don’t have the right to do this or that in music. Colonization is over, slavery is over… some people should take note! So why do we continue to maintain this balance of power that has no reason to exist?

PAN M 360: We’re not in the majority when it comes to avoiding the hierarchy of music according to genre, culture, race or nation, but there are more and more of us. You yourself have never made strictly Beninese music, without forgetting your roots. So…

Angélique Kidjo: That’s what music is all about. When people talk to me about cultural appropriation, I say, “But wait, what exactly are you talking about?” Music is shared, it has no agenda, it has no colour, it has no borders. We inspire each other. We use the same notes from North to South, East to West. Wherever we are on this planet, we work with the same sound tools. Of course, when you’re open to the world, there are influences from all over. We’re all immigrants from somewhere.

PAN M 360: At the same time, you’re once again the spokesperson for a festival called Nuit d’Afrique, which is essentially focused on Africa and its communities around the world. So you’re the spokesperson for a festival that focuses on people of African descent.

Angélique Kidjo: Yes, and Nuits d’Afrique is plural, taking in all African skies and all continents. It’s Africa as a whole that we’re celebrating, and that’s always been the case. It’s no longer possible to talk about THE African music, there are some African musics. So for me, Nuits d’Afrique is a starting point for understanding that we live under different skies.

PAN M 360: And so, it’s still important that there are platforms or platforms of artists who represent the entire African movement that has been on this Earth for centuries.

Angélique Kidjo: Yes. And, like everywhere else, today’s young African artists are breaking codes. They don’t give a damn about commercial radio, interviews in old newspapers, in short, all the old ways of marketing themselves. The Internet has made them stars on the African continent and beyond. A young artist born on the web two years ago can now accumulate billions of views. So the game is changing, because technology is opening up the cultural and musical wealth of the African continent.

And African audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated, diversified and autonomous. If they don’t want to listen to a Western artist, they’re not forced to. Before, we said we had to listen to it because it came from America. Today, it comes from Africa and all over the world. Everyone wants to listen to what interests them.

PAN M 360: You’ve lived through the early days of the globalization of West African pop, from the 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s to the present day. What are your perceptions of the current context in your artistic practice?

Angélique Kidjo: Nowadays, it’s much more complicated for young people to have a career, because business doesn’t work the same way. Authors’ rights have been cut to the bone. So if you don’t do a concert, you don’t earn much. Will today’s young artists be patient? It’s too uncertain a time to predict anything. But what is certain is that things have changed completely.

PAN M 360: Is this as true in Africa as it is in the West?

Angélique Kidjo: Oh yes! Dedicated artists like me, Youssou (N’Dour), Salif (Keita) and others used to make a living from their royalties. But they can’t anymore because the way the number of plays of your music on Spotify or other platforms is calculated is no longer the same. The very big artists get all the money and the others don’t even get the crumbs. And that’s not fair.

PAN M 360: What would you like to see happen?

Angélique Kidjo: Legislation needs to be put in place to protect intellectual property. Not everything is for sale in the context of globalization! But what has happened to the sovereignty of cultures and their countries? In the name of globalized profit, all countries are being weakened. If that’s the direction we’re heading in, we’re heading for disaster.

PAN M 360: Now, if we go back to music and talk about your own progression. You’ve always been into a mix involving your own West African and Beninese sources, but also funk, groove, R&B, and jazz. You’ve been doing this with your husband all your life. In terms of production, you always had this vision right from the start.

Angélique Kidjo: It was Léopold Sédar Senghor who said, “The future belongs to métissage.” It’s inevitable. People who cling to the purity of race and spend their whole lives hating people who have done nothing to them, whom they don’t know, are wasting their lives because it’s inevitable. If there had been no mixing, we wouldn’t be the homo sapiens we are today. It’s interbreeding and the forces that come from elsewhere that enable living beings to evolve. We can no longer be human beings and think we can’t live with others. There is a definite danger to our continued presence on Earth if we allow such extreme thinking to take over more and more of our lives. If there’s no more diversity, there’s no more humanity.

PAN M 360: So you reject autarky and isolationism!

Angélique Kidjo: You can’t live alone. Alone, we don’t create anything consistent. We’re there for each other. We speak different languages, but our humanity evolves in this difference, and music is at the center of it all, it’s a common language. I’m a very curious person, I can sing in different languages and my voice changes with each language. When a song takes hold of me, I have to give birth to it. I don’t know any other way.

PAN M 360: You released the album Mother Nature in 2021. So tell us about your latest musical adventures, what inspired you in production, and your desired collaborations.

Angélique Kidjo: Mother Nature started with the onset of the pandemic. I was supposed to give a concert on March 14, 2020, at Carnegie Hall with Manu Dibango, to celebrate 60 years of African countries becoming independent. Two days before, the concert was cancelled and I came back to Paris to be closer to my mom, as it’s a five- or six-hour flight from Paris to Cotonou. On March 28, 2020, my father-in-law died of covid. A few weeks later, Manu Dibango also died… a month later, Tony Allen. Incredibly absurd!

So I thought, what am I going to do? I’ve got no more concerts, but I’ve got a studio at home. So I have to keep writing music. So I started preparing this album. A few months later, in October, there was a revolt among Nigeria’s youth against police violence. And that was another blow. I knew that one day, young people would take to the streets to express such indignation. So I contacted Yemi Alade, who told me she too was on the streets. I told her to get out of there, because the authorities were shooting at people without knowing who were the rioters and who were not. I tell her that the only weapon we have is music. I urge him to leave the street and think with me about what we can do. Leaving through constructive discussion rules out violence, whether verbal or physical. Yemi agreed, we did the song Dignity and that’s where it started.

PAN M 360: Then you showed your penchant for Afrobeats!

Angélique Kidjo: Well, I said to myself, I’m going to reach out to this new generation of artists and ask them: what do you want to say? What inspires you? What mobilizes you? Climate change, for which the African continent is going to pay one of the heaviest prices? That’s how we started. And in fact, Mother Nature is for me an album of transmission, because the transmission of knowledge is at the heart of our Africanness and also of our humanity. Without speech, our brains don’t develop. Without speech, we’re not human.

PAN M 360: So, you’ve worked with some of the youngest artists on the scene, such as Mr Eazi, Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Shungundzo, Sampa The Great, Blue Lab Beats, Ghetto Boy, EARTHGANG, without excluding the more experienced, such as Salif Keita or even M. Angélique Kidjo.

Angélique Kidjo: What was particularly interesting for me was to see the professionalism of this new generation. I’d send them my vocals and my own demo tracks, and they’d send me back impeccable stuff. It’s a dream come true to have achieved such African professionalism in production. Before, there weren’t enough tools, whereas today with the Internet and a computer, you can do absolutely fantastic things. And you can work remotely.

PAN M 360: You didn’t have much choice but to work remotely during the pandemic!

Angélique Kidjo: Yes, it was a bit frustrating for me because I would have loved to have people in my studio so we could play and sing together. But still… it worked out perfectly. You have to be flexible, things change, you have to change with them. That’s always been my aim in life, to think only of today and tomorrow. So I’ve adapted to all this technology and this type of remote production. I’ll continue to do so.

PAN M 360: Afrobeats feature strongly on the Mother Nature album.

Angélique Kidjo: Nigerian music has always been one of my favourites. But there’s also Jamaican dancehall in the afrobeats, there’s R&B, there’s funk. These rhythms all have African roots, they’re part of human DNA. Each of us carries a little bit of Africa.

PAN M 360: Are you still passionate about performing?

Angélique Kidjo: I can’t live without the stage. If there’s a paradise on earth, it’s the stage. When I go on stage, it’s like starting all over again: no concert is a foregone conclusion. As my mother used to tell me, you have to be ready to be spiritually naked to go on stage. When you understand this idea, you’re really at the service of the music. Your ego allows you to get up on stage and fight stage fright. Once you get past that, everything else is just bliss.

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