Put Her Record On

03.30.14

Africa’s Siren of Song

Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo, who’s performing at Women in the World on April 4, weaves the women of Africa into her music—and advocates for them worldwide.

Just try listening to “Bomba” and “Eva” off West African songstress Angélique Kidjo’s new album, Eve, and not start grooving a little, or feeling connected to a place thousands of miles away. It’s impossible. The acclaimed Grammy Award-winning singer, activist, and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, who’s been called “Africa’s premier diva” and “the Queen of African music,” creates songs that feel truly global.

As the Benin-born, Brooklyn-based Kidjo said recently, “When we start talking about traditional music of Africa, people think it’s like a museum piece, it never changes, it never evolves. People don’t even realize that Africa music is the roots of pop music, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, hip hop. Every music you listen to, you hear Africa.” She added, “My quest has always been to build those bridges that exist that people don’t want to hear about. That’s why my music is what it is. We need to tell our stories, all of us. Men, women, all around the world. Each human being’s history is a lesson and tapestry of the human family. We need to tap into those stories together.” No wonder Rolling Stone praised her as a “sensual firebrand who moves freely between luxuriant detail and exultant minimalism in her music and agenda.”

When it comes to collaborating, Kidjo breaks all boundaries.

For the album Eve—named for her own mother and the biblical one—she recorded tracks with jazz bassist Christian McBride and percussionist Mauro Refosco of Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace, then visited traditional women’s choirs in Benin and Kenya, played her songs on a boom box, and asked them to sing. The result is a mixture of voices washing over you in native Beninese languages, including Fon, Yoruba, Goun, and Mina. As Kidjo said recently, “Africa is beautiful, but it is a true roller coaster, one moment hope, the next moment heartbreak. I started to think a lot about the women of Africa. 'Every woman in Africa is a privilege to know,' I was thinking, 'so why not dive into it?' And that is when the songs began to come."

Singing is only one of her many passions. Kidjo is a high-profile activist for girls education in Africa, and founded the Batonga Foundation, which grants scholarships for girls to attend schools and university, connects them to female role models, and encourages enrollment by providing shoes, bicycles, and transportation. The foundation is a powerful change agent for girls education, and their “Batonga Girls” live in Ethiopia, Cameroon, and her home nation of Benin, where 15-year-old Silifa, says the Batonga program prevented her from having to marry at the first opportunity.

When it comes to collaborating, Kidjo breaks all boundaries. Her collaboration with composer Philip Glass called Ifé debuted earlier this year in Luxembourg, and features his orchestral music layered over her singing creation poetry. She’s also recently released a memoir, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, detailing her love of music from age six, having to flee the censorship of Benin’s Communist regime, and her collaborations with everyone from Carlos Santana to Alicia Keys.

Before her tour takes her to France and Morocco, Angélique Kidjo will appear in New York at the Women in the World summit on April 4 for a discussion on the challenges facing African women with actor and activist America Ferrera. She’ll cap off the night with a special performance. Don’t worry—at Lincoln Center, dancing is allowed.