Interviews

Angelique Kidjo: An African Spirit is Rising – Let us listen!

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If there is a no-nonsense talking African singer among our midst, it undoubtedly has to be Angelique Kidjo! In preparation for my upcoming interview with the Grammy Award-winning Benin singer, I came across a video of Angelique talking on Democracy Now in the USA.  She said that if an African plight does not touch the citizens of the Western world, nobody cares!

And Angelique cares about her continent, she cares about her country and she cares about many people. Her successful music career, spanning now well over 4 decades, has also given her a voice at the UN, for which she has become a UNICEF Ambassador.   Through her autobiography, Spirit Rising, that has recently been launched, Angelique takes us not only through her musical journey, but also through her many journeys on the African continent,  where so much work still needs to be done,  ensuring girls have access to education, eradicating FGM,  and promoting polio vaccination.

Angelique does not mince her words when it comes to the African image portrayed in the West. She tells me that “it is the business of Western’s press to show a negative image of Africa. There is no profit if they tell a positive story on Africa. They have done everything, after colonisation, to make sure that Africa never develops, for them to continue taking the wealth out of Africa. Everyone talks about Human Rights, yet are we, Africans, part of the human family? Do we have the same rights? And if so, is it correct what rich countries are doing in Africa, with of course, the collaboration of our leaders? The profits are so tempting that they do not care basically! And if we tell the truth about Africa, they try to discredit us and call us liars. Our freedom of speech and to defend ourselves has been taken away from us”.  “The only way to change this”, she says, is “for the rich country leaders to say ‘we have done enough damage, we have to take our fair share of responsibility’”.

Angelique was blessed to be brought up in a household where her early musical gift was nurtured and encouraged. Her first inspiration, Miriam Makeba, the famous South African singer who was banned from re-entering her native country because she sang about apartheid and freedom, had a huge influence on Angelique, and no doubt planted another seed of activism in her, aside from her own mother, who was also socially active in her community.  Years later, she will not keep quiet about things that matter in Africa. When I ask Angelique if her honesty, that she is said to have inherited from her ancestors,  has served her well as a UNICEF Ambassador, or landed her in hot waters, she says ‘Yes, sometimes it has, and I do not care. I have to say what I have to say.  When people are suffering, that is not the time to do politics; it is the moment to face facts, move forward, do something, and be human to your people.”

In fact, when Angelique, at 15, got to know for the first time about apartheid, she got so angry about the lie that ‘we are one human family, we can’t hurt one another’, that she wrote a song about it, with lyrics that were so violent, her father asked her to re-write it, telling her that violence is a vicious circle, ‘you know when it starts but you never know when it will stop’. “As an artist”, Angelique says, “ you cannot praise hate or violence but it is hard sometimes, because you are hurt. So I rewrote this song, where I wished my dad could see a world without oppressors and oppressed people.”

And Angelique has seen much suffering through her travels as an Ambassador. In her book Rising Spirit, she recounts the hardships of the Sudanese refugees living in terribly harsh condition in camps on the Chad boarder, fleeing the Darfour conflict. She also tells the story of one small boy living with HIV in Tanzania who asked her to tell the world that ‘children ought to be a priority for all adults’, and for whom she wrote the song Mutoto Kwanza oye oye, meaning Children First.

Angelique has certainly the courage to face facts and move forward. Not only has she done so by globally spreading the vibrancy of African music through her many songs, which has brought her much acclaim and a Grammy Award, she has also taken steps to make a difference in the lives of those who suffer.  A few years back, she created the Batonga Foundation, an NGO that funds secondary education for girls in 5 African nations, because she says that “educated girls leads to informed and aware adult women”.   But she also asks “where are we, women?  We have so much power but we do not own it. We are all in our comfort zones; we are all getting a bit silent.  Why don’t we put our money where our mouth is to transform this world?  And show those corporations that we have the power and that if we do not go to work, and all the stores are empty for 24 hours, they are all going bankrupt!”

Powerful words and message from an African woman who exudes passion for her art and passion for Africa and its people, especially women.  Her latest album, Eve, is a celebration of female empowerment. “On this recording” says Angelique, “ I am letting the voices of the women show their beauty to the world. Eve is all about showcasing the positivity they bring to their villages, cities, cultures and the world.” Angelique’s album Eve has now been nominated for the Grammys.

Spirit Rising, explains Angelique, was initially meant to be a cookery book, but ended up becoming a biography. Strange transition from a recipe compilation to a life story, but I for one, am glad it happened, as Angelique’s life story has touched me in many ways, making me laugh and bringing tears to my eyes on many occasions. Angelique is not afraid to expose her emotions,  sharing her deep pain at losing her beloved father to whom she was very close, and expressing her outrage at the many ills befalling Africa, and how its leaders are still failing their nations and people. But it is also a positive story, encouraging us to pursue our dreams, to take action, and make a difference.

And if you wish to join your efforts to Angelique’s, please visit her NGO website http://batongafoundation.org/ and support the education of a teenage girl.  One never knows if your contribution will educate the next Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai or…the next Angelique Kidjo!  May the Spirit of Africa rise indeed!

Isabelle Gravenstein
Editor, Promota Africa magazine

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