She’s one of Africa’s greatest stars but the legendary singer is still fighting for change for the continent’s youth.
Angélique Kidjo has won more awards than any other African musician. With 16 studio albums to her name, the singer is known for fusing musical traditions and enjoys a global reach unparalleled on the continent. Born in Benin in west Africa during French colonial rule, her childhood was spent absorbing music from her home country and beyond.
“I grew up in a family of 10 kids and I was number seven,” Kidjo tells monocle from the Grieghallen concert hall in Bergen, Norway, where she’s performing as part of a European tour. “Music was always the centre of everything. Even now it can be played somewhere far from my house but as soon as I hear drums, I’m out.”
Her household fostered Kidjo’s creativity, with a musician father, a choreographer and theatre director mother, and siblings with whom she would perform in a rock, rhythm and blues band. From a young age, she demonstrated a talent for picking up languages such as Fon, Yoruba, French, Gen, English and Mina just by listening to music. “It’s funny, whenever I come to the Western world, they ask me which language I dream in and which language I write in,” says Kidjo. “But I don’t know; whatever comes is what you’re getting.”
At 23, Kidjo left Benin for Paris and, after flirting with the idea of being a human-rights lawyer, enrolled at prestigious Parisian jazz school cim to study singing. “I wanted to set the bar and jazz felt closer to the music I’d grown up with in Benin,” she says. “It’s familiar because it’s improvisation: everyone is invited to grab something and show off their skills. It’s conversational.”
“It’s inevitable that it goes everywhere because it already is everywhere; Africanity is in everyone’s DNA”
In 1981, she released her first album, Pretty, in collaboration with Cameroonian producer Ekambi Brillant. But it was her 1989 follow-up Parakou, recorded after graduating with the help of her now-husband, Jean Hébrail, that launched Kidjo into the mainstream. Countless awards have followed: her 2021 record Mother Nature earnt Kidjo a fifth Grammy for best global music album. But when asked about the significance of this recognition, Kidjo remains unfazed.
“It means your work is acknowledged,” she says, although she admits that it makes her happy to know her music has appeal. “For me, winning awards is a responsibility. It puts pressure on me to continue trying my best.”
For Kidjo, trying her best means using her position as the doyenne of African music to rally people behind the causes of climate change and racial equality. Mother Nature features a wealth of young west African musicians, including Earthgang, Burna Boy and Sampa the Great. It was recorded during a period of police brutality in Nigeria and features Afro-house influences. Ultimately, Mother Nature demands respect and speaks of betterment and dignity.
“I want to give a platform to the youth of Africa to voice their concerns,” says Kidjo, explaining that spotlighting the next generation of musicians is something that comes naturally. “I come from a tradition of transmission. My elders told me the story of my ancestors, and of my identity and my culture. That’s my legacy.”
So sharing the stage with Kidjo on her current tour are Yemi Alade and Blue Lab Beats. She expects to continue this trend – of touring and collaborating with emerging artists – to create African music with a global reach. “It’s inevitable that it goes everywhere because it already is everywhere; Africanity is in everyone’s dna,” she says. “Its spread is not up to me, though. I just want to be authentic and happy.”
1960: Born in Ouidah, Benin
1983: Moves to Paris and attends cim jazz school
1989: Releases award-winning album Parakou and signs with Island Records
1995: First Grammy nomination
2008: Wins first Grammy for best world music album with Djin Djin
2021: Sings at the opening ceremony of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo and releases Mother Nature
2022: Tours the US and Europe