“Modern Africa is a story that is hard for people to grasp because the single story told about Africa is misery, poverty, people with scars and tattoos,” says African singer Angélique Kidjo during a very animated phone interview from her Paris home. “People in the West have more tattoos than in Africa! We Africans do not help our story to be told differently because we are stuck in it and are afraid to take risks.”
Kidjo herself, however, has always been a risk-taker. The most popular and successful African female vocalist to have emerged since late South African singer Miriam Makeba’s heyday in the 1960s, the Benin-born Kidjo has managed to successfully create her own unique style of Afro-pop that is characterized by funky, African-based dance rhythms topped off by contagious Western pop-inspired melodic hooks sung with a rich, contralto voice so evocative and beautiful that Dave Matthews has described it as the “voice of God.”
“Any risk that you may think that I am taking in my music has already existed in Africa,” says Kidjo, “even music from here. Music from Africa has inspired the music from the Americas, all of it. Why can’t I, as a modern African artist, live within my own time and do the music that I love and that speaks to me?”
The music of what Kidjo refers to as the “black diaspora” from the African continent is something that she has carefully explored for more than a decade across a triptych of albums: 1998’s “Oremi” was the first stop along a Kidjo-led guided tour with North America as the destination with the artist seeking to demonstrate both how African music has influenced—and has been influenced by—African-American musicians, especially those of the R&B variety. “In Africa,” she says, “there is no party without James Brown.”
2002’s “Black Ivory Soul” moved Kidjo’s tour into South America, and is a festive exploration of the kinship between African and Brazilian music, while 2004’s “Oyaya!” the third album of the completed trilogy, explores the African connection to music of Haiti, Cuba and New Orleans.
With her new album, “Õÿö,” Kidjo goes back to her own roots, back to her childhood and her earliest musical influences which, as might be expected, were amazingly diverse. It is her most personal album, she admits, because it was prompted by the death of her father. “My father passed away two years ago and he was the one that exposed all of us to different types of music,” says Kidjo. “He used to say that we are not alone in the world and we have to be open to the rest of the world and understand other cultures.
“I used to joke with my Dad that we would record a duet together because he used to play the banjo and used to sing and had a really beautiful voice. I always thought that we would do that and that we had the time to do it, but death proved me wrong.” Kidjo had also hoped to record tracks with James Brown, “but by the time we got around to it and invited him to do it, he was already really sick and it was too late. This album is to tell people that if you have something to do, by all means, do it: don’t wait to tell a person that you love the person, because tomorrow might be too late.”
Kidjo was also deeply affected by the passing of Miriam Makeba and French singer Henri Salvador, both of whom also died in 2008, the same year as her father. “We cannot forget what they have given—not only to me as a child growing up in Africa a poor country and in a poor family—but to all of us. They allowed me to dream and music became my breath. Instead of getting into trouble as a teenager, I would always go back home and discover a new album.”
One of nine children born into a performing family, Kidjo’s mother, a director and a choreographer, ran a local theater troupe where Kidjo learned to dance, sing and act from the age of six. Her father and brothers were guitarists, and helped Kidjo master traditional Benin and Indian music as well as Western pop and rock music with the Kidjo Brothers Band as a teenager before she struck out on her own to perform on radio broadcasts and in music festivals throughout Benin. A woman performing alone was still looked down upon in Benin culture, however, and when government repression made it clear that Kidjo did not have the ability to freely express herself, she fled the country and moved to Paris in 1983.
“The politics of Africa is daunting for artists,” says Kidjo. “Even today, some artists exist only because they are linked to this or that political party because that is the only way for them to make money. My father always said to me, ‘Do not use your music for any political party because they will come and go, and you will go with them. Do not give them a voice through you.’ So when the Communist regime arrived and imposed on us that we had to write songs talking about the Communist revolution I was like, ‘Hell, no, I am out of here.’ ”
Ironically, Kidjo admits that whenever a poll is taken in Benin that she tops the list as the most popular choice to become president of the country. “Hell no,” she says defiantly, “I don’t want that and am never going to do that, ever. You can’t tell me that the color I am seeing is blue, and you tell me to say it’s green. My mouth would get me killed. I am not saying that I do not like to go back to my country, but I can be more efficient and more helpful for my country and my continent outside of Africa than in Africa.”
As a cultural ambassador, Kidjo revisits home in a sense every time that she performs in that part of her unique ability to bond with her audiences is that singing has always been part of the fabric of everyday life and a very personal and family matter back in her native Benin. The vital importance of dancing, a natural expression of Benin culture and of the voodoo religion that originated there, is also obvious as Kidjo contagiously gyrates her way through her concerts, often inspiring audience members to join in with her in joyous jubilation.
“It is going to be festive,” Kidjo promises concerning her appearance at the African Festival of the Arts in Washington Park. “We are going to spend time dancing and singing, and having fun, as usual. That is what I am really looking forward to: that electrifying ambience that is there.”
Angélique Kidjo will perform September 4 at 8:30pm as part of the twenty-first annual Labor Day weekend African Festival of the Arts in Washington Park, 5531 South Martin Luther King Drive, (773)955-2787. $10-$15.