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Angélique Kidjo

Angélique Kidjo

‘I want to build bridges through music all the time.'

by Evelien Lindeboom

The French-Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo is associate artist of this year’s Holland Festival, together with theatre director Nicolas Stemann. Shows to be featured at the festival in June are Mother Nature, Yemandja and Ifé. A conversation about her work and motivations.  

You grew up in Benin and were encouraged to sing and perform from a young age. Can you say something about your youth and the main influences on your later career?

My father was a very open-minded man. He loved music, he sang and played banjo, and he always made us laugh. He was also supportive of my mother making theatre. I had no idea how exceptional all this was as a child. I took it all for granted. In my eyes, my father was how a man was supposed to be: open to ideas and never shying from having a conversation.

I learned to express myself and ask questions. I was taught the human mind is neither male nor female. And that you will always run into both similarities and differences with other people. Which is no problem, as long as you talk to each other. This is part of being human. I started singing and performing at a young age. It was my grandmother who told me there would always be people judging me, but that I should not let this concern me. As a child, you take advice like that without quite understanding its value. To this day, it helps me to realise you cannot be loved by everyone, and this is fine.

When the communists came to Benin in the late seventies, you were required to support their politics with your music. You chose freedom, left your family behind and moved to France. Has traveling and living on different continents changed you or your cultural identity?

I was born in Benin. Period. No one chooses where they are born. My father always said: the world outside these gates is yours, but first you need to go to school in order to be able to travel and learn how to deal with change. He also told me not to make music to support a political party. So I refused to sing for the purpose of promoting an ideology, which made it impossible for me to stay when the communists came to power. It would endanger my family. I had to leave in order to stay true to myself and to be able to keep singing and working.

Travel was never a problem for me because I find it easy to connect with people anywhere. I may not know the whole story of the person in front of me, but like everyone this person has a mother and a father. And when we are thirsty, we all drink water. I find common ground with people anywhere I go. If you ask me about my cultural identity - Beninese, American, French, world citizen - I will say: you can call me what you want.

How do you choose the subjects you sing about?

I am a storyteller. I always write about things that affect me. This already started when one of my role models, the singer Bella Bellow, died in a car accident. I was just twelve or thirteen years old, and I was devastated. So I sang about that grief, about how cruel and ruthless death can be.

I made my most powerful song ever when I was fifteen, when I first heard about apartheid in South-Africa. I had grown up with the idea that being human is not a matter of colour. And all of a sudden... I heard about slavery when I was nine years old, and then about apartheid when I was fifteen. Both had a tremendous impact on my life. I realised the colour of my skin could result in my death.

From that moment on, I started to see the world differently. I questioned beliefs I had considered self-evident, as in that everyone is born with equal rights and dignity. I never became cynical or pessimistic, but I started to wonder how we might live together in a good way. If you hurt someone, you end up hurting yourself because trauma works in two directions.

On your latest album Mother Nature, you sing about subjects like the dignity of human beings and nature’s vulnerability. Do you hope to make a change with songs like these?

I wish people would understand we are our own worst enemy. A single song might motivate someone to change something about their own life. I started to think about the climate myself in 1993, when I was expecting my child. I realised how much waste I was discarding every day and thought to myself: what are all these things I am consuming? You need to think about your own impact. This is what it begins with.

We live in an age when certain online communities are able to amplify humankind’s ugly side. They appeal to our weaknesses and test our patience. When people are egotistical or impatient, other people suffer as a result. As parents, we have a duty to protect our children from the dreadful things they can see and do online. But many people seem to have given up. As if it were inescapable.

Why do we give teenagers mobile phones? Why do we accept and enable hate speech? Giving in to pessimism and cynicism is the same as giving up. We should be concerned, but we cannot abandon hope. The next generation needs us. Hope is a gift we are all given. You cannot blame others for your individual choice not to make use of it.

You often talk about ‘Africa’, even though it is an enormous continent with lots of different languages and cultures. What do you mean exactly when you talk about Africa in general?

First of all: people can be so ignorant, acting as if Africa is a country and asking me if I speak ‘African’. All kinds of different languages are spoken in Africa. My mother tongue is Yoruba. They may choose to remain ignorant because it gives them a feeling of superiority. But the truth is Africa is the cradle of all humankind. The colour of your skin makes no difference because everyone’s DNA is African!

The Africa I speak about has many sides. I do a lot of traveling, and what I find all throughout Africa is solidarity within families. And I see people living great lives, even in the face of poverty. When you go to Africa’s poorest areas, what impresses most is the dignity of its people. Some tourists travel there and think they can just take photos and treat poor people as if they lack a soul. But in reality, the people living there can help us understand where we stand and who we really are. It is through them that the impact we have on the world becomes visible. They show us what we can do for ourselves and others. Wherever I go, South, West, East or Central Africa, anywhere on the continent, it is an ongoing learning process for me. It makes no difference what language they speak, the people are down-to-earth.

One of your ambitions for the Holland Festival is to show the African perspective here. What do you mean by that?

People have so many preconceptions about Africa that they have no idea how fast things are moving there. The new generation there is unapologetic. More and more young people in Africa want to go into politics because they have had enough of the current system. There is also an increasing number of local entrepreneurs, many of whom are women. If the rest of the world does not work together with Africa now, it will be hard to catch up with this rapid progress later on.

Attitudes are changing in the field of music as well: African youths are listening to music by African artists more than ever. The Western world may think this is a hype, but African music is everywhere already. Everyone uses the rhythm, the afrobeats, because they are infectious. Did you think rock ‘n roll is not African? The blues came from Africa, and this is where rock ‘n roll chords come from. Enslaved Africans held onto their music, which spread throughout the world. There are endless similarities to be found between different music from all across the world.

Together with the famous composer Philip Glass, you made the project Ifé: a combination of classical music and song lyrics in your mother tongue Yoruba. How did this collaboration come about?

Music is a universal language. I do not shy from working with different artists from all over the world. I want to build bridges through music all the time. Because it is a language that speaks to everyone, regardless of language or skin colour. You can use the similarities to get past differences.

So when I was approached to work with a classical orchestra, I was open to the idea. After having worked with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, and winning a Grammy for it, the London Philharmonic Orchestra suggested I collaborate with Philip Glass. I already knew Philip, and he reacted enthusiastically. He asked me to choose the subjects for the project, and I chose wrote three poems in Yoruba about the world’s creation myths. When he sent me the music a year later, I was surprised how well it had turned out because the language is quite challenging. It is a language in which every tone has a different meaning. He explained how he had studied phonetics, which was part of the reason why he was able to write this music.

When a journalist asked what this collaboration entailed, Philip answered: ‘Angélique and I are building bridges no one has ever crossed before.’ Exactly so. People may think classical music is elitist, but it need not be. We brought together two worlds that had not met yet.

Can you say something about your latest musical theatre Yemandja?

Three years ago, I decided I wanted to tell a story about slavery in the form of musical theatre, and I wanted to interweave different traditions, like baptisms, in it. We needed someone to put my ideas to paper. My daughter, who is a playwright, had been to Africa regularly, and I have often talked to her about how slavery influenced my family. When she started writing, it turned out to be so good that we asked her to write the whole script and even some of the music. Yemandja is about how we might come together to heal the wounds caused by colonialism and slavery. Music plays a key part in this.

So Yemandja is also about building bridges?

Black people toiled to create the wealth of the developed world for four hundred years. They were never given anything in return. This remains difficult to discuss, especially in America. The history of slavery has a tremendous impact on African Americans. I mean: New York is the most segregated place in the world. Asians live here, Latinos there, and black people somewhere else again... The housing and accommodations for black communities are not of the same standard as those for white people. The effects of slavery are still everywhere.

This is rarely talked about in Africa either. By working together with slave traders, black people have also been part of the problem. People in Benin are reminded of this history every day. The country is situated by the sea. There is a road to the sea that has a tree, beneath which people were counted before being shipped off as slaves. The place is called 'the gate of no return'. This place is there, this history is there, people know which family did or did not collaborate, but no one talks about it.

The wounds and scars of slavery are there on both sides, with the perpetrators and with the victims. How do you have a conversation without it tearing society apart? Redemption is a solution. Even if for many people it remains difficult to imagine. I propose we have an honest conversation without feelings of guilt. You and I did not create this situation, but we can have a healthy conversation about it, one which also leaves room for anger and discomfort. Having a conversation is the only way to rid the next generation of our burden. In the end, we need to move forward together.