Grammy-Winning Musician And Activist Angelique Kidjo Speaks At TU


Angelique Kidjo Image Via Bucknell University

When the band Talking Heads released “Remain in Light” in 1980, the album’s use of African rhythms and musical structures led to a spate of critical controversy about Western musicians appropriating aspects of other cultures.

Angelique Kidjo, the Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and activist who has been called “Africa’s premier diva,” dismisses such ideas with a laugh.

“That is a Western idea,” Kidjo said. “An Africian musician would not be thinking, ‘These people are taking our music,’ because they know what they are really doing is drawing something from our shared humanity, from our human family.

“Don’t fool yourself — we are all African,” she said. “Every single one of us can trace our ancestry back to Africa. So how can you deny someone this music, when it’s in their DNA?”

Kidjo’s own acclaimed career has been built on combining music and rhythms from multiple cultures, from the distinctive vocal techniques of her native Benin to American jazz, rock and blues, from Afrobeat dance music to collaborating with composer Philip Glass.

Her most recent project is her own version of “Remain in Light,” taking the original songs from the Talking Heads’ album and reimagining them in her own way. She is working on the recording, which is expected to be released in 2018.

She debuted the project earlier this year at a concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall, of which the New York Times wrote: “Where Talking Heads had dealt in tensions and dualities, Ms. Kidjo’s element was joyful empowerment: the joy of an all-conquering voice and a righteous, uplifting spirit. In West African tradition, her own songs are lessons from a community’s history and conscience, with music that maintains African roots while drawing on all her cosmopolitan experience.”

“I didn’t want to wait to do this show until after we had finished the recording,” Kidjo said. “It’s such an iconic album, and what I realized was that a lot of people have been interested in seeing what I would do with this music.

“It is a conversation, really,” she said. “The Talking Heads were inspired by the music of (legendary Afrobeat pioneer) Fela Kuti. So I’m just giving my answer back. That’s the whole point of music. It is limitless — no boundaries, no countries, no color. It is the universal language.”

Kidjo will come to Tulsa for the first time Tuesday as part of the University of Tulsa’s Presidential Lecture Series, presented by the Darcy O’Brien Endowed Chair.

Her presentation will draw from her 2014 memoir, “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music.”

“Basically, I describe my journey from growing up in a very poor country to get to where I am today,” Kidjo said. “I want to give people a sense of the world of possibility and opportunity, to show that you are your own destiny.”

Kidjo was born in the West African country of Benin, where she began performing with her mother’s theater troupe when she was just 6 years old. She performed with other bands and released a solo album, “Pretty,” in 1981.

Two years later, because of the increasing oppression of Benin’s Communist government, Kidjo moved to Paris, continuing her career. Her 1991 album, “Logozo,” was her international breakthrough, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard World Music chart.

Kidjo’s subsequent albums include the Grammy-winning “Djinn Djinn,” “Eve” and “Angelique Kidjo SINGS with the Orchestre Philharmonique Du Luxembourg,” and she has collaborated with many of the world’s leading rock and jazz musicians, including Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews, Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride and Dianne Reeves.

Kidjo is equally known for her humanitarian work. She has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002 and co-founded the Batonga Foundation (named for one of her first hit singles), which provides secondary education for girls across Africa to help empower the female leaders of tomorrow.

Kidjo said she “was singing before I could talk,” and added that her sense of advocacy is about as long-lived.

“It was what I grew up with,” she said. “My father’s car was the local ambulance. Anyone who needed to be taken to the doctor or the hospital, my father would take them. Even now — I just returned from visiting my mother in Benin. She is 90, and she is taking care of a young boy. His father died, and his mother’s family doesn’t want to deal with him because he is troubled.

“And I said to my mother, ‘What are you thinking? You are 90 years old and you’re going to care for this boy?’ My mother answered, ‘What am I going to do — let him sleep in the street?’ ” Kidjo said. “And that was the end of the conversation. Because when someone needs help, you give them help. That was how I was raised, and that’s what I try to do.”