Angélique Kidjo: Multi-talented Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activist.

By Nehru Odeh

Though her music is simply electrifying, she wasn’t the favourite of a few because they believed that the Grammys she had won were enough. She wasn’t even the pick of those who hadn’t listened to Celia, her award-winning album, either.  And, still, she wasn’t the choice of many on these shores given that Burna Boy was among the contenders.

But she was the choice of the Recording Academy, the organizers of the 62nd Grammy Awards as well as many across the globe in the know of her rich artistic pedigree and eclectic music. And she ended up clinching the Grammy, thanks to her unique kind of music, eclecticism packed full with a blend of deep African beats, religion, rhythm and rich Euro-American salsa as well as her passion and energy on stage.

Welcome to Angelique Kidjo, the Beninoise- born artiste, who not only struts the world’s stage flaunting her Africaness and mélange of cultures, but has won the World’s Best Music at this year’s Grammy which held at the Staples  Centre, Los Angeles,  California, in the United States on Sunday, 26 January 2020. She won with her album, Celia, which was eponymously named after the queen of salsa, Celia Cruz. That album was Kidjo’s own way of paying homage to Cruz, an artiste she idolizes and who was in exile in the United States while Kidjo was growing up in Benin Republic.


On Celia, Kidjo explores the African roots of the Cuban-born Cruz and reimagines selections from her extraordinary career in surprising new ways, spiked with sounds and rhythms from Cuba, Africa, the Middle East, Brazil, America and beyond. And that is majorly while it appealed to American audience and the rest of the world.

Still, while many, out of sheer patriotism, haven’t  come to terms with this reality, they cannot shy away from the act that this is a lady born to a Beninese father and a Yoruba mother who grew up in a town rich with history called Quidah and gifted not only with a strong voice, but also has a facility for language which she uses even to her own advantage and to the envy of those less gifted. She speaks English, French, Yoruba, Fon and Gen (Mina) fluently. She makes adept use of these languages to give her music a rich, eclectic feel.  Still, many who have yet to be convinced,  still ask several burning  questions.

Yet many things make Kidjo fly. She ranks among the world’s music greats such as Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikukapo Kuti, Miriam Makeba and Bob Marley, artiste whose style of music she has infused into hers to form her own unique style.

She has had strings of successes and has released hits upon hits. Some of her songs such as Agolo, Wombo Lombo ruled the air waves in the 90s and  were very infectious, as many danced to their rhythms and were sung across borders all over the world, even though they couldn’t understand her songs, which were sung in Yoruba and Fon languages. That indeed shows the irresistible power of her voice, lyrics and beats. She is also a symbol of Africa’s creativity, energy and beauty. Her music is a unique blend of West African heritage combined with funk, jazz and Latin music and much more

And she has many other international endorsements and reputation preceding her. She has performed with several international orchestras and symphonies including the Bruckner Orchestra, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Philharmonie de Paris. Time magazine has called her “Africa’s premier diva,” while the BBC included her in its list of the continent’s 50 most iconic figures. Forbes Magazine has also ranked Angelique as the first woman in their list of the Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa and CNN has her as the first woman featured on the 2019 CNN list of Africa’s Biggest Music Stars 2020 Grammy win. The Guardian UK once named her as one of the world’s most influential women.

Cecilia Cruz influenced Angelique Kidjo

Intimidating credentials? Certainly. What then is so fascinating about the award-winning album? You ask. So many things. Aside from the fact that Kidjo no longer has any point to prove, given that she was in a familiar turf, having had nine Grammy  nominations and won the  highly coveted award thrice  and has been in the music circuit for over four decades, waxing her own kind of original music and performing with music legends and reinterpreting their music , the intriguing thing about the award-winning album is that while arranging the songs she put all her body, mind and soul into them, as she channeled her mentor, Cruz. Kidjo reinterpreted Cruz, putting in a rich blend of Afrobeat, African traditional ryrhm, Afro-Cuban religion, myth and culture and Spanish salsa as was Cruz’s wont. So it was as though Cruz, the Cuban- American legend who won six Grammys, came alive, albeit in a different way in Celia.  if Kidjo channeled Cruz in that album so well, as many music aficionados maintain, then why shouldn’t she win the Grammy, considering the fact that  Cruz was an adept at  winning Grammy awards?

But why salsa, a musical form many consider Eurocentric and dominated by men?   “Salsa is huge in Africa,” she once said. “Every African artist that has been big in Europe — Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita — all of them started by singing salsa. As a young girl, for me, salsa was always linked to the male gender. It was only men who sang salsa. I had never seen a woman playing cowbell, piano, singing in any salsa band.”

When the album was released in 2019, Robin Denselow, writing for the  Guardian UK hailed it as an “inventive Reinterpretation.” ,”Kidjo’s singing is powerful and assured throughout, from the upbeat revamp of Bemba Colorá to the brooding, chanting echoes of Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion, on Elegua and Yemaya, a tribute to the orisha (spirit) of motherhood and ruler of the seas, now set to an African juju beat. Magnificent,” Celia has a Spanish feel and it resonated with many American mainstream music audience.”

Kidjo has been so neck deep in Cruz’s kind of salsa that she could not but channel her. However, apart from playing the same kind of music, Kidjo and Cruz shares some strange similarity. Both of them fled their countries to seek exile elsewhere where their music blossomed. While Kidjo fled Benin Republic when the  then dictator, Matthew Kerekou, wanted her to compromise her music and sing praises of his government, Cruz left Cuba as soon as  Fidel Castro, the communist leader assumed power because she felt her freedom and rights were no longer guaranteed.  Kidjo relocated to France, while Cruz moved to Spain, both European countries known for their rich culture played major roles in the realization of their dreams. And that indeed was the reason the kinship both artistes felt.

When Kidjo arrived in Paris, she realized to her chagrin that she had to work harder to catch up. “By the time I got to Paris in 1983, I had not listened to anything else but that stupid BS. When I arrived, I was ready to listen to everything. I am not addicted to any substance, but I became the junkie of music. I felt the world had passed me by for more than 10 years, and I had so much to catch up with.” While in Paris and working various day jobs to pay for her tuition, Kidjo studied music at the CIM, a reputable jazz school in Paris where she met musician and producer Jean Hebrail, with whom she has composed most of her music and whom she married in 1987.

Yet Kidjo has never hidden her admiration for the Afro=Cuban salsa singer , who she admitted was a game chager for her.  “I saw the poster and thought, ‘Is this a scam or is it going to be a real woman who will come and play?’ When she walked on stage” — she gives a long, low, appreciative whistle — You sit down there and you watch and you go, ‘Man, there is nothing impossible for us women to do.’ That was something, growing up in Africa, that was a game changer for me.” she averred.

Still talking about the impact Cruz had on her life, Kidjo says, “As a child I saw Celia Cruz sing in Benin and her energy and joy changed my life. It was the first time I saw a powerful woman performer on  stage. Her voice was percussive and her songs resonated in a mysterious way with me. Many years later, I learned she was singing the Yoruba songs that were carried out of Benin 400 years before. I felt she was a long lost sister from the other side of the world. Like me, she experienced exile from a dictatorship and she was always proud of her roots, of her African roots. In the same way I wanted to bring back rock ‘n’ roll to Africa with my Talking Heads’ Remain In Light project, I now want to pay homage to this incredible voice and those songs that reunite with their juju and Afrobeat roots,” she maintained.

However, Kidjo’s reimagining Cruz’s songs and digging the African influences in her music was no mean feat.  It took many years of hard work and inspiration.  To help her do this she collaborated with musicians such as Tony Allen (Fela’s former drummer), Meshell Ndegeocello, Gangbé Brass Band and Sons of Kemet. She always recount the unforgettable way she felt the first time she saw Cruz perform in Paris.  “She hugged me and I thought, ‘I’m never going to wash these clothes.’ She invited me on stage. The look on my husband’s face was hilarious. He turned around like, ‘What in the world is this? I grabbed the microphone and started singing. The public was dumbstruck. I thought, ‘Angélique, you’re making a fool of yourself. What you are singing is not Spanish, get the hell out of here.’ I gave her back the microphone and she was cracking up, laughing like crazy.”

In 2016, at the request of the Celebrate Brooklyn festival, Kidjo worked on performing   Cruz’s songs. The late singer’s family was skeptical about that, but Cruz appeared in a dream to Kidjo’s jazz singer friend, Dianne Reeves, to give her blessing. Kidjo says she found African roots in the Cruz songbook. “She uses her voice as percussion. All the ballads are really melodic, but within that melody you have a rhythm. I love drums. I may not have perfect pitch, but I have perfect rhythm,” she said.

Aside from her music, Kidjo is an activist and unapologetic about her blackness and African roots.  She is also an outspoken critic of gender inequality and bad governance.  She has also been a UNICEF Ambassador  since 20o2. She founded The Batonga Foundation to empower vulnerable and hard-to-reach young women and girls in Benin Republic. She once dared Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe while she was performing in Harare. During the show, Kidjo  screamed : “I can’t understand someone who is burning his own country and abducting his own people. If you live by violence, you die by violence.” It was the audience, who indeed liked what she said, that prevented her from being pulled off stage and whisked off. She later fled Zimbabawe under tight security later. From the foregoing one would see that Kidjo’s greatness is not just about her music, but also it has a lot to do with her activism, which she has infused into her music, performances and lifestyle.

“Our social network brought this to us, so it’s up to us to find a solution and to make a stop of it. I’m always a hopeful person, and I think the day is going to come when we wake up and realize working alone is not the answer – working together is the way we make a change.” She once said, after American president Donald Trump reportedly dismissed African nations in derogatory expletives. . That, of course, is quintessential Kidjo: committed, courageous, outspoken and Pan-African, traits that Fela, BoB Marley and Miriam Makeba once had.

-First published by TheNEWS hard copy. It is a story in the May, 2020 edition