Musician Angelique Kidjo talks about Boko Haram, education, and why women are Africa's backbone

"You might not like it but I’ll say it, every genre of music comes from Africa" - Kidjo.

FIERCE and fearless, she has never shied away from issues others would walk away from in order to protect their brand. Instead she has become a voice for the voiceless and a champion of women’s rights across the African continent. Angelique Kidjo tells M&G Africa why women are the continent’s backbone.

When Angelique Kidjo won her second Grammy Award for her album Eve, described as ‘a musical ode to the pride, beauty and strength of African women,’ earlier this year, she honoured them with these words - “This album is dedicated to the women of Africa - to their beauty and resilience. Women of Africa - you rock!” 

African women have long been close to Kidjo’s heart. She advocates for them on the global stage on matters pertinent to their cause and has participated in countless initiatives to bring a global awareness to issues like child trafficking, FGM and HIV/AIDs. 

From gender-based violence to child marriage, Kidjo speaks out and sends a message to African leaders that they cannot sit back but must take action. For Kidjo, speaking out is a matter of life and death. “The sense of justice to stand up for yourself comes from my mum and my dad. And if you stand up for yourself and don’t stand up for others, you are going to fall because you are not alone in this world. For me silence is a killer and a lot of violence towards women continues because they are silent about it.”

An award-winning artist, who has shared the same stage with the likes of John Legend, Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys and singer-songwriter, Peter Gabriel, Kidjo is highly revered by her global contemporaries. If you have ever been to a live performance, it is an entrancing experience with her fiery delivery of song after song as the audience edges her on and the response is always unanimously that Kidjo’s offering is magical and filled with boundless energy. 

Beninoise roots

Although she lives between New York and Paris, it’s Kidjo’s Beninoise roots that always played a big role in her music. From her first album, Pretty, 1988 to Õÿö in 2010, her heritage is the lyrical thread that weaves the narrative of her musical career. 

In Õÿö, we witness a deeply introspective reflection of events that brought her to the point, where the world witnessed a measure of her musical maturity as an artist. Her first live album, Spirit Rising, released in 2012, once again took her back to her roots, which culminated in a breathtaking live performance of hit songs like Tumba, Afirika, Agolo and Move on Up. 

Kidjo says she cannot be separated from her heritage which informs her musical foundation because “it’s like you asking me to stop breathing. I was born and raised in Benin. I left my country when I was 23. So the music I grew up listening to, even if I wanted to, they cannot go away because I don’t have any control over my inspiration. It comes with me everywhere I go and it’s beautiful. You might not like it but I’ll say it, every genre of music comes from Africa. We Africans have to take pride in what we are giving the world in terms of the arts.”  

African philanthropist 

Africa and its future is a cause Kidjo is passionate about. The power of music she possesses has successfully translated her work as an artist to activism and philanthropy, and as a humanitarian, she is a Goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. Known for her dynamic and uplifting music and in spite of the gruelling tours and recordings; Kidjo finds time to get involved at grassroots level. One way she does this is through her fight for the education girls. 

A staunch believer in the power of education, it is a subject she speaks about with fortitude in her autobiography, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music . Kidjo writes, “A higher level of education for girls will change Africa because it will allow more women to run businesses, to understand good health practices for themselves and for their children. Perhaps, most importantly, it will give them the confidence they need to raise a generation of boys with more respect for women. I know this could be a scary proposition to some men, but this is how we will escape the cycle of poverty and oppression.”  

One of her initiatives to address this is her Batonga Foundation. Kidjo explains the foundation aims to “give girls access to a secondary education. So they can become leaders and change Africa. The solution to Africa’s problems must be provided by Africans who’ve experienced them firsthand, especially the African women who are the continent’s backbone” as documented in her autobiography.

Boko Haram

Kidjo’s passion for the education of girls, underpins the sadness that she felt, and still feels, at the abduction of over 200 secondary school girls from the town of Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria in 2014.

“For me as a mother, (Kidjo has one daughter, born in 1993, called Naima) my heart was broken because I tried to put myself in the place of those mothers and it’ just not acceptable. I can’t bear the idea of it.  And I’m kind of mad at the response that has been given to this issue in Nigeria. We cannot let any government in Africa walk away with such a crime thinking that it’s not necessary to fight for their lives.” Kidjo says civil society and the women of Africa must equally get involved, and demand the release of the girls. 

Kidjo said that speaking out on behalf of the girls by the women at the forefront of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was met with strong opposition, “because they are putting the finger on the vacuity of the government that didn’t do the right thing. Therefore, they are in the face of government leaders that have let those girls down. I mean silence is not an option. If the government is reacting like that, it’s because they (the women activists and campaigners) are getting a result. They are letting the rest of the world know that they are not resting until these girls come back. So I encourage them to keep doing what they are doing. It’s what they have to do.”

Hating men

Kidjo has long been an advocate for gender parity for African women but she admits the battle has not been won, and won’t be unless the men are won over too. She asserts that “hating men does not make any difference. Gender equality has to be done in a way that we won’t give the men a reason to come and say that we hate them.  We don’t hate them. We love them because we cannot live without them and they cannot live without us.”

For Kidjo, the inclusion of men in the process of finding solutions to the gender malaise that plagues the continent is absolutely essential in order to bridge the divide. “A lot of feminism around is too aggressive for me and we cannot find solution to women’s issues if the men are not part of the solution because they are the ones committing the violence.”

Kidjo is equally concerned about the continent’s economic growth. She says it is time African governments start negotiating better deals for the continent and do right by the people economically. 

Concerning the recent Ebola outbreak, Kidjo says it is time African governments start to build the continent’s infrastructures. “Ebola is not finished. I hope they take this opportunity and start thinking of building and scaling up the hospitals and be prepared for it? Don’t let innocent people die because you are incapable of leading.  A leader is responsible for the wellbeing of his people and in Africa, our leaders have let us down for so long.”  She goes on to denounce the begging bowl reputation African leaders have come to be known for when they seek aid from foreign governments.

If Kidjo gets her way, aid from the west to Africa would certainly become a thing of the past and a self sufficient Africa will emerge. However that dream is still years ahead. In the meantime, Kidjo continues to take the continent’s boundless energy and colourful stories to the world, while fighting for its women, in the hope that they too will one day have the freedom she has come to know as an African woman with a voice of her own.

Angelique Kidjo Sings with the Orchestre Philharmonique Du Luxembourg will be released on March 30, on 429 Records.

Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music by Angelique Kidjo& Rachel Werick is published by Harper Collins.

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