African Star Angélique Kidjo Releases New Album & Talks Global Human Rights Issues

By Angela P. Moore

     Three-time Grammy award-winning songstress and activist, Angélique Kidjo, is back with a new album and tour. Not only is Kidjo one of Africa’s most celebrated singers, she is one of the few celebrities speaking out against any form of injustice and human rights violations.  Kidjo will take her musical extravaganza to concert halls and music festivals across the globe beginning next month when she returns to Carnegie Hall on May 5, 2017, and make her U.S. festival debut at Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival in June.

With over three decades of music and 15 albums later, Kidjo’s new album, “Remain in Light “, is a reinterpreting of her friend, David Byrne and Talking Heads’ classic 1980 album, “Remain in Light”.  With her own style, electrifying rhythms, African guitars and layered backing vocals, she performs all of the songs off Byrnes’ album, such as “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes on)” and others.  Byrne was ahead of his time when he put out the funky, upbeat album, and Kidjo immediately fell in love with it and made it her own.

“Due to all the darkness that we live in, we have to remain in light. I discovered “Talking Heads” and I like the openness and creativity of “Talking Heads”.  I’m about building bridges between cultures and remain in light and keep our light, strength, our compassion to love and don’t be tempted to hate,” she proudly says.

Kidjo is a woman of many voices, she speaks a half dozen languages, and sings in four languages: English, French and the West African languages of Yoruba and Fon.  When asked, where did she get such a powerful voice, she says, “I don’t know. I don’t think it about.  I was born with this voice.  It’s a gift of nature that I was blessed with.  I empower people with my music, and if I can transform people and help them to live with no stigma, I’ve done good. People are born free and should be free.”

Known for crossing musical boundaries by combining different genres of music, including jazz, funk, salsa, blues, soul, rumba and markossa, Kidjo has topped Billboards charts, has been nominated for five Grammys, and took home three, including “Best World Album” in both 2015 and 2016.  She also has been recognized as one of the “10 African Women who Impacted the World”, The Guardian listed her as one of their “Top 100 Most Inspiring Women in the World”, Time Magazine has called her “Africa’s premier diva” and The BBC has included her in its list of the continent’s 50 most iconic figures.  Forbes Magazine has ranked Kidjo as the first woman in their list of the” Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa”.  The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, made her the recipient of the prestigious 2015 Crystal Award.

However, growing up was a different story; life was challenging for this international sensation.  In a telephone interview, Kidjo recalled growing up in poverty and being surrounded by the rich sounds and traditional Beninese culture and having to escape her small West African country in the middle of the night to go live in France.  She also chatted about how her parents stressed the importance of getting an education, and how she attended school in Benin when female education was not common.

Off-stage, Kidjo is a lifelong advocate for human justice and is passionate about shedding light on major global human rights issues ranging from violence against women, poverty, child slavery and the incarceration of the disabled.  Returning to a second season, she lends her voice to 21ème Siècle (21st Century), a monthly magazine series that airs and streams nationally on TV5Monde USA and coproduced in New York by the network and United Nations Television.  “Being the voice of 21st Century allows you to present news in a different way. We find out about both sides. The refugees want to be free. We feel powerless and want to do something in our country,” she says.

Kidjo is also passionate about female empowerment and education and she stays busy traveling the world as a UNICEF goodwill Ambassador and overseeing her own organization, the Batonga Foundation, which advocates for education for girls in Africa.  “I do so much because I’ve grown up in a family that gave us education.  Education is extremely important.  I’ve seen freedom. Complete freedom was taken away from me in my country, so I want to create a life for every child in the world to go to school.  Every child has a right to go to school.  Although, I’m doing a lot, I feel like I’m not doing enough. Over 130 million girls are out of school in the world,” says Kidjo.

Although she has accomplished a lot in life and has an extensive list of career highlights, Kidjo still feels there is so much more to accomplish.  She says, “My most significant accomplishment is my breath of my daughter.”

Curious about how she spends her Sundays, or if she has any special rituals, Kidjo responds, “Sunday morning to me is the relax day of the week.  I work out. I take it easy and pamper myself and enjoy the company of my husband (singer-songwriter Jean Hébrail).  It’s a day to rejuvenate yourself.”

Before closing, I asked Kidjo at what point in her career, did she feel like she had made it?

Kidjo laughs and says, “I don’t know if I made it. When you go to your grave, you have made it. I don’t know.  I can’t complain.  I love to do music.  Music is the only language we have in common.  Music is a powerful tool and that’s why you have to be careful with it.”

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 Angela P. Moore is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. A passionate writer-and-photographer-at-heart, she freelances for local and national magazines. She pens articles on celebrity profiles, art, music, business, travel, entertainment, health, self-help, and consumer-related issues.