|Angelique Kidjo performs at Nelson Recreation Center Oct. 3.
|Highlights from Angelique Kidjo’s talk for the John Hamilton Fulton Lecture in the Liberal Arts. The full talk can be seen here.
|Concert photos by Brett Simison:
|Concert Video Clips from MiddBeat
When she was a young girl, West African singer, songwriter, and social activist Angelique Kidjo wanted to be James Brown. This was probably not the only factor distinguishing Kidjo from other accomplished people invited to give the John Hamilton Lecture in the Liberal Arts at Middlebury.
Kidjo has long been the most recognizable face of contemporary African music, creating from such influences as traditional African sounds, Latin, jazz, rhythm and blues, Ravel, Beethoven, souk, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, and yes, James Brown. She has eleven albums, international accolades—“The Undisputed Queen of African Music,” “Africa’s premier diva”—and a Grammy Award to show for it. But she also uses her voice to call for justice, to promote action, and to encourage her audiences worldwide to find strength in who they are, no matter who they are.
At her Fulton Lecture on October 2 in McCullough Social Space, Kidjo spoke about her life, her art, the wisdom of her parents, politics, African history, and humanitarian service with Assistant Professor of Music Damascus Kafumbe, a Ugandan ethnomusicologist and musician. Kafumbe wisely prompted Kidjo with selected questions from faculty members and then let the guest be her feisty, hilarious, inspiring self in delivering the answers. Several times during the conversation, recordings of Kidjo’s music filled the McCullough Social Space, giving the audience a chance to hear her distinctive work. As one of those recordings played the classic love song “Malaika,” Kafumbe was heard saying softly, “I first heard that song when I was nine years old.”
Kidjo has been performing professionally since she was a school girl—her father made sure she stayed in school—and had enough of a public profile that when her native Benin was taken over by a Marxist coup in 1972, and the new leaders wanted prominent artists to promote the regime, she exiled herself to Paris. Fourteen years later, she moved to New York City, where she and her family have lived since.
Kidjo detailed her artistic process—sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night with a song that she records on her iPhone, which she doesn’t remember in the morning. “You don’t know when inspiration comes; you have to grab it. I’m at the service of my inspiration,” she said. Artists can’t stay comfortable: “You got to put yourself in question all the time. It’s about learning. If you’re too sure of what you’re doing, you learn nothing anymore.” She finds inspiration everywhere. Her song, “Agolo,” a wake-up call to protect the Earth, was inspired by the frequency and capacity of the garbage truck that came to her house in France. (“Without Mother Earth, there is no humanity. Period.”) She has written songs to bring the stories of refugees and AIDS orphans to public attention. (One of her songs, “You Can Count On Me,” provides a tetanus shot for an African mother every time it’s downloaded.)
Kidjo’s nickname in her village was “When Why How” —no surprise after hearing her forceful opinions of male control over women and of Western control over Africa. Asked by Kafumbe how she felt being one of the most well known people from a continent usually characterized by war, poverty, and corruption, she responded, “Well, people are stupid enough to think that Africa as a continent only has one story to tell. The danger of the single story defines all of us.” She continued, explaining how biblical stories of male dominion still keeps men in power, able to persist in forced marriage and female genital mutilation; how the Western colonizers’ stories of African inferiority allowed them to commit the crimes of slavery. Later she added, “We Africans have to learn to tell our story. We can’t keep blaming other people for telling our story because we don’t do it ourselves.”
As for outsiders’ views of Africa, Kidjo was blunt: “I say every time I’m in front of any leader, ‘I don’t care who you are, if you tell me ever that the leaders of Africa are corrupt, I say “who’s sleeping in the same bed with them?”’ She continued,
“The interest today for the rich countries is to keep Africa the way it is because if we start really developing, they have a problem.” She invoked several of the African nationalist leaders assassinated in the 1960s by western-led coups. “Kwame Nkrumah [Ghana] was killed for that; Lamumba [Congo] was killed for that.
Many Africans have died because they said ‘We need our money to resist, we need to fix the price of raw materials, we need to be independent…’all those who stood up that way have been killed. And they would do it again.” Widespread rape in the Congo, she said, is ignored because industrialized countries want Congo’s minerals such as coltan for cell phones and other electronics.
Linking her social advocacy to her music comes naturally, she told Kafumbe and the crowd, in part because African history is traditionally oral. And although she has seen terrible suffering since starting her travels as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador a decade ago, what keeps her going is her music and how it connects with others. “Always I feel the resilience and the power of the people,” she said.
When asked her final question, “What should we walk away with,” Kidjo was emphatic. “Be proud of who you are. And whatever you do, do it with your heart. We are capable of moving mountains. Only fear is holding us back from achieving more. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”
At the concert in Nelson Recreation Center the following night, the Middlebury community got another chance to see what being Angelique Kidjo means. Dynamic and dazzling, perfectly synched with her fellow musicians drawn from New York, Senegal, and Paris, she created a spectrum of vocals while dancing on the stage and through the crowd. In her songs and in between them, this small and powerful woman brought her message to the hundreds dancing and listening: Look for ways to overcome your differences—it’s hard, and it’s worth it. Be yourself. Life is joyful. And when she brought students onstage to dance, and to take solo dance breaks to the drumming of the djembe, you knew she was right.