You don't realize how much your don't know until someone older and wiser tells you a story. Angelique Kidjo has twenty years of stories that she has shared with the world. A world she hopes to make better through her music and her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Her latest release, Eve, tells the story of the strength and beauty of African women; highlighted by the voices of local singers from around Africa. Ahead of her performance at Lisner Auditorium this Sunday, the Grammy winning singer candidly discusses race, history, the education of women, the issues in Africa, her legacy, and more.
FO: On the new album Eve, is there any one song that you would pick as a representation of the whole album?
AK: No, because every song has a story that is linked to the other. If you remove one, then you have no story.
FO: You invoked a sense of harmony and community in the telling of this story. Did you receive any opposition while travelling around the continent?
AK: No, it was just joyful. It was an amazing experience. It makes you feel humble to add your voice to tell the story.
FO: In addition to the local voices, you also collaborated with mainstream artists. Did you chose these artists intentionally to help you tell the story of the beauty of African women, or did you pick them because you know they are great musicians?
AK: I never use someone just because they are great musicians. I work with people who have the same kind of feeling towards the music that I do, and the subject that I’m speaking of at that time. Each one of the artists are really aware of the status of African women in the world. They wanted to bring their point of view and support.
FO: One of the artists you collaborated with was Asa, a fellow African female musician. Did you give her any advice?
AK: I’ve known Asa for a while now. The first time I met her was in Zimbabwe then we went to Malawi, when she opened for me in Malawi. Since that time, we have done a couple of collaborations together, she was part of the show I put together to honor Miriam Makeba, she was one of the artists I invited. And then when I was in Lagos we played together. Asa is an artist in her own right. I mean she’s great, her writing and performing music, she’s great.
FO: These collaborations, including the one with Asa, make more a beautiful diverse collection. Were they any songs that did not make it to this album?
AK: Well there are a couple of things that didn’t make it to the album, cause you just can’t put everything in there. The songs that were not used on the album, they are conserved for other purposes later on that’s for sure.
FO: With your legacy of recording and releasing music for twenty years, other African artists come to mind, like Fela Kuti. Thinking about the legacy you will leave behind—the impact you will have on not just the African community, but the world—how would you like to be remembered?
AK: My legacy is not only about legacy, it’s about how we as a human family learn to live together within our difference. And unnecessary pain, isn’t worth it. We cannot hurt ourselves just for the sake of it. When you hurt somebody you hurt yourself. Down the line, the ripple of it comes back to you. So the legacy that I want is for people to use music as the universal language to celebrate those differences, to embrace them.
FO: That brings up some of your other work. You went o Kenya a few years back to do a documentary with CNN and Unicef about malnutrition. What do you want people to know about the issues in Africa?
AK: We have so many issues in Africa, but the thing is we Africans have to be aware of it also. And do something with the people who are willing, genuinely, to help us do it. Not just to come there thinking that they are doing us a favor. They should come there because they want to work with us. For us to be part of the change, to be the agents of the change that we want to see in our country, community, or family. That’s the most important thing for me. No patronizing.
FO: What do you feel are the biggest issues that Africa as a whole, as a continent, faces? And how do you feel African women can play their part in change?
AK: By educating African women we can really transform Africa. Because it is proven that when women are educated, the ability of the country goes up immediately. And that’s what we want. We want to have delivery, using our wealth to transform society. In order to transform our society, we need people who are educated to understand that every implementation of everything you do is not only for ourselves but for the whole picture of the country. We need to be able to hold our leaders accountable. To hold them accountable, we need to be able to know what’s at stake. We have a wealth somewhere. That wealth belongs to the whole country, not just for the elite. So how do you hold the elite accountable if you don’t know exactly what the wealth Is bringing and how it can trickle down to the people.
FO: It reminds me of Malala and her brave stance against the Taliban to speak up for education. There is a lot of issues that education can prevent and change.
AK: Absolutely. Education can change a lot of things, but we have to have our leaders come on board for that. Education is very political, because when you educate the people, then you have a country that you can’t fool anymore. So people are not investing in education, even in America. Education is not something that the government invests in. Because if you invest in education, no politician can come and tell you something that doesn’t make sense. You’ll think differently, and what you bring to the country by the works you do, by the wealth you create personally, goes towards a greater good.
FO: Do you feel with your music your are educating people on other cultures and other issues, and in a way that is helping?
AK: I’m a story teller. I really know how to tell stories of Africa. And that’s the story I am telling about educating people in a way that it can transform their lives or do something else. I’m not there to tell them what they have to do, I just tell a story. And what that story moves in you is completely different from one person to the other.
FO: When you have an album like Eve, where you are representing many countries, in both the languages and music that you’re using, do you feel that it is alienating certain fans? Like, let’s say Nigerian fans want you to sing more in Yoruba.
AK: No, no. I think we in Africa, we are open enough to those mixing up. I mean, we have to open ourselves. Africa is not just about where you are born. For me, Africa is the whole continent; from south to north, to east to west. And we are the ones who have to really make that work. Africans have more freedom to make that connection between all the different parts of Africa, and for the leaders to follow.
FO: That is one of the things about this album that is so great, it is showing Africa as a continent. There are still people who refer to Africa as a country, even very famous artists.
AK: There are people who refuse to say that Africa is a continent, but that doesn’t remove the fact that it is a continent. When you move from the west side and you go to the east side, just looking at the food, it’s not the same. The tomato sauce in West Africa is not the same way they do tomato sauce in East Africa. We have a lot of stuff in common, but there are some slight differences that I cherish a lot. Because it gives you a perspective, when it comes to food, to see that what you are doing, you can add this to it. You take it away, you bring it there, and then you add this to it. The richness of Africa, culturally, is vast. That’s the challenge that we have to face, because most of the time, people in the western world, their attention span is really narrow. It is easier to put Africa as a country, because if they accept the concept that Africa is a continent, it demands for them to do much more, much more research and work.
FO: Recently, someone from Nigeria and another from Congo realized they eat the same food. It makes you realize how much more a like these differing countries are.
AK: We were the same people before. Everything has been divided and fake walls have been put up. We are not that different. We moved to different parts of the continent and then we found different food. It’s just like a melting pot, a patchwork. It’s the way we should be. I don’t like the idea of something being pure. It means we have to be perfect, I don’t want to be perfect.
FO: It makes you think of the way cultures are being represented. In America, there has been this recent uproar about reappropriation; what white artists shouldn’t be allowed to do. How do you feel about the issue?
AK: As far as I’m concerned, no human being should be, absolutely not, put in the category of color. Cause what belongs to us, belongs to everybody. That’s the culture we come from. African culture is really inclusive, not exclusive. And the music of the westerner comes from Africa, whether they like it or not. The majority of the instruments of the music, of the pop music, rock and roll, or R&B, hip hop, whatever it is, their roots trace back to Africa. So if you are black, white, yellow, or red, whatever you do, it doesn’t matter, because your DNA is back in Africa.
FO: People don’t see it that way. Some African Americans will say they are black not African.
AK: It’s a shame because of the brainwash. When slavery started, they never thought that Africa would become independent, colonization would be over. So they made sure that there would be no return possible. So we have to educate ourselves. We have to pay attention to each other and do that. When you have been brainwashed for centuries, it’s easy for us to say, people say this, people say that. They didn’t know otherwise. I realized that when I did a project with Grandmaster Flash, a hip hop artist, in Germany. When we were doing an interview, and I was talking about Africa, he was looking at me like; his jaw was funny. I never knew anything about it, because in school the history books would show African men with gold in their nose, in their mouths. The teacher would tell us, we saved you from this. It makes in impact on you. It makes you feel superior, but they are just striping away your identity. We just have to tell our own story. Our story has been told by other people from the beginning, for a purpose that we know today. So why are we letting them tell our story.
FO: There has recently been more articles about the fact that the maps that we use of the world are misleading. Africa was made to look smaller to, like you said, make the continent inferior.
AK: That’s what I was telling you. Who tells our story? Our history books, who wrote them? If you spend time with elders, the way they describe the time they lived in, it’s different. That’s the thing. That’s why I want to tell my own story, I don’t want anyone else to tell my story.
FO: That’s the thing about this album and your music in general, it’s true to Africa and it’s true to the roots. And in a way that it is accessible to everyone. For some people, they still have that image of Africa in their heads as just tribes, and savages, and drum beats.
AK: [laughs]My father always used to say to us, you cannot be defined by your skin color, where you come from. The world is yours, embrace it. Dream big, as long as you do it in sync with your truth, with your heart, your brain. And you are not hurting anybody, go ahead and do it. That’s it. We just have to be bold. We have to be absolutely bold, smart enough, and work with everybody there, everybody out there that wants to tell our story. There are a lot of people who want to help us tell our story, because they know there is something incomplete; the stories that haven’t been told. So that’s why I’m very careful when people say, whites say this, white people do this. I don’t care about skin the color, everybody is a human being. Beneath every skin color, you bleed red. That’s just the bottom line of the truth.
FO: When it comes to other people using your music, how do you feel if someone was trying to sample your music? You said you don’t care about race, but do you have any qualms with people using your music?
AK: I don’t have any problem, absolutely not. As long as that music of mine is not used to preach hate, or to bash women, it’s okay for me. If it doesn’t promote violence against women, drugs, this and that, use it, go ahead. Use it, if it helps you get your story through, go ahead. Ask the permission and get it. [laughs] Because there are publishers who have to be aware of it. Me personally, I won’t say no. [laughs] But my publisher might not like the idea of me saying yes to everybody. Cause you got to make money out of it.
FO: That’s the other thing. African music isn’t the most popular music in America or the world. But you’ve managed to have a twenty year career. Is there anything that you’ve learned or took away from being in the business for twenty years.
AK: I’ve said, doing an album is like having a business card; to show people what you do. The most important thing to me is the stage. I do albums because I love the stage. Because I know I’m going to go on tour. Let’s what I love about it. I want to go tell people the story I’ve been telling on the album, live. To see how people react to it, and to see them having a reaction to me telling the story. They don’t have to tell me much, they just have to move. Just have to enjoy and be happy. As long as you are happy with your life, you’ll have less problems. If everybody can be happy with what they achieve with their life, this world would be a better place.
FO: I feel like a lot of artist record an album and feel like they’ve made it big. And will not care about their stage show. You can tell the artists who really love to be on stage and love what they do.
AK: Absolutely. And more and more you have packaging; people who don’t know how to sing, but with technology today you can sing like a frog and sound good. And then when you come on stage, what do you do. Some of those artists never toured, probably just hype.
Angelique Kidjo's new album Eve, and autobiography Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, are out now. Catch her live at Lisner Auditorium Sunday at 7pm. Tickets start at $30; lisner.org.