Voice of Freedom: Angelique Kidjo on passion, global citizenship

Angelique Kidjo/Courtesy

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Angelique Kidjo’s voice is slightly deep and raspy. It tells you that she is not a woman to be trifled with. With her closely cropped hair, glowing brown skin and almond eyes, she struts across stages in pantsuits and printed shirts, casting spells on riveted audiences. To list all of the World Cups, Olympics and high-profile benefit concerts she has performed at and the awards she has won would be a tedious, time-consuming task. She is widely known as a masterful African songstress, but more importantly, she is also a harbinger of change, the founder of an organization that starts secondary schools for African girls and a staunch advocate for women’s rights. She will be performing at Zellerbach Auditorium on Saturday evening. Kidjo is from Benin and attributes much of her success to the way she was raised by her parents.  In an interview, she recalled her father saying to her when she was a child, “Do not come back to the house and tell me you failed because you’re black.”  Her mother fought for her to have an education, and, because of it, she said, “As a girl, I decided my own future.”She started The Batonga Foundation in 2006. Named after one of her hit songs, the foundation builds schools and provides scholarships and mentoring services for girls — many of whom have HIV or AIDS — in five African nations. The girls tell her she is the only reason they are going to school. “I cannot be indifferent when people are suffering,” Kidjo said. “When they suffer, I suffer.”

Music has become a way for Kidjo to advocate for African freedom and to dispel narratives that claim Africa is brimming with violence, infested with poverty and in need of rescue from the West. For Kidjo, Africa is a place of beauty. In Africa, Kidjo said, “You see people that have compassion. We cry for people we don’t know. I come from a place where people mingle all the time. We live together, share resources of the world together.” This complexity, though, is not often depicted in the images presented by the media.

Kidjo’s Africa is contained in her voice, in her high-energy dance numbers and her slow ballads, in the subtle strength and the deep guttural power that surges through her sound. Kidjo does not simply sing with her voice but with her whole body. Her cover of a famous African song called “Malaika,” which means “angel” in Swahili, consists of her voice paired with an acoustic guitar, and it is enough to send people swaying with their cellphones held high and chills running down their spines.

Sometimes when she is performing, Kidjo forgets what country she is in. “If there was a passport that said ‘citizen of the world’,” she said, “I would have that in a heartbeat.”  Kidjo is the type of musician who transcends national and linguistic boundaries.  She is fluent in English, French, Yoruba and Fon and sings in all four languages. But she also likes to sing in languages she can’t speak, proving that her music is itself a language that can be universally understood and spoken, a language for which there are no prerequisites for fluency, a language that educates through sound and is accessible by all.


What: Cal Performances presents Angelique Kidjo 

When: Sat., Nov. 17, 8 p.m.

Where: Zellerbach Hall

Tickets: Cal Performances

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