Angélique Kidjo: ‘You cannot be French if your skin is black’

'People can say what they like but I am not a diva': Angélique Kidjo
'People can say what they like but I am not a diva': Angélique Kidjo - Fabrice Mabillot

When Angélique Kidjo fled Benin’s communist dictatorship aged 23, she didn’t speak to her parents again for six years. By the time they reunited in 1991 – having not even exchanged a single word, for her parents’ home and phone were tapped – she was married and had a deal with Island Records.

Kidjo had decided to flee Benin secretly, at the dead of night, a year after releasing an album (recorded in Paris in just 24 hours, having been granted just a 48 hour leave from her country) that had made her a West African star.

But she was repelled by calling her own mother and father “comrade”, the pressure to write propaganda songs and being forced to perform for the head of state, watched by older men who “had never made me feel so dirty”. If she didn’t leave, “my father knew I would end up in jail, or he would, or my mother would,” she says now from her Brooklyn kitchen on Zoom. She convinced her parents – in whispers, in case authorities were listening – who worried about what their daughter may have to do to make ends meet. “But I said, prostitution is not part of my plan. No drugs either. I would rather go to bed hungry. I don’t care about cleaning the floors. There’s no job that you can be ashamed of.”

Thirty-nine years later, having released 14 albums, won five Grammys and become one of Africa’s most trailblazing stars and powerful voices, she remains stricken by the memory. “I’ll never forget the sight of my father’s face weeping behind the steering wheel when he dropped me at the airport.” When I ask her about the reunion, six years later, she catches her breath and puts a hand to her chest. “Oh my god,” she murmurs, unable to say much more.

Kidjo, born in the coastal Beninese city of Ouidah, earned her first standing ovation at six years old, singing a traditional Fon melody for her Yoruba mother’s theatre. She describes her Fon father as a “visionary” who campaigned for women’s education. He encouraged his daughter to read German literature and filmed her concerts so that she could study the footage – she now speaks 10 languages. Unlike his dictator Mathieu Kérékou, keeping an open mind was his household’s only rule. “There was no room in my home under my father’s watch for racism, anti-Semitism or xenophobia. My father said, ‘When you open a little tiny room for hate, it soaks up everything that you do.’”

It’s why Kidjo, now 62, has dedicated her life to bringing people and cultures together through her music, a glorious patchwork of styles and influences spanning traditional Beninese music, gospel, jazz, hip-hop, Afrobeat, French folk, Cuban salsa, and rock – she even released a cover of Talking Heads’ Remain in the Light and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child. She has worked with everyone from Quincy Jones and Philip Glass to young Nigerian superstars Burna Boy and Wizkid.

Perhaps the reason Kidjo feels so comfortable in every genre is because she believes that, ultimately, “all music comes from Africa”. It’s why she takes such an issue with the term “world music”, a category the Grammys used until 2020, and which was often criticised by black artists for its connotations of colonialism and contributing to the sense that non-Western music was “other”, and less important. Grammys has since renamed the category “global”. Was the change important to her?

“We are not asking anybody to give us a room,” she says, firmly, her wonderfully melodious voice betraying a hint of exasperation. “I never thought I would see what is going on today with African music during my lifetime. We are selling out Wembley, the O2, Tottenham Stadium. Africa is a big, big market, and we are consuming the music of African artists. So we don’t need anybody anymore. These artists don’t even do TV in the UK, they don’t need to talk to you. If you think you call the shots, then you are making a big mistake.”

She’s not wrong. Only last month Nigerian superstar Burna Boy became the first African artist to headline a UK stadium – Tottenham Hotspur’s 62,000-capacity. In 2021 Nigerian Afrobeat giant Wizkid became the first African artist to sell out the O2. Nigerian artist Rema’s song Calm Down, featuring Selena Gomez, has spent 26 weeks charting in the UK’s top 10.

Angélique Kidjo performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019
Angélique Kidjo performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019 - Mark Allan

“Some people are still very resistant to this,” says Kidjo. She tells me about a French journalist who “doubted my Africanality because she told me my music was electronic music”. She tuts disapprovingly. “Yes colonisation is over but we’re going to tell you where you should sit and who you are. What, because my music was too modern, perhaps because I am married to a white Frenchman, they thought it was his idea? They think that because you’re married to a white guy, as an African you can’t think right? I don’t have the energy anymore for that. I’m too old for that.”

Kidjo met her husband Jean Hébrail shortly after arriving in France. At first, she joined her brother in the south, but then she moved to Paris, living in the 18th district and working in a hair salon. She enrolled in a jazz school, where she met Hébrail, and they started a band together. The founder of the jazz school produced their first album, and pressed 500 copies, which Kidjo sent to every major record label exec in France. “No one cared”, she says. But in fact, someone had sent the record to Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. When the head of Island Records France turned up in the dressing room of a Paris club she’d been playing at one night asking to sign her, Kidjo was nonplussed. “I started asking questions because none of them had ever been to my concerts. I found out that Chris Blackwell had sent them a fax that said: ‘You better find this girl otherwise you have no job.’”

Despite Kidjo’s musical success, integration in Paris was difficult. “How could I adapt to society where you meet your neighbour in the stairwell by your apartment and say good morning, and that person just freezes like it’s an aggression? When I come from a culture where you spend 10 minutes saying good morning, how is your father? How is your grandmother? I was born French. I was born on the 14 July 1962 – a month before my country became independent. But you cannot be French if your skin is black, because you always come from somewhere.”

While she allowed herself to cry every now and then, homesick for her parents who had no idea whether she was safe, she remembered what her father had taught her. “I came to Europe with open arms, and every time I got hit, I opened them wider.”

Since she was a little girl, Kidjo has been defiant, even inventing her own words to arm her against prejudice. For instance, one of her most successful songs, 1991’s Batonga, is named after a word she invented when elders told her that girls did not belong in the classroom. It’s now also the name of her charitable foundation, set up in 2006, which equips girls in some of Africa’s most remote villages with resources, books, meals and mentorship. As education rates in Africa continue to decline – with UNESCO reporting in 2022 that 40 per cent of the 244 million children out of school are in sub-Saharan Africa – does she remain optimistic?

“Of course I am optimistic, because what I see is resilience. Why do people take pleasure in downgrading things from Africa? The pandemic hit education everywhere, and yet we want to focus on Africa failing. But look at the state of education in rich countries, is it that great? Why don’t we talk about that? These young women can give you a lesson in success.”

Kidjo baulks at the idea of Western aid. “These women don’t need anybody’s help. What they want is partnership.” She says the same of African governments. “If people really want to see less immigrants coming from Africa, they need to create partnerships. Respect the leadership in place, and keep them accountable. The investment cannot be given full. It needs to be based on every milestone. Giving money blindly to a government, expecting that they’re going to do right by the people, that has been the issue for so long.”

“Because Africa is the richest continent on the planet, and yet we are also the poorest. And so people come, the Chinese, the Americans, and they take. They’re saying, we want your resources, but, we don’t care who we corrupt at the head of your government. We don’t care about your freedom. We don’t care about your education system. We don’t care about the health system. We don’t care about you. But don’t come to our country when you want a better life.”

In 2010, Kidjo was astounded, when working with an African American rapper, that he still believed “all Africans lived in mud huts…this is what they teach in American schools”. Twelve years later and she still believes that “globally our education system has to change, because it’s the reason for the divide that we live in. We need teachers from diverse backgrounds. Let’s be bold and courageous.” It’s why, she says, she collaborates with so many musicians. “It’s what I will do at Manchester International Festival, and at my 40th anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall. Let’s share the stage, I’ll never tell them what to do, they can say what they like.”

Kidjo speaks with such clarity, authority and passion, I wonder if she has considered a career in politics. She recoils instantly. “No no no no. Politics is a dirty game. They speak and speak and speak and then what?” she demands. I get the feeling you wouldn’t want to get Kidjo’s bad side, and indeed she has said her no-nonsense tone has earned her “many enemies”, as well as the moniker “Benin’s premier diva”. Does she mind the word diva?

“I can’t be offended, people can say what they like,” she waves her hand nonchalantly. A pause. Then, sharply: “But I am not a diva. I don’t live like a diva. I always think, I didn’t get here because I decided to be number one. I got here because people decided to listen to me. The people who put you up here, well they can always pull you down.”

'Why do people take pleasure in downgrading things from Africa?': five-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo
'Why do people take pleasure in downgrading things from Africa?': five-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo - Fabrice Mabillot

Five more hot tickets for this year’s Manchester International Festival

by Alex Diggins

1. untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play
Royal Exchange Theatre, until July 16

Yes, the title might be a little trying in an agitprop undergrad way – but bold programming is the name of the game at MIF, and this new play seems to have substance beneath its showboating. Kimber Lee won the inaugural Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2019 for this decade-hopping tour of 100 years of Asian stereotyping. It’s billed as a comedy – but brace yourself to squirm.

2. Kagami
Versa Manchester Studios, until July 9 

MIF offers a strikingly music programme, including new work from visionary American composer John Luther Adams and a fresh staging of Britten’s children’s opera Noah’s Flood. But the most-anticipated event is this performance of the late Ryuichi Sakamoto’s final work – a trippy mixed-reality experience, with viewers donning headsets and Sakamoto himself resurrected as a hologram.

Kagami - Ryan Muir

3. Yayoi Kusama: You, Me and the Balloons 
The Warehouse, until Aug 28

Tickets for the 94-year-old Japanese artist’s Infinity Mirror Rooms are still selling out at the Tate Modern. So this is an excellent chance to see three decades of her other acclaimed works – a down-the-rabbit hole warren of inflatable creations, including polka-dot landscapes, 10m-high dolls and vast spheres.

4. They
John Rylands Library, July 5-9

Kay Dick’s dystopian novel They: A Sequence of Unease was published in 1977 – and promptly disappeared. Recently, though, her vision of a Britain stripped of its art and literature has been rediscovered; this one-women adaptation, starring Maxine Peake, looks set to continue that overdue reappraisal.

Shabaka Hutchings of The Comet is Coming performing in 2021
Shabaka Hutchings of The Comet is Coming performing in 2021 - Burak Cingi/Redferns

5. The Comet is Coming 
The Hall, July 12

Stalwarts of south London’s storming contemporary Jazz scene, The Comet is Coming – bandleader Shabaka Hutchings, keyboardist Dan Leavers, and drummer Max Hallett – have put a rocket under the venerable genre with their cosmic-inflected, psychedelic-splashed sound. This is sure to be a party of interstellar dimensions.

Angélique Kidjo and Guests perform at Manchester International Festival on July 4