Angelique Kidjo ‘so happy’ to share Polar prize with Island Records founder

Angelique Kidjo said it was the “best scenario possible” to receive the Polar Music Prize with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell who helped launch her career and “saw something in me that even I hadn’t seen”.

The pair share the prestigious award with Estonian-born composer Arvo Park, in only the third time the prize has seen three winners, and all three laureates will collect the honour at a ceremony on May 23 in Stockholm, Sweden in front of the Swedish royal family.

Five-time Grammy winner Kidjo described winning the prize as “impressive, humbling and overwhelming” and, in particular, she was “so happy” to share the prize with Blackwell, who acted as her musical director for 10 years and has been a continued support throughout her career.

Chris Blackwell
Chris Blackwell (David Yellen/PA)

She told the PA news agency: “He’s the first person that found me because I did an album and no record label knew what to do with my music. He said to his people in France and in the UK, you sign this girl fast because otherwise you have no job left.

“Before I signed my contract I met Chris and he said, ‘What do you want from me and how do you feel about signing on my label’.

“I said, ‘I feel really privileged because you are the one that discovered U2, produced (Bob) Marley, so many great musicians that I listen to and admire so I feel great.

“The only thing that I want to ask from you is the freedom to do the music that I want to do, that no one will tell me that I can’t do this music because you can’t sell it’.

“And then he said, ‘That’s a no-brainer, you are the artist, you do what you want to do and my job is to make sure that it is heard and can be sold’.

“From that day on, Chris was my musical director for 10 years of my career. He is the one that gave me the advice that made me decide the artist that I am today.”

Angelique Kidjo
Angelique Kidjo (Brantley Guttierrez/PA)

The Benin-born singer continued: “To have this prize with Chris, I don’t know who at the Polar Music Prize decided this, but it could not be better for me.

“It is the best scenario possible to be able to thank somebody that allowed me to have the career that I have, who saw something in me that even I haven’t seen, that is still there every time I need advice and I pick up my phone he will talk to me.”

Kidjo said Blackwell “has always been frank”, and described his advice as sometimes brutal and unbearable, “but that’s the truth and you have to deal with it”, she said.

She told PA: “He said to me until the last minute, if I don’t like the album that I record, it can always be scrapped, because once it’s out there, you never can take it back. So I started my career with somebody with a high level of integrity when it comes to art.

“Every time I sent my songs, before we started in the studio, he would help me pick the best one… he is not just the founder of Island Records, he has the ear for music.

“He knows what works, what can touch people, and he will tell me, ‘It’s up to you but this is how I feel’.”

Angelique Kidjo
Angelique Kidjo (Fabrice Mabillot/PA)

As part of her career, Kidjo travels the world advocating on behalf of children in her role as a Unicef and Oxfam Goodwill Ambassador and has created her own charity foundation Batonga, dedicated to supporting the education of young girls in Africa.

She told PA: “I’ve been using music since I was a young girl to find a way to build bridges between culture and find some closure or some solutions to the division that we live in to understand how music can help us see what we have in common, less than what we think divides us which is manipulated for purposes of power or profit.

“Music has no agenda. For me, it’s always been the core of my work. My collaboration transcends all genres of music because I don’t believe in genre, I don’t believe people telling me this music belongs to this category of people that only have the right to listen to it.

Angelique Kidjo
Angelique Kidjo (Fabrice Mabillot/PA)

“It’s not what music is meant to do. I wanted to break that mould of separation of genre, that doesn’t give anything positive, brings nothing for our shared humanity. We still have a lot of challenges before us. But I think that we have the capacity to find solutions to everything, if you just have the courage and stop being afraid.”

Kidjo said she plans to do “something meaningful” with the 600,000 Swedish Kroner (£47,681) prize money, starting with donating to her foundation because “empowering young women in Africa is the way to go to start putting a dent in poverty”.

The singer also said her family and friends were attending the Polar Music Prize ceremony having never been to an awards ceremony before, adding that her only regret is that her mum and dad are not able to see her win the prize “but they made me the person that I am and I can’t thank them enough”.