Published Feb 10, 2014Angélique Kidjo's voice over the phone transmits a distinctly radiant timbre. The music icon punctuates her answers with a throaty laugh, and her charisma transforms the tone of the conversation. She lives in Brooklyn now, but the 53-year-old's artistic outlook and spiritualism remain steeped in her homeland of Benin — and, by extension, the continent of Africa. She doesn't feel comfortable embracing the "Africa's premier diva" crown that many have placed on her, but she wears it well, carries it with grace, and has determinedly walked a path that has left a lasting musical legacy — 20 years and counting. Exclaim! spoke with Kidjo to discuss new album Eve and her passion for pushing the boundaries of African music — including how the passing of her father has inspired her to develop her new autobiographical book (Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music), and how her commitment to gender empowerment and female solidarity continues to propel her forward.
With the new album and autobiographical book out, is it fair to say that you're in a period of reflection regarding your life and career?
Not really. The trigger was the passing of my father. People used to say that when one of your parents passes away, you grow up. And I'd look at them and think are you crazy? I'm already a grown up. I have to lose my parents to grow up? And actually, it's true. Suddenly that voice, that loving voice of my father who was always there for me would no longer be there. To say goodbye to someone who you didn't expect to leave you that early is hard. Nobody is ever prepared for it, but my father's death was so sudden, me and my brothers and sisters were left wondering what just hit us. Our father was a healthy man, he never drank or smoke, ate healthy, always told us that excess was bad for us down the line and we'd always pay for it. Even the doctor couldn't understand why my father had liver cancer. They found the cancer by early March and by April 25 he was gone. The doctor said he had the liver of someone who drank and smoke his entire life — it's something that we're still wrapping our head around to figure out what happened.
To make a long story short, I didn't have the opportunity to say goodbye to my father. When I went to the funeral, the church was packed, the cemetery was packed and (people) couldn't make the association between me as a child mourning my father. It was difficult for people to understand. I understand the need for people to touch me, to talk to me, I have no problem with it. But sometimes I need to be left alone in those kinds of situations. I couldn't say anything, and it was really, really embarrassing for my brothers and sisters. But they gracious about it, saying don't worry about it, just do what you have to do. At the church, people asked me to sing and I didn't think it was the place for it. I couldn't sing. I just couldn't. That's why I came back and I started writing, not only writing but thinking, crying. People told me I spoke so gracefully about my father and that I should write these thoughts down. So I started doing that for hours and hours and hours. And my management were talking about me writing a book or do a show, because people love me talking about stories about my parents. And they spoke to different publishers and HarperCollins was the one really interested. They wanted me to write a memoir. I told them that I was too young for that. [Laughs] But they told me, whatever I want to call it, just do it. That's how it came about.
So making the album and the book was a cathartic process for you?
It is. It helped a lot. It helps to say goodbye to people when you write things down. I never believed in that before. Writing things down won't make the person come back but it gives perspective. And before my father passed he told me, whatever happens, whatever the outcome of his disease, that I should continue singing. And that kept me going. And he told all of us, it's just my body that is leaving, and that he'd always be there for us. His spirit would always guide us through. So don't cry too much and don't miss me. A few weeks later, I had a dream about my father and was telling me to let him go.
The album title, Eve, signifies what to you exactly?
My mom was my muse, musically. She had a passion for theatre so I started singing on my mom's stage when I was six years old. And [she would urge each artist that when] singing, to give everything that you have. Don't hold back. If you're shy, if you hold back, you won't make it spiritual and won't touch the souls of people. We are all spiritual and emotional creatures, so reach out, touch people, and let them take it from there. So as I missed the opportunity of having my father on one of my albums, this time around I'm not going to miss it [with my mother]. I'm not going to miss the opportunity to have my mom's voice heard and at least when I'm talking about her, people can hear her voice in their minds.
And also I call it Eve because my mom always just to joke about… the Bible, saying that she never heard one account of Eve telling her own story. Men would tell their story over and over for the purpose of control and power. It's about time we bring that up: we've been talking about women's rights for as long as I can remember. Still I was a child we've been taking about the rights of women; since I was eight years old we were talking about the rights of women to vote. I was singing with my mother and her choir about women's empowerment and to be leader of their own lives. And here we are, in the 21st century, and we are still talking about this. For me it says a lot about the society we live in that people are more concerned about holding to power than to see society grow up. That's why I call the album Eve — I know women, particularly women in Africa, who are a completely different breed. They go through hardship, waking up first in the morning and the last to go to bed, and they do it graciously without complaint.
And I see you're working with a range of names like Dr. John and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend. How did you decide with whom to work?
Well I reached out and they all like the album concept and the focus on women. Because they are men who are all not afraid of strong women. A strong woman is not a threat to a man, on the contrary it's an asset because you know that when you leave your house and your woman is strong enough, nothing will happen to your house or your children when you're away. She will deal with it. And I don't know why more men don't embrace strong women.
And what was it like working with Batmanglij in particular?
Well I've known Rostam; the first time I meet Vampire Weekend was at a Peter Gabriel fundraising concert years back. I was the MC of the event and was about to introduce them but I didn't know who they were. So I was standing in the wings of the Rosemont Theater in Manhattan and they were telling me they love my songs. And I felt so stupid that I didn't know who they were. [Laughs] I didn't know their name but my child had introduced me to all their music. She's the one that introduces me to all new stuff. So I knew the music but didn't know who they were [at the time]. But you can feel Africa in their rock'n'roll. They've listened to so much music from Africa that they've found out that that there's a direct link [between] rock'n'roll and Africa. So I reached out to Rostam but I knew there was something that he could bring to the music.
And Dr. John I've known for quite a while now. He always tells me that women are the best part of us and if we didn't exist [men] would become wild in nature. We like [women's] soothing parts, [they] are always wise and sometimes they give [men] headaches but without the headaches [men] wouldn't feel alive. [Laughs] And I'm like okay, if it's the men saying that this is good for me. He's a real true women lover and it's nothing that he's shy of or afraid of. And when I told him the album concept he told me that I was doing something very spiritual. And that we need to stop feeling shy about talking about spirituality. To embrace it because without it we aren't complete.
So how has your singing and songwriting evolved over the years to embrace this spirituality?
It has always been there. I grew up knowing that spirituality is part of my life. My parents were very spiritual and my father would always say he didn't believe in organized religion, and he didn't want to be confined in any one place. He knew he was a human being, like me, who can fail, like me, and this is okay. This is how I developed my own spirituality: I know what is right and wrong. So how can I implement that in my life and impact other people with it. And I have grown up in this philosophy. I mean that whatever happens between me and God, if God exists, needs no introduction and needs no one in between us. So you can Him anyway you want.
And what keep you going? What keep you motivated to make more new music?
The need to tell my story and people's story. Because there are so many people's stories that haven't been told. Because each one of our stories makes us stronger. Someone's story always has something to do with your life. Because we as humans and we have to live together.
And I come from a tradition of storytellers. If I don't have a story to tell anyone, I'm out of that.
Do you stop and think about your life, from when you left Benin to now?
No. I don't go back. I use the past to go forward. And that's what I taught by the elders in my family. The past is the bedrock of your present and your future. So long you know that, everything that you build moving forward brings that past with you and brings it in a different light.