In Praise of Angelique Kidjo and Forty Years of Her Greatness
This past week, African music icon Angelique Kidjo held a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London to celebrate forty years of her career. Whatever adjective you choose to describe her career – illustrious, glorious, seminal – is correct: Angelique Kidjo deserves all of the accolades she receives and then some. As far as global music goes, she ranks with Miriam Makeba, Bob Marley, Fela, and Manu Dibango in her global appeal and reach. She is one of the most influential musicians ever from the African continent, and forty years in music is at least 100 years in real life. In that way, she is already an ancestor, even while still alive and kicking.
Perhaps more than anybody else, Angelique Kidjo has spanned multiple eras and iterations of African music across several generations. Show me someone else who released their first album in 1983 and is still going strong in 2023. The line-up of guest performers at her concert on Friday night is a pointer to her timeless and age-defying career: Yossour N’dour, Stonebwoy, Laura Mvula, Ibrahim Malouf and the Chineke! Orchestra. This eclectic array of performers with varying styles, genres and ages perfectly exemplifies how Angelique Kidjo brings together different people on the world’s biggest platforms.
Born and raised in the historic city of Oudiah in the Republic of Benin, she was destined to be a performer, and at the age of six, she was a member of her mother’s theatre troupe. Although colonialism had succeeded in partitioning Africa into money-making entities, her Fon and Yoruba parents were from a long line of proud and magnificent peoples who made up the modern Benin state. As a result, young Angelique had unfettered access to many languages – a gift that has served her well throughout the years. In her teenage years, she became known in Ouidah and its environs for her powerful voice and puissant stage presence. By 19, she was aware enough of the issues plaguing Africa and used the radio airtime she got at home to sing about South Africa’s apartheid. 1981, she released her first-ever album, Pretty, to national acclaim. However, she couldn’t enjoy the fame or the rewards that came with it as she had to escape to France out of fear of being clamped down by Benin’s president at the time, Mathieu Kerekou. Little did she know that that would be the birthplace of her distinguished career, celebrated worldwide today.
Today, Angelique Kidjo has sixteen albums, millions of records sold, national honours in Italy and Benin, and five Grammy Awards – among a genuinely awe-inspiring collection of laurels. She’s also a highly sought-after feature for global music stars from Peter Gabriel, Tony Allen, Youssour N’dor, Ziggy Marley…, and the list continues. Her name is synonymous with African greatness. In the current renaissance of African music on the global scene, Angelique Kidjo is the conduit for the many generations coming after her. Her relationship with Yemi Alade is the most glaring example of this: the two are mother and child, and if one were to look closely, it seems like Ms Kidjo might be handing the baton to Yemi. Burna Boy has spoken highly of Angelique Kidjo, saying, “I love you forever… Mama Africa!”
On a personal note, two of her songs stand out to me for different reasons. When my grandmother was buried, I remembered the folk tales she told us, including Olajumoke and the “head” that wanted to marry her. Agolo (from Angelique Kidjo’s 1994 album Aye) visualized the song for me. The other song is her duet with Peter Gabriel, Salala, from the album Djin Djin (2007). When my wife and I first got the sonogram of our oldest child, it was the song that played on the radio as we held hands in the back of the taxi, contemplating the new life we were bringing into the world. I played it throughout the pregnancy, and en route to the hospital the night he was born. The poignant guitar strings and lyrics – and the Fuji interpolation – brought tears to my eyes.
And I’m just one person. Imagine how many more people Angelique Kidjo has touched with her music throughout these forty years. More importantly, she has used her platform for causes greater than music, like girl child education through her Batonga Foundation. Her charge to younger musicians is never to be unmindful or fail at their responsibility of using their music to change their society. No one can accuse Angelique Kidjo of shirking hers.
As she celebrates forty years of her career, I hope that Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo is aware of how much she’s loved and revered – by the rest of us younger Africans.
Jide Taiwo is a writer and media executive. His second book E File Fun Burna: The Incredible Stagecraft of Burna Boy, is available now.
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