Miss N Music

Angelique Kidjo on making her new album across Zoom and the threat she sees that’s bigger than Covid-19

The kind of energy that exists within Angelique Kidjo is the kind that cant be contained by Zoom. Her infectious zest for life reaches out far beyond any screen and burns stronger than even the fastest internet connection. When she comes online to talk to OkayAfrica about her latest album, Mother Nature, she asks if I’ve been vaccinated. I tell her I have had both shots. “I can’t wait until we’re in person hugging again,” she says. Having been on the receiving end of a hug from the 4-time Grammy-winning singer, I know how what I’m missing out by not being able to do this interview in person. “Me too,” I say, as I wrap my arms around my laptop, my face squishing the screen. “No, no,” she says. “I don’t want that. You keep it. I want the real deal.” She chuckles her full-bodied Kidjo laugh, lovingly admonishing me, from her home to mine.

[This story was first published on OkayAfrica]

The Benin-born musician is preparing to release Mother Nature, a collection of songs she’s made, reflecting on the only earth we’ll ever know, and cementing her status as an African elder of music. Collaborating with the likes of Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, Burna Boy, Sampa the Great, Shungudzo and more, she’s crossing through time and space, over age and country, with the album’s themes and stories. Each track is infused with a vigor that only Kidjo possesses, the kind that shares a message even as the listener is called to dance or sing along.

Q: The title, Mother Nature, comes from a very important place and point of view for you — what is that?

Angelique Kidjo: Oh, yeah! Where will we be if there’s no nature? Where will you be sitting? Will you have a home? A roof over your head? Will you be able to breathe? For me, Mother Nature is a breathing being, like us, and we are just stifling her. If I can’t breathe, you can’t breathe, and she cannot breathe.

Q: I imagine touring around the world you’ve been able to see kind of the impact that mankind has had on Mother Nature?

Kidjo: I’ve seen it so much more than anybody else. The thing that is really worrisome for me is the drought, the recurrent drought in Africa. If we’re not able to feed ourselves, then we’re in trouble. This pandemic is nothing compared to what that will do to us. We, African countries, are gonna be the one that will pay the bigger price to this climate change that we’re facing, and we are not the ones polluting the most. So how do we come about to talk about this, without fighting one another? How do we come to a consensus? Like when a child has to go for surgery for cancer and we all pray for the child, we have to gather and love this Mother Nature, and do everything for that cancer to disappear.

Q: That’s been one of your gifts over the years, through your music you’re able to share these messages and thoughts in a way that people receive them, through enjoying them. What was your starting point for this album? And then how did you begin to assemble all of the artists that you did?

Kidjo: I’ve done two cover albums that allowed me to go back and see the richness of the culture that comes from Africa. It has allowed a group like the Talking Heads to do the album, Remain In Light; it has allowed Celia Cruz to embody and to accept her own African pride. And nobody but ourselves sees the beauty of our continent. But we have examples where people have been impacted and empowered by the cultures of the continent. It became obvious to me that, in order for our cultures to survive, our nature has to survive. In order for the next generation to have a say, and to be the agents of change that they want to be, we need to come together and really write this love letter to Mother Earth. That’s the starting point for me, period.

And I can’t I never do any music without the base of it being from Africa. I might not know where I’m going, but I definitely know where I come from and where I belong. So throughout the years, in all my career, I never realized the impact that my music has had on young girls and young boys in Africa, until I became UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and started traveling. I was going to places where they don’t even call me by my name, they call me by my songs.

That’s when I realized that really, I have given to this young generation that we see today the pride of standing for themselves. And no one to tell them how they wake up, what they eat, what they got to do, and how they dress. To be consistent with the person that I am, with what I say, I needed to prove it. I always say, ‘Talk is cheap, action is expensive.’ And I love to talk, to explain things, but I always want to prove it. Because people only believe what they see. When somebody sees something, you don’t have to talk much before the person says, if this person has been through this transformation, I can too. Showing is believing. So that’s how the whole album started.

It happens also that I have been fortunate, time-wise, to be grounded, even though it was during a pandemic. That pandemic, I have made the best of it by doing this album, and doing it in a way that the carbon footprint will be minimal. It also brings me to think about how we can live better together. Because if we don’t live better together, this pandemic is gonna destroy us. The best way for me to bring that message of togetherness is to be together with others.

Q: You connect a lot on this album with artists of a younger generation, like Burna Boy, in a way that still really works.

Kidjo: The transmission is always there. Our ancestors have always been an example of transmission. What that taught us allowed us to be who we are, and even if we don’t think about it every day, it’s embedded in our DNA. So we just carry that around. We don’t think about it. But when we need it, that transmission, within a click, comes back. Because you start telling your story. When you’re telling the story to somebody, and the person is telling you her or his history, you are changing transmission. That’s the way our humanity has survived through the centuries. So for me, it was really important to create this chain of transmission with this young generation that grew up with my music. For them to understand that when the day comes that I’m not here anymore, they can do the same. They can continue the transmission and give it to their kids. We need our story to be told. No one will tell our story better than us. And that is proof of it. If you don’t tell your story, people own your narrative and they own your identity.

Q: Is this what makes you continue to champion other artists from Africa, including those on your album?

Kidjo: Working with those artists is a humbling situation for me because each one of them has a different vision of their own country. They have a different vision for Africa, and their place in this world. Yemi [Alade], she’s a strong woman and she wants to be a musician with with every right to stand for herself. And that is a difficult thing to do in the country with so much machismo in it, but that doesn’t stop her. Mr Eazi wants to talk about the beauty of Africa, because he’s mixed, he’s from Ghana and he has Benin blood. We Africans are not just from one place; love stories between countries have been there forever in our history. We don’t talk about it much, we just take it for granted. For him to say, “Africa’s blood is in our veins,” it’s true. You have Burna Boy, he’s consistent in saying that if you want to change, you’ve got to change within yourself. We’ve got to be the change we want. We just have to do it. You can’t sit around and let everything fall apart. If you don’t do something, who are you going to blame but yourself?

Q: Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, has always been an influence on you, how do you see you taking her legacy forward in what you do?

Kidjo: The transmission came from her, so I’m just carrying her legacy. I’m just trying to give as much as she gave me. One thing that was really in the back of my mind was the album Back on the Block that Quincy Jones released. The way he was able to tell the story of Black music in America, connecting hip hop and jazz and the blues, saying all that is one music. That’s same thing I want to do here, to bring all those young kids together to say, ‘Hey, this is who we are, and ain’t nothing going to stop us!’

Q: How did you record it?

Kidjo: It was great! The way that I’m talking to you now, I would talk to everybody. Mr Eazi, he was the one that sent me a DM on Instagram to say he has a song for me, I said, “Send it my way!” And he sent me the song with a sample of Salif Keita’s voice. And that’s when I said, this boy knows exactly what the lyrics meant to him. So let’s have Salif sing it, instead of using the sample. Then we have three generations of transmission going down.

Q: When you speak about the transmission, what do you think you get from the younger artists and what do you give them?

Kidjo: I get a lot of energy and inspiration from the young generation and and I think that I’ve gave them a validation to do whatever they want to do — apologizing to no one. Also, the music that influenced them is my music, which is just a continuation of something that was started way before me. From Miriam Makeba, I am who I am today. From Celia Cruz, I am who I am today. From my grandmothers and my mother, and everybody that has taught me that you have to be in the truth of music to make any change, or any have any impact on anybody. You got to be there. There’s no lie in music. If you really want people to change themselves, to be able to change others, give them, through your music, the strength to stand on both of their feet and stand tall.