It was going to be an important year for Angélique Kidjo. In March, a few months after earning her fourth Grammy Award (for her Celia Cruz tribute album, Celia), the singer had planned to celebrate her own 60th birthday — along with the 60th anniversary of independence of her native Benin — with a special performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall featuring everyone from Nigerian Afropop star Yemi Alade to Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes.
Of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic, those plans changed, and the March 14 concert was cancelled just days ahead of time. “I’ve been working for so many years, and I wanted 2021 to be my sabbatical year,” Kidjo says with a chuckle, speaking over the phone from her home in Paris, where she’s been self-isolating ever since. “But COVID-19 decided it would be 2020.”
Still, it’s not exactly true. Kidjo — who is one of the world’s most productive artists, with 17 albums at her back, including collaborations with the likes of Alicia Keys and Bono — has found new ways to make the year meaningful. Joined by her husband, French musician Jean Hébrail, she has been growing her own food in her garden, working on new music ("but I’m not going to tell you about it until it comes out"), and helping the communities which need it most. She shifted the focus of her Batonga Foundation, which supports education for Beninese girls and women, to raising $25,000 to provide those girls and their communities with protective masks, hand-washing stations and radio broadcast messages about COVID-19.
The crisis is personal to Kidjo, who says she has lost her father-in-law to the virus, and is mourning the March 24 death of legendary Cameroonian singer Manu Dibango, who had been slated to perform at the Carnegie Hall show, also due to coronavirus. “It’s been challenging,” says Kidjo, “but music is keeping me afloat.”
The African music icon discusses her foundation and life in lockdown, gleaning survival lessons from her storied career.
What has confinement in Paris been like?
It’s a sabbatical year. I started gardening, which I’ve never had time to do. Looking at food growing out of the ground, you understand how lucky we are to have the Earth that we have. I have a lot of aromatic herbs; I have coriander, mint, basil, cumin, leeks, beets, celery, tomatoes, red pepper, potatoes, strawberries, blackberries and zucchini. I’m becoming vegetarian, because I can find everything I want to eat in my garden.
When did the realities of the pandemic begin to hit home for you? Was it when your Carnegie Hall concert was cancelled?
It was then. I was still hoping that we were going to be able to contain [the virus]. I started my 2020 tour in St. Louis, and it was packed. I was still feeling like it was a no-brainer walking into the public, high-fiving people. We’re talking about the end of February, beginning of March. We started rehearsing for the Carnegie Hall show on March 9. You pay the hotel room, you pay all the expenses, and then suddenly, boom. My husband’s dad was in a nursing home [in France]. We found two last-minute tickets, left at 10 p.m., and got here on March 13 in the morning.
You’ve got to be one of the busiest artists on Earth. How have you adjusted to being at home 24/7?
Even before COVID-19, I ask myself every day, “What do I need daily to survive?” When you’re raised in a family of 10, and your father is the only one making a paycheck, I’ve seen my mom do it. She used to tell me, “Nothing goes to waste.” You have to be creative and inventive, and then you don’t waste anything. That’s what I’ve been doing.
Your Batonga Foundation uses a data-driven approach to provide education and mentorship to nearly 4,000 impoverished girls and women in Benin. Three years ago, you incorporated soap-making lessons into the program, to help those girls save money and start a local business. At what point did you start thinking about shifting the foundation’s focus toward preventing COVID-19?
From the get-go, because once there is a crisis like this, women are at the forefront of it. The girls that I reach out to, they come from the poorest of the poorest communities, and no one pays attention to them. But they are going to be the agents of change. Three years ago, we asked them what they needed, and the first thing they said was that they wanted to manufacture soap. They are thinking at-large about themselves and their community. With COVID-19, they are the ones we train with the message through the phone. They are the ones on the local radio, saying, “Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face.” They are working with the head of the village. They came up with the idea of putting out fountains for people to clean their hands. Those girls are transforming villages where the government doesn’t have the time or means to go. When we started Batonga [in 2006], that was my goal: “I will ask you what you need and help you be self-sufficient.”
How has fundraising been going so far?
We haven’t raised as much as we want yet, but people have really responded. People have started realizing that COVID-19 doesn’t know boundaries. This is teaching us that we need to think deeply about our role. If you have money, that’s where you have to invest it. If we want to live longer and leave an Earth to the next generation, we have to sacrifice things.
You also collaborated with UNICEF in April to release a cover of Miriam Makeba’s 1967 hit “Pata Pata” — meaning “touch touch” in Xhosa — with new lyrics about social distancing.
In Africa, it’s a game-changer, because that song is a song of happiness, of celebration. But here I am, telling them, for now, we’re going to put a pause on “touch touch.” You don’t touch each other. You can still dance “Pata Pata,” but facing each other from afar and doing your own thing. [It’s a] strong song for people not to be afraid. Just putting it in a way that people have fun doing it. We forget, all the time, that life can be fun.
Where do you think your drive to help others comes from?
I live by example. My mom and dad have always been out there helping. My grandmother — my mother’s mother — taught me about mother nature, and how to respect the world, when I was a little girl, at six years old. She always told me, “When you help someone, you don’t wait for a thank you. You do it because you have to.”
Growing up in Benin, when did you start to understand the inequalities that women in the country face in accessing education?
As I got older, my father started telling me that every school year, people from the village would come and say, “Well, you have three girls, you can marry them off and make money.” My father always used to say, “My daughters are not merchandise. My kids are not for sale.” As I was going to school, I would see that some of my friends, the girls, wouldn’t come back. It hit home with my closest neighbor friend that never came back to school. They said, “She’s going to be married.” I was so mad. I cried for weeks. She was smart — we used to do our homework together. My father was telling me, “Don’t judge. Some people believe that marrying their kids off is the best choice they have to save them from poverty. They don’t know better.” But that had to change. That just had to change. If you’re a born girl in Africa, the glass ceiling is from the moment you get out of your mom’s womb. It’s already placed on you.
You’ve dedicated your career to cross-cultural music exchange, from your cover of Talking Heads’ entire Remain In Light album to your most recent album, Celia. What has music allowed you to understand about the world?
Music has allowed me to understand the profound connection we have with one another. You can sing in English or any language; the music notes we use are universal. And Africa is the cradle of humanity. The music I do started with the music that my dad and mom brought home — music in every language on this earth. So now, as an African person, if someone tells me, “Because you’re African, you can’t do this” [I tell them] there’s no music without African music. There’s no American music without African music. The blues came from Africa. Rock ‘n’ roll came from the blues. All forms of expression of music and art come from Africa. You have Afrobeats everywhere now.
That’s true. As West African sounds continue to influence U.S. popular music, do you think African artists are getting enough credit?
Well, I don’t know. But us, in Africa, we have the credit from our people. That’s all that matters.
In January, you dedicated your Grammy Award for Celia to Burna Boy and other emerging African acts. What potential do you see in the new generation of artists in Africa?
The new generation of artists in Africa are lucky to have the internet. When I started, we didn’t have any of that. You could not have a career then without a record company. Today, you can. And it’s a game-changer in Africa. I started my career in Benin. I did my first-ever album in 1981, then I started traveling in West Africa. Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Togo, all those places. But when I arrived in France, I knew that I had to start from scratch, because no one knew me here. With technology, people can stay home and do what they want, and then come out and fill out stadiums.
Some of them are entrepreneurs, and they understand that they can be big in their country, and if they make enough money in their country, they don’t need to go anywhere. The narrative is changing. I mean, before, if you were somebody, you had to be on TV in America. We’re still in this logic of having the superstar for everything, and the other people don’t count. I’m used to that, but the young kids are like, “I don’t care who you are. You might be big in America, but you’re not big in my country. Why should I come and be your chopped liver?” They are writing their own narrative. Nobody is telling them, “You’re from a poor country, you can’t do this.” You have Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Davido, Sho Madjozi, just killing it.
In response, the music industry has begun to invest heavily in Africa. What do you think about that?
Well, it depends how they want to do it. The young musicians there, because of the tool of the internet, I don’t think they’re going to give out everything that easy. So it’s going to be complicated. It depends what [U.S. labels] have to offer. If they have something that will profit [African artists], they will take it. But you don’t call the shots anymore. I think it’s important for people to understand — and this is everywhere, it’s not only music — when you get to Africa, you’ve got to respect people. It’s not because you have money, you treat people like dogs. If you don’t have the right attitude, and you don’t have a human connection and respect for people, it’s not going to work anymore.
Do you find it challenging to be creative during this time?
There are days with it, there are days without. You can’t be creative all the time. And when you are creative and you have the studio available, it makes your life easier. I don’t know how to do without creating music. I sing because I breathe.
What do you hope to be doing on your 60th birthday on July 14?
I hope to be alive. I can’t plan that far. I can’t plan tomorrow, even before COVID-19.