Angelique Kidjo Takes Billboard Backstage At The Women's March in Washington, D.C.: Exclusive Photo Diary

West African born world music icon Angélique Kidjo -- a three-time Grammy Award winner and recipient of the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award -- flew in to Washington, D.C. this weekend to perform as one of the headliners of Saturday's (Jan. 21) Women's March. And as the nearly half a million protestors packed the streets from the Capitol building to the Washington monument, the White House lawn, and all across the city, Kidjo couldn't help but feel reflective.

"I attended the 2009 inauguration of [former President] Barack Obama, and I remembered the weather being extraordinarily cold," Kidjo tells Billboard. "So this time I got prepared with full-on African dress, head wrap, winter coat, and a Kenyan Masai shawl that you can see from far away. That is useful in a big crowd!"

Here, in an exclusive photo diary, Kidjo takes Billboard behind-the-scenes of her impassioned, poignant, and star-studded journey -- from chatting with Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, and Madonna and Cher backstage, to performing Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" for the 500,000-strong crowd.

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8: 45 am - At the crossword of 3rd street and C. After a few road blocks helped by very polite policemen, I’m getting my credentials from Miss Sallie Bieterman, obviously a big Hillary fan! The mood is uplifting - I’m getting my first hug of the day. That won’t be the last.

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10:00 AM: The organizers of the event have designed some inspiring posters in the vintage style of the '08 Obama campaign. They are hung on the walls of the huge comfortable white tent, ready to welcome all the speakers and artists. The common theme is women empowerment. It is strange to believe that we need to reaffirm those principles in 2017. One of the posters says “Women Are Perfect.” Well, maybe that is a bit exaggerated, maybe not!

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10:30 AM: One of the main speakers is Gloria Steinem. She’s so elegant, and an icon of feminism, and today she intends to cheer us up us by putting things in perspective: "Let’s not be discouraged -- MLK was killed in the '60s, but Bernie Sanders is alive today!” She told me that women have to be each other's keepers and each other's examples.

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11:30 AM: I arrived so early, but it looks that while the musicians are respecting the length of their set, the speakers have a tendency to go overtime -- which is classic in this kind of event! :-) The passion is there, but the clock is running. I have the chance to hang out with great artists and activists. One of them is Alicia. I love her. She has been so supportive of my music. She was one of the first American artists to sing with me on my album Djin Djin. She is very passionate about Africa. We have traveled to South Africa together. 

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12:00 PM: I grew up in Benin, West Africa. In the '60s, we were influenced by African-American culture. James Brown was my idol -- I knew all his songs. And Angela Davis was a role model for many people. I tend to be very political and passionate in my conversations about slavery and colonization. Many people have called me an "Angela Davis of Africa." To meet her in person and to feel her energy was an emotional experience. It is very interesting to realize that there is a strong connection between the activists of the '60s, like Harry Belafonte, and the young people today. It feels like it might have skipped a couple of generations.

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12:30 PM: There is a smaller white tent right behind the stage. When she arrived, Madonna joined Cher there. Everyone wants to take pictures with them so the security around the tent is very tight. The backstage area is now really crowded, to the point that it feels that we are in the middle of the march. We hear the crowd cheers in front of the stage every time a speaker makes a powerful statement.

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1:00 PM: I have met Jesse Jackson many times before. It is important that the men join the conversation.

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1:30 PM: I climbed on stage to see what was going on and met, for the first time, one of the artists who has always inspired me -- Maxwell. I know every note of his Urban Hang Suite album.  I feel really good when I find out he is also a big fan. He finished his amazing song today by saying: “Here is a man who stands for every woman” Everyone is smiling. I haven’t felt that good in a while.

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2:30 PM: It is now my turn to sing! I’m from Africa and I hate the cold, but I have decided, against all odds, to remove my coat for my performance. It is a bit chilly, but nothing compared with 2009. I’ve decided to sing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come." I sang it in Paris a month ago for a tribute to Spike Lee and it made me cry. It is heartbreaking to think it was written in 1963, and it still resonates now. But today, with 500,000 people listening, I want to deliver a fierce version. I don’t want to cry. I want to reinforce the belief that it might take some time, but with the goodwill that I witness, “A Change Is Gonna Come”!

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3:00 PM: Madonna has just finished her set and before everyone starts marching, we gather all the remaining artists and musicians on stage to sing "Ella's Song" a piece written by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. I'm standing next to the beautiful Nona Hendryx. My verse in the song is "I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard / At time I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word” I guess this is the perfect line for me and also for the 500,000 other women in front of me!

All photos courtesy of Angélique Kidjo.


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