Perhaps it’s some trick by the pious ghost of Gian Carlo Menotti, but in the Spoleto Festival program notes for singer Angelique Kidjo, the word “pop” appears not at all. Or perhaps that’s because, while Menotti’s festival descendants have learned to enjoy music beyond the strictly classical, they still feel compelled to scrub up an artist’s image for an artsy audience.
Whatever. Discussing the global Kidjo phenomenon without considering her pop career would be like displaying the Venus di Milo in a housecoat. She is Afro-pop, Afro-beat, reggae, world and world fusion, whatever that means. She is samba, salsa, rumba, souk, and makossa, but also Motown, James Brown, jazz, funk, and gospel. After a while, the distinctions blur into something sufficiently difficult to describe, and an artist who has never limited herself to the highbrow finds herself celebrated as such.
At 52, Kidjo now wrestles with the advantages and burdens of big artistic labels. She is, according to different observers, both icon and diva, simultaneously a cultural and political figure, her complex contradictions projected on the larger-than-life screen of global stardom. To her fans she is the inspiring, Benin-born symbol of modern pan-Africanism, yet she is also a wife and mother who makes her home in New York City.
That she isn’t a bigger star in her adopted home says as much about our dysfunctional music industry as it does about Kidjo. Her talent and charisma may be undeniable, but Kidjo’s genre-bending popular songs fall between too many categories for easy promotional campaigns. Then again, as the most recognizable pop star on a continent of more than 1 billion people, any thought Kidjo might give to her American popularity remains purely optional.
“People love labels,” she said, shrugging off questions of genre. “Marketers love labels. So it is not easy to think outside of the box. But I feel young people are less obsessed with distinctions between style than we were. We should always remember Duke Ellington’s saying: There are two kinds of music — good music and bad music. But I guess this is subjective.”
Kidjo’s bio sprawls across too many superlatives to cram into a short piece like this one (that’s what Google is for), but for the uninitiated, she was born in West Africa in 1960 to a theatrical family, began performing at age 6, and left for Paris at 23 because she couldn’t safely express herself during the worst years of the failed People’s Republic of Benin. In Paris she met Jean Hebrail, the man she would later marry, and built a career first as a solo artist and later as the singer for a Euro-African jazz-rock fusion band called Pili Pili. In the early 1990s she began releasing solo albums at a rate of one every two to three years, recording songs in multiple languages and styles.
Along the way she became “Africa’s premier diva,” according to Time Magazine, selling millions of records across Africa and Europe. As she traveled the globe, she became an activist for pan-Africanism, which at one level represents the idea of building an African political identity that transcends the continent’s 54 countries. On a cultural level, however, pan-Africanism celebrates African contributions to every culture in every continent touched by the slave trade.
“The legacy of Africa in the culture of the world is immense, but I think there is more today that could be done to promote its richness,” Kidjo said. “In a way, it is one of my missions through music. Travel the world and encourage people to discover more!
“Life in Africa is made of hard reality and joyful spirit,” she adds. “We don’t wake up in the morning thinking about abstract absolutes. In my life outside of Africa I implement what I’ve learned — that every moment is to be lived fully, to be kind to people and generous of my blessings, I don’t let cynicism eat my soul up.”
That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t recognize that she works in an often cynical industry. After decades at the top of the charts, Kidjo says the toughest part is just surviving. Today, she says, “I’m just trying to sing the best as I can for my fans and [I want to] keep on doing music that I love. I’m not thinking about the commercial appeal of it. I just want to be proud of my songs, and I want them to keep on being interesting.
“I love people from all over the world,” she adds. “I don’t have pre-conceptions about them, and I have noticed that we are not that much different. Politicians want you to believe otherwise, but all my travel has deepened this belief.”