Time Magazine has called Angelique Kidjo “Africa’s premier diva.” The BBC has included her in its list of the continent’s 50 most iconic figures. In 2011 The Guardian listed her as one of their Top 100 Most Inspiring Women in the World. She was the first woman on Forbes Magazine’s list of the Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa. Whatever else she may be, there is no doubt that Grammy-winning singer Angelique Kidjo is a major creative force and a star of the world music scene.
Born in the West African state of Benin, Kidjo is a tireless campaigner for women’s health and education in Africa, a UNICEF international Goodwill Ambassador, and a prolific songwriter. “When your history is not written, you count on storytellers and traditional singers in Africa to tell you who you are, what your family’s about and what is going on in your society. This is what I do with my music, because I am a witness of my time.”
Between 1972 and 1989, Benin was run as a Marxist state under Mathieu Kérékou, who took over in a military coup d’état. When Kidjo was forced into exile to avoid imprisonment, her friend and mentor Miriam Makeba was a constant source of guidance. “Miriam was the African role model that I needed,” Kidjo says. “She left Africa and went to America; she was really the pan-African artist, and I needed somebody like that. She’s really the person behind my choice of life of being a singer.” Similarly, Kidjo’s campaigning for UNICEF, as well as her work with her own Batonga Foundation, which provides African girls with an education, serve as inspiration to a new generation of African women.
As a child, Kidjo was constantly surrounded by traditional and foreign music: Beninese singers, but also the records of James Brown, Carlos Santana, and others, and that influence can be felt throughout her recent work. “Without music I don’t think I would have had the adolescence and the childhood that I had,” she says, recalling that she was just six when she first appeared on stage. “Atcha Houn,” a traditional track of staccato vocals laid over the sparse plucking of a guitar, was the song she sang as a young girl, and it is featured on her CD Oyo, released in 2010.
As successful as she has been as a recording artist, Kidjo is at her best on the stage, where she is a dynamic and sought-after live performer. In addition to concerts around the world, she has performed for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and concert in Oslo in December, 2011; the Amnesty International Electric Burma concert honoring Aung San Suu Kyi in June, 2012; and the BT River of Music—the pre-Olympics music festival—in London in July, 2012.
Angelique Kidjo performs at the Festival for one night only on Thursday, May 30 at the TD Arena.