The light behind Angelique Kidjo is bright. Skyping me from New Jersey, where she was to deliver a keynote address for the Segal Foundation, the global music icon looks like a nubian angel.
Her husband, the musician, Jean Hebrail, closes the blinds behind Kidjo and without that brightness, she looks even more beautiful than an angel.
We’re chatting ahead of her performance at the 10-day-long 20th anniversary of the Macufe Festival in the Free State. She will perform at the main concert - which features the likes of Davido, Mafikizolo and Ringo - on October 7.
I tell Kidjo the last time I saw her live was at the 46664 concert in 2007 and she exclaims: “Oh girl, you have a lot of stuff to catch up to! Nah-ah,” she waves her hand at the laptop screen. “But I love South Africa. Macufe is turning 20 this year and that’s a good thing. I’m excited.”
Kidjo, who began singing professionally as a child in her home country of Benin, has, through her multi-award-winning albums, become a voice for the continent. Now living in New York, she is still frequently booked for concerts as well as speaking engagements, thanks to her tireless philanthropic work.
Because she’ll be coming to Mzansi to celebrate a Festival’s milestone, I ask her what she did to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her 1991 album, Logozo. The 57-year-old says: “I never celebrate. I never think about it. I celebrate my wedding anniversaries,” she laughs a deep, hearty laugh.
“But my career? No. I started singing when I was six years old and started singing without counting days or hours or minutes. It’s just me. That sense of urgency to sing and touch and empower people - it never occurred for me to be counting the days.”
Her seminal second album, Aye, was released in 1994. The single, Agolo, truly put her on the music map. It earned Kidjo her first Grammy nomination and it was also a big part of the soundtrack to my childhood. Thanks, Channel O.
But, until the opportunity arose to pick Kidjo’s brain, I had never thought about what Agolo actually meant.
“You know those words that have a different meaning depending on the circumstance,” Kidjo begins to explain. “Agolo is one of those words. It means ‘please’ and also ‘pay attention.’ You hear it a lot in the market when someone has a big load on their head and then they go ‘agolo, agolo, agolo’ which means ‘pay attention, make way, I want to pass.’”
“So I called that song Agolo because our Mother Nature demands some attention from us. There is no other earth that we can go and live on if we destroy this one. It occurred to me when I was pregnant. I realised that every two or three days when the garbage truck comes by, my garbage can is always full.”
“I was saying: we cannot ask government to be accountable for global warming if we, ourselves, in our way of our consumption don’t pay attention to what we’re doing. Pay attention. That’s what Agolo is about.”
I am surprised. Especially because Agolo is so upbeat and she even looks so happy in the video, and I tell her so. “I learned that from the traditional musicians in Benin,” she nods. “When I was growing up, I used to pause and say: ‘why are we dancing to such sad or horrible lyrics? These lyrics are not danceable.’”
“Then a musician said to me: ‘we are storytellers through songs and our duty is to tell the story. Even if the subject is hard, our job is to talk about it and while you have fun, you can let the music sink in.’ The thing you have to avoid as an artist is to make listeners feel guilty. That’s how you turn them away from your music and achieve nothing with guilt. That’s why Agolo is danceable even though the message is profound.”
Eleven albums later, Kidjo says she aims to release two projects. One is a tribute to Celia Cruz, the salsa queen from Cuba. The other is Remain In Light, which lends a more nuanced African music approach to the Talking Heads’ album of the same name.
Kidjo recently performed some of the latter at Carnegie Hall where she brought David Byrne to join her for a rendition of Once In A Lifetime. She laughs when she recalls that she found him in the Hall, and “in a booth, next to David was Lupita (Nyong’o) and her mother.”
That seems to be the fantastic way that life hugs Kidjo back. But it doesn’t stop her from feeling pain.
With her memoir, Spirit Rising, Kidjo shares more with her fans than ever before. I ask her if there was anything she struggled with penning?
“I never struggled writing anything because I’m always for speaking up and getting things off your chest,” she admits. “This book is basically about me struggling with the loss of my father because I love my father dearly. We all - the siblings - were taken by surprise by the death of our father.”
She still speaks of him in present tense. Kidjo’s father, who never drank or smoked, was diagnosed with liver cancer. “That injustice of death! I was mad at death. The book comes because I came back (from burying him) and I’m always a positive and outgoing person but my husband would see me struggle with it.”
“I couldn’t get out of it and all my friends didn’t know what to do and I could see on their faces that they were powerless to help me. So one of them said: ‘why don’t you carry a camera and speak to your father as though the camera was your father. Tell him how mad you are. All the things that you didn’t have a chance to tell him. Get it off your chest.’ So I did that for months and that’s basically what we used to start the whole book.”
From watching the pint sized dynamo that is Kidjo on stage or how she speaks with authority on podiums, it’s easy to see how she was intent on not staying down for good. And luckily for us, we get to see her infectious positivity in living colour at Macufe.
* The 20th anniversary of the Macufe Festival takes place from September 29 to October 7 at Mangaung venues in the Free State. Book at Computicket and Shoprite/Checkers.