By Nehru Odeh
Music buffs can’t get enough of Angelique Kidjo’s intentionality, her pan-Africanism and sense of intergenerational collabo. She makes no bones about her proclivity for working with younger artistes. And she is under no illusion that the future belongs to them.
Still, what’s so special about this artiste that made her to win her fifth Grammy? What’s so unique about this Beninese singer Time magazine called Africa’s premier diva? What makes this woman who sang during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony tick? Why did Time include her in their list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2021?
The answer indeed lies in her strong sense of connection, her pan-Africanism and her infectious belief in the youths. At the 62nd Grammy Awards ceremony on 26 January 2020, when she won her fourth Grammy in the Best World Music Album category, she announced that the time had come for the new generation of African artistes to take the world by storm. She then dedicated the award to her fellow nominee, Burna Boy.
“Four years ago on this stage, I was telling you that the new generation of artists coming from Africa is going to take you by storm and the time has come,” she said. “This is for Burna Boy. Burna Boy is among these young artists that come from Africa that are changing the way our continent is perceived and the way African music has been the bedrock for every music.”
Two years on, just as she had said, the new generation of African artistes has conquered the world. Not only has Burna Boy won Grammy in the same category with his album, African Giant, Kidjo, following through with that declaration by working with younger artistes, has just won her fifth Grammy with Mother Nature – a 13-track album with collaborations from Burna Boy, Mr Eazi and Yemi Alade from Nigeria as well as the Zambian rapper and singer Sampa the Great, the Zimbabwean-American songwriter Shungudzo and Beninese singer Zeynab.
Mother Nature? Yes Mother Nature. Kidjo said the album is her love letter to Mother Earth, what with the insufferable damages humans have been inflicting on her. One, indeed, cannot sweep her strong, cautionary message to the world under the carpet.
“Oh, yeah! Where would we be if there was no nature? Where would you be sitting? Would you have a home or a roof over your head? Would you be able to breathe? For me, Mother Nature is a breathing being, like us, and we are just stifling her. If I can’t breathe, you can’t breathe, and she cannot breathe.
“It became obvious to me that, in order for our cultures to survive, our nature has to survive. In order for the next generation to have a say, and to be the agents of change that they want to be, we need to come together and really write this love letter to Mother Earth. That’s the starting point for me, period,” she said.
By working with younger artiste to produce Mother Nature, Kidjo has indeed shown her sense of the richness of African culture and communality. Mother Nature is indeed a powerful love song not just for the Earth but also for the younger generation of African artistes, some of whom she has collaborated with to produce the award-winning album.
“It was obvious to ask myself the question: What kind of world are we going to leave to our children and beyond?” she told Apple Music.
“And it became more and more relevant as I started seeing the proof of climate change —let me start writing a love letter to Mother Earth, Mother Nature. This album is also about having a conversation with the younger generation—the transmission of culture as our grandparents have done,” she noted.
Transmission of culture? Indeed that love letter has paid off. It is this powerful message of love to Mother Earth, this love song for her fellow artistes, this hand of fellowship and collaboration which she extended to the younger generation is perhaps the reason she beat the likes of Wizkid, Femi and Made Kuti contrary to the expectations of many.
Asked how she was able to connect easily with younger artistes, the Beninese singer said: “The transmission is always there. Our ancestors have always been an example of transmission. That allows us to be who we are, and even if we don’t think about it every day, it’s embedded in our DNA. So we just carry that around. We don’t think about it. But when we need it, that transmission comes back within a click. When you’re telling your story to somebody, and the person is telling you their history, you are in fact exchanging transmissions. That’s how our humanity has survived over centuries.
“This young generation has the same concern that I’ve had throughout my career — trying to give a very positive image of my continent, Africa,” Kidjo said “I also wanted to hear from them about climate change and the impact it’s having on their life, and the way that they want to tackle that. With climate change, we in Africa are going to pay the greatest price for it, especially the youth. It’s going to be up to the future generation not to ask questions, but to act. Because the time to ask questions is running out.”
One thing that stood Kidjo in good stead to clinch the award is, apart from the universality of her message, her pan-Africanism, her concerns and clarion call for humankind to save the earth, is the eclecticism of her award-winning album – the chain of transmission she created – her ability to work with diverse younger talents drawn from across Africa to produce a masterpiece.
“It was really important to create this chain of transmission with this young generation of musicians who grew up with my music. It was mostly for them to understand that someday, when I’m no more, they can continue doing the same. They can continue with the transmission and pass it on to their kids. We need our stories to be told. No one will tell our stories better than us. If you don’t tell your story, people will own your narrative and your identity.
“I’ve always worked with the younger generation of artists. When I tour, I always have a newcomer as the opening act, because that’s how I started,” said Kidjo.
Asked what it was like working with the artistes, she said the musicians came with their peculiarities and strength, which make for the richness of the album – a blend of tradition with more contemporary Afro-pop sound with superstar features.
“Working with those young artists was truly humbling because each one of them has a different vision for their own country. They have a different vision for Africa, and their place in this world. Yemi Alade is a strong woman and musician who wants every right to stand up for herself. And that is difficult to achieve in a home country drenched in so much machismo. However, that’s never stopped her.
“Mr Eazi wants to talk about the beauty of Africa because he’s from Ghana, with Beninese blood. We Africans are not just from one place; love stories between countries have always been a permanent fixture in our history. For him to say, ‘Africa’s blood is in our veins,’ it’s true.
“You have Burna Boy who’s consistent in saying that if you want to change, the change needs to come from within. We have to be the change we want. You can’t sit around and let everything fall apart. If you don’t do something, who are you going to blame but yourself?
Still, a remarkable thing about Kidjo’s collabo with the younger artiste is that she didn’t just impose herself on them. Rather she gave them the freedom to express themselves and be what they wanted to be.
“You don’t invite somebody to have dinner with you to tell them, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t eat that now.’ You offer the food and they do what they want with it.” That ethos greatly benefits the collaborative efforts on ‘Mother Nature’, taking account of the featured artists’ strengths without dampening her essence
“Every time I do a collaboration, it is always about keeping people’s freedom,” she added. “I would say, I’m going to send you the song, and you let the song lead you to what you want to do. I said, ‘Just go for it.’ What this album taught me is that if we take the time really to speak to one another, we come up with beautiful stuff.”
Beautiful stuff? That Mother Nature is a beautiful stuff is not an exaggeration. The trajectory of its conception and eventual birth in January 2020 speaks volumes about Kidjo’s uncanny ability to reach out to younger artistes.
She once spoke about how she had reached out to Alade during the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. That collabo produced Dignity, one of the songs in the album. “We talked and she said, ‘Ma, they are killing us.’ I said, ‘Just get out. Get out of the street quick. Get out of there. There’s nothing for you there except violence. You are not there for violence. You are there to ask for justice. So let’s use music. I will send you my song ‘Dignity,’ because it’s all about dignity. We need to dignify our police for them to dignify us. We need to write the song.’
“So I sent her the song, and a week later she sent me a groove. I said, ‘Everything you want to express that you couldn’t express, just put it in this song. The things that you are feeling right now, just sing it.” And we wrote ‘Dignity’ like that, within a week.”
Alade, for her part, once said in an interview that she grew up listening to Kidjo’s music,. “She is one of the few role models that I have. The one thing that definitely drew me to Angélique is her unapologetic Africanness, no matter where she goes. As far as Africa is concerned, she’s definitely our Angélique, our songbird — any time, any day. It’s always heart-warming to see her do what she does and the way she does it, despite the fact that she’s been doing it for so long. I look at her and I’m encouraged to just keep doing what I do.”
Indeed, though she has brought in influences from diverse cultures across the globe to enrich her music, the artiste, better known as Mama Africa, is unapologetic about her pan-Africanism which defines it, makes it not just a brand but syncs perfectly with what Alade said about her.
“I never do any music where Africa isn’t the basis. I might not know where I’m going, but I definitely know where I come from and belong. So throughout the years, in all my career, I never realized the impact that my music has had on young girls and boys in Africa until I became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and started traveling. I went to places where they didn’t even call me by my name, but by my songs.
That’s when I realized that I had really given this young generation, that we see today, the pride of standing up for themselves. I always say, ‘Talk is cheap, action is expensive.’ And I love to talk and explain, but I also want to prove things. So, that’s how the whole album started,” Kidjo maintained.
Certainly, the African songstress might not know where she is going, though she has just won her fifth Grammy and hopes to win another, she certainly knows where she is coming from. And that is the rich African cultural tradition she has vowed not only to uphold but also to transmit to the younger generation of African artistes through music.
“And the thing that was important to me is the transmissions behind all these songs. I mean people have helped me. There have been so many artists before me that have impacted me, inspired me. Miriam Makeba. Celia Cruz. Aretha Franklin. James Brown. And the list goes on. How do I pass this legacy on?” she averred.