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Angélique Kidjo

Daughter of Independence

Called “Africa’s diva” by TIME magazine, Angélique Kidjo charts the journey of African music and culture around the world in her Perspectives series this season. Next month’s culminating event not only kicks off Kidjo’s 60th birthday celebration, but it also marks the 60th anniversary of independence for many West African countries, including Kidjo’s native Benin. Before she takes the Carnegie Hall stage, she discussed the importance of independence in Africa and using her voice to inspire others.

How did you go about curating your Perspectives series?

The idea behind my Perspectives is to tell a story—the story of how we musically got to where we are today. It’s how African music, through the past century, has been the thread between all of us, binding us all together. In any music you find, there is a piece of Africa in it. No matter the language, Africa is at its center.

You originally left Benin in your youth because of the country’s dictatorship. When you returned a decade later, you immersed yourself in all of Beninese music. How has that influenced your career?

My father always told me to not affiliate my art with any political party—to be an artist first and foremost. So from the get-go, that has been important to me. That’s what has given me the freedom and the leisure to do any kind of music I want to do, to go anywhere I want to go. One of my dreams has always been to bring the various parts of Africa together: the north, the south, the east, the west, and the center. My family being from Ouidah—a southern port where many were taken on ships to a life of slavery in the Americas—I was very knowledgeable about the traditional local songs, but I did not know as much about other Beninese music. So in 1995, I traveled north from village to village with my recording team. What I discovered was astounding: Every village had its own rhythms,its own instruments, sometimes its own language. The richness of these musical traditions was unbelievable. I asked one man how such precision and complexity was possible. He told me, “These communities are living together, breathing together; their heart is beating at the same tempo—the tempo of music.” When you witness such an abundance of music that has survived the devastating effect of colonization—not only in Benin, but all over the African continent—it is not surprising to see why African music has conquered the world.

Your concert this March, which you’ve titled Daughter of Independence, marks several significant occasions, among them your 60th birthday.

Yes, I’m going to be turning 60 this July. But it’s also a celebration for those who were born in 1960 when many West African nations were achieving independence, including Benin. I was born on Bastille Day in Dahomey, which at the time was part of the French colonies of West Africa. That was only two weeks before the independence of my country—I was born French, and two weeks later I became Beninese. When I now look back at 60 years of independence for my country, I feel that my life and career have been shaped in many ways by the postcolonial history of West Africa: I consider myself a true daughter of Africa’s independence. But in Africa, we are still not completely sovereign. We have independence in theory, but we are not in charge of our wealth. After 60 years, we’re still struggling with that. But it is crucial to recount the story of our music, the world’s music. It is a success story of cultural migration. As African people traveled—whether by force or by choice—they have enriched the cultures of the countries they entered.

Each time you come to Carnegie Hall, you create a custom show. You understand what the Hall can do and what you can do in the Hall.

With every platform that is given to me, I try to build bridges between cultures, between people. We live in such a secluded society. But we are made to live together, to emulate each other. It’s the mixture of peoples, of languages, of everything that is the complexity of human beings—that is our humanity. When I get the chance to perform in a place like Carnegie Hall, my whole intent is to bring humanity together. I always want to start a conversation because I believe, deeply, in the beauty of every human being.

You often use your voice to help others, including artists whom you see as carrying the torch forward.

I was taught as a child that we are each given something. Our responsibility is to pass that gift on. So I believe in giving back a lot. The only thing that makes us accomplish anything—that makes us wake up every morning feeling good about ourselves—is when we help somebody take hold of his or her own life. That is something I profoundly believe in my soul. That’s how I was raised: to respect myself. Every single human being on this planet deserves respect. Every time I have a chance to give a platform to a young artist, I’m happy to do it.

Do you see music as a tool, as a pathway toward a larger goal?

Music has always allowed me to find answers to questions. For me, the 1960s was the start of a period of hope. How do we regain our hope to fight for ourselves, for a more just world? My father used to say that as a musician, you are the one who holds the keys that open all closed doors. That is the power of music. If I was not a musician, I don’t know what else I would be doing. At one point I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, but for me to be involved politically and deal with all the hypocrisy … I just couldn’t do it. Music is my tool, my language of choice. When people tell me they don’t know how to dance, for example, I give them the answer that my mother gave me. She said, “You have a heartbeat. As long as your heart beats, you can walk, therefore you can dance. Your rhythm is your rhythm.” That’s the freedom that music gives us. And that is what I hope to celebrate in my concert next month.

What is it you hope audiences take away from Daughter of Independence?

It doesn’t matter where you come from; it doesn’t matter your skin color or which language you speak. Music reduces it all to a fundamental element that speaks to all of usas human beings. It is that form of art that brings us to realize our importance, while also recognizing how small we are and how important it is to celebrate life every chance we get. For me as a singer-songwriter,it has always been about finding the profound, deep meaning of what it is I am doing. What is it that I have to say? What is my purpose for saying it? Society is broken by dictatorship. People are playing with democracy, and people are playing with freedom. The most fundamental thing we need to have—to be able to create, to be able to consider ourselves human beings—is our freedom.