Angelique Kidjo

Born in Quidah, Benin; daughter of a musician father and a theater director/choreographer mother; married French producer/composer/bassist Jean Hebrail; children: Naima. Addresses: Record company–Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Website–Angelique Kidjo Official Website:

Angelique Kidjo, described as “one of Africa’s most engaging, powerful and charismatic young female stars” by Black Diaspora’s Brennan Marcano, has a music-without-frontiers style all of her own which seamlessly blends the indigenous songs of Benin, samba, zouk, classic funk influences such as James Brown, rock-salsa influences such as Santana, slick Caribbean pop dance music, Indian and Arabic tones, makossa from Cameroon, American gospel, and coolly ethereal jazz sounds. Her energetic rhythms are an original, musically diverse blend of global sounds that alternate infectious dance tracks with lyrical atmospheric ballads–delivered with soaring, sensual vocals, and often infused with hard-hitting political commentary. Aretha Franklin biographer David Ritz described Kidjo as “one of the world’s greatest female vocalists.”

After her massive hit single, “Agolo,” from Aye in 1993, Kidjo was placed squarely on the international music map. The video for “Agolo” was nominated for a Best Music Video Grammy Award. Kidjo released five successful albums between 1991 and 2002, each demonstrating her ability to experiment and to further elevate her distinctive sound. Kidjo, describing her music to her record label’s publicity administrators said: “Some call it Afro-funk; you can call it whatever you like, but really, it’s hard to put my music into one category. Even when I use my own traditional music, I’m not trying to recreate just one style, I mix it all up.”

Kidjo’s style is much more accessible to Western listeners than many other African artists because she uses the international dance floor as a common meeting ground. Although her music is rooted in African rhythms, her melodies are clear and haunting enough to prompt listeners to want to sing along, even when they’re sung in the African languages Fon and Yoruba.

Kidjo was born in the small coastal town of Quidah in Benin, an African country that encompasses numerous, diverse cultures and is located between Togo and Nigeria. Kidjo mostly sings in Benin’s primary language, Fon, but she also sings in Yoruba, English, and French. One of nine children born to a musician father and a theater director/choreographer mother, Kidjo performed as a child in a theater troupe run by her mother, starting when she was six, which is where she honed her impressive dance and performing skills. Her mother has been a major influence in her life and taught Kidjo much about dance choreography; her father, a guitarist, and his love of music, were significant influences as well.

Got Start in Kidjo Brothers Band

One of Kidjo’s brothers, also a guitarist, introduced her at a young age to the music of Santana. As a teenager, Kidjo sang with her brother’s group, the Kidjo Brothers Band. Kidjo cites Santana, James Brown, Manu Dibango, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Cameo, the Commodores, Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, and Roberta Flack as early musical influences, along with traditional Benin music and Indian music. While still in her teens, Kidjo began touring Benin, performing at local music festivals and on the radio. Women who sang professionally were generally looked down upon, so Kidjo was one of the few female artists in Benin, and as a result, she struggled twice as hard to achieve success. South African singer Miriam Makeba was an important role model for Kidjo at the time; Kidjo sang many of her songs, particularly the Swahili ballad “Malaika,” recorded on Kidjo’s second album, Logozo, in 1991.

Kidjo traces her ancestry to the female warrior Amazons of the ancient Fon kingdom, encompassing their fighting spirit; the same spirit that makes her a fiercely independent and principled artist. Kidjo left Benin mainly for political reasons; the country was still under Communist rule and musicians were forced to “praise the government and the ideology of power,” as Kidjo revealed to Interview, “which I refused to do.” She arrived in Paris in 1983 and embraced a melting pot of music. Many of Africa’s lauded musicians, like Salif Keita and Manu Dibango, were based there along with Caribbean, French and American musicians. The cross fertilization of “world beat” styles are echoed in Kidjo’s musical offerings, and Paris was the right environment at the time for Kidjo to develop her unique musical signature. She met bassist/composer/producer Jean Hebrail in Paris. The couple married and had a daughter named Naima, who serves as a source of inspiration for Kidjo.

Kidjo dominates her stage space and has a gift for true communication with an audience, which renders her live performances considerably more than just a musical experience. Her energetic dancing and impressive choreography present rounded entertainment. Her petite size, lithe muscularity, and short-cropped hair, often make her appear like a postmodernist version of a traditional African woman. Her shows are infused with a delightful playfulness that helps her escape the banality of studio sessions, and it’s clear that she enjoys interacting with the public. “Even when I’m singing alone in my studio,” she tells Marcano, “I imagine I’m with the public.”

Enthusiastic Stage Shows

Her shows are also marked by abundant double-time hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and singing-along feedback from the audience. It’s not unusual for audience members to invade the stage in an enthusiastic show of appreciation, underscoring the fact that the charismatic Kidjo and her high-octane dancing inspires unrestrained adulation. Kidjo told Billboard’s Elena Oumano, “Dancing is very important in the vodun religion and in my country and culture. The body expresses your health and your soul.” While Kidjo may still be flying just under the mainstream radar, Boston Herald writer Joel Brown notes, “she has the potent voice and striking presence of a mainstream star. Whether sitting down to sing … like a world-weary chanteuse or boogie-ing onstage with elated fans … she command[s] attention.”

Her 1996 third American release for Mango, Fifa, was inspired by Kidjo’s travels around Benin with her husband. Accustomed to singing in her native language, Fon, Kidjo decided to take a new direction by recording some of the songs on Fifa in English. “Fifa” means peace in Fon, and Kidjo wrote the song for her daughter to demonstrate her desire to raise her child in a peaceful world.

Earned Success with Fifa

The slickly produced Fifa was the most commercial of Kidjo’s offerings to that date, following Logozo in 1991 and Aye in 1993, with ten tracks and an accompanying video for “Wombo Lombo.” Kidjo pays tribute to the vodun culture of Benin on Fifa, and her video was accepted at television stations that wouldn’t take her previous videos. Fifa’s “Akwaba” takes aim at unnamed leaders who betray their people’s trust, “Houngbati” is a hymn for the homeless, “Bitchifi” speaks to the materialistic when Kidjo asks, “What did you bring with you on the day you were born? Share your heart, share your time.” Carlos Santana bestowed his guitar prowess to “Naima,” a beautiful song penned by John Coltrane. Kidjo used 200 vocalists and musicians on Fifa. Kidjo told Marcano, “Who knows the color of the spirit? What language does the spirit speak? Music is there to express your emotion, to speak to people, to be the link.”

With her next album, Oremi, Kidjo began a trilogy that is meant to show the link between Africa and the world and how the slave trade affected the music and culture of the places touched by it. Oremi was released in 1998 on Island Records, which picked up Kidjo after it closed the Mango imprint in 1997. She explained the idea behind the trilogy to the Boston Herald: “I’ve been following the route of the slaves.” Oremi represents “the first stop … America and what the slaves brought to the music there.” The musical style of Oremi, heavily influenced by R&B and soul music, was a departure from Kidjo’s usual style. Kidjo toured with Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair in support of Oremi. The experience was an unusual one for her. “There were no ego trips and no stars,” Kidjo told the Washington Post. “It was a weird experience to find such acceptance from international stars.”

Kidjo made some changes between the release of Oremi and her next album, Black Ivory Soul, released in 2002. She moved from Paris to Brooklyn, New York, and signed a new contract with Columbia Records. Black Ivory Soul was the next installment of the trilogy. This album was inspired by a visit to Bahia, on the coast of Brazil. On her first journey to Bahia, Kidjo was amazed at the similarity between the Brazilian land and her home. “It’s the smell of the country. It smells exactly like Benin…. I look around and the trees are the same, the food we eat is the same, and it’s called by the same name. I feel the same strength envelop me,” she told the Boston Herald. Black Ivory Soul links Benin to Bahia, which was the first stopping point for many slaves.

As of late 2002, Kidjo had plans for the third album in the trilogy. The yet-to-be-titled album will be an exploration of the music of Cuba, Haiti, and New Orleans, which were the final destinations for many slaves. She became a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) special representative in 2002, which was a logical step for Kidjo, who once thought about becoming a human rights lawyer while briefly enrolled in law school. Her position at UNICEF and her career as a musician complement each other. She expressed her beliefs and hopes in an interview with UNICEF: “I believe music is a language beyond color of skin, country, or culture. I want to inspire people to get to work to help educate, nourish and protect our children–they are our chance to get it right.”

by B. Kimberly Taylor

Angelique Kidjo’s Career Performed as a child in a theater troupe run by her mother, and the Kidjo Brothers Band organized by her brother; toured Benin’s local music festivals and performed on the radio as a teenager; moved to Paris in 1983, briefly studied law; released Logozo, 1991, Aye, 1993, and Fifa, 1996, all on Mango Records; released Oremi on Island Records, 1998; released Black Ivory Soul on Columbia, 2002.

Famous Works Selected discography Parakou , Mango/Island, 1990. Logozo , Mango/Island, 1991. Aye , Mango/Island, 1993. Fifa , Mango/Island, 1996. Oremi , Island, 1998. Keep on Moving: The Best of Angelique Kidjo , Sony, 2001. Black Ivory Soul , Columbia, 2

Share the Post:

Related Posts