Musically, you may know Angélique Kidjo as the energetic performer who put African beats on the world music map via her Grammy winning songs and collaborations with the likes of Bono, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Josh Groban and others. In addition to her music, Kidjo has a boundless passion for women’s empowerment and human rights. She is an advocate for girls’ education and a fighter against genital mutilation, early marriage, and violence against women. She’s also a global UNICEF ambassador, runs her own foundation, Batonga, and remains actively involved in campaigns to keep issues that affect women at the forefront of the international agenda.
That’s why she’s one of my personal heroes.
Kidjo’s music celebrates the struggles and joys of life as a woman. Her 2014 album, Eve, is worth revisiting because it combines activism with optimistic rhythms and melodies to great effect.
Eve tells stories about the beauty of women and how we use our strength in everyday lives. The collection features 10 different choirs — women’s voices coming together in community, through song. Unless you know the languages in which Kidjo sings — French, Fon, Yoruba or Swahili – you may not understand the words the choirs are singing. But you will feel the love and the spirit of the voices.
“No matter how hard the day is, we always make something out of it,” Kidjo says of the resilience of African women. After being inspired by women’s singing she heard in a Kenyan village with UNICEF, she went back to her home country of Benin in West Africa to meet with women and later recorded women’s choirs for nearly every track on Eve. There are love songs and songs about longing for equality, songs about peace, and songs about traditional African dress. The choral singing is both percussive and haunting, jaunty and infectious. Eve also features a guest vocal by French Nigerian singer ASA on the song “Eva,” which sounds like it might fit on the radio alongside Gotye or Ellie Goulding; “Kulumbu” blends Afropop with a bit of Basin Street when New Orleans piano legend Dr. John tickles the keys; and “Awalole” gets dramatic with a star turn by Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg.
Kidjo writes her songs from a uniquely African perspective and she understands women’s role in the future of her continent.
“Is Africa’s success going to be a success that empowers the African people to take the lead in their lives?” she asks. “Or are they going to be ripped of the right of harvesting the wealth that their countries generate?” Even having a female majority in a parliament such as Rwanda’s isn’t enough, Kidjo says. In order for stability and economic sustainability, “women and men have to work together,” she says.
The release of Eve accompanied Kidjo’s memoir, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, in which she discusses how her family and community – including the strong women in her inner circle — gave her the courage to pursue her musical dreams and give back to others. “I learned at a very young age to be selfless. Sometimes we have to be selfish because it’s human, it’s normal. But it’s OK to reach out of your comfort zone to help somebody.”