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High Spirits

AE 1angeliqueWorld-music legend Angélique Kidjo performs at the Rio on the heels of a new album and book

Angélique Kidjo is a legend in the world-music scene. The passionate singer and dancer has released a dozen albums, including this year’s Eve, won numerous international awards and honorary degrees, and had her music featured in mainstream films and TV shows. Her uplifting and empowering songs have touched the hearts of millions, and she is an international symbol of what female musicians can and should aspire to.

But the native of the West African country of Benin faced many obstacles growing up in the ’60s and ’70s before sneaking out of the country overnight to make a life for herself in Paris. In her new memoir, “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music,” Kidjo—who performs Thursday, June 19, at the Rio—talks about the struggles she faced being a forthright and insatiably curious young woman (attributes which sometimes got her in trouble) and because she wanted to be a singer—an ambition which was frowned upon by some. But once music took hold of her, nothing was going to stop her from chasing her dream.

“I remember when I bought the album Pata Pata by Miriam Mekeba, I thought, ‘So it is possible for an African woman to be a successful singer, to travel the world and sing for the whole world,’” she tells GT. “I knew at once I wanted to do the same thing.”

Instead of listening to those who mocked her and her dreams, she chose to let the people who did support her give her the strength she needed to press on. 

“My public has always given me the strength to fight the odds I have encountered,” Kidjo says. “I’ve always felt a special connection with the audience. When you hear from even one fan that you’ve changed [their] life through your music, it gives you so much energy! You just can’t give up.”

That theme runs through her memoir. Even after getting away from an oppressive dictatorship in Benin, her struggles continued. Money was tight, food was scarce and it was difficult living in a less-than-welcoming community which was sometimes antagonistic towards her because of her ethnicity. But instead of channeling all of this into angry music, she chose to focus on bringing more light into the world.

“In Benin, the way we say things—the tone, the expressions, the sayings we use—all these elements are very subtle and powerful,” Kidjo says. “You have to be careful with words. We used to live in an oral tradition, so this is why words are more powerful there. In French you say, ‘Words will fly away, but written words will stay,’ but because our culture was just oral, it carried extra weight for the worse and for the better. I try to use my lyrics to empower people, not to bring them down.”

“Spirit” also shows how Kidjo empowers people outside the realm of music. She has been an ambassador for UNICEF for many years, specifically their programs that seek to give girls opportunities they otherwise would not have. She was so moved by the organization’s efforts that she eventually started her own foundation, called Batonga, to provide African girls with as many of those same opportunities as possible.

“I have received so much beauty and culture from [Africa], and was so lucky to be able to express myself, so I want every girl in Africa to have the same chance,” Kidjo says. “The Batonga Foundation gives scholarships for secondary education in four countries. You can’t stay still when the world is so imbalanced. At one point in my life, I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, so this fight has stuck with me, even through my music.”

But while “Spirit” focuses on a number of heavy themes and shows the incredible impact Kidjo has had on the world’s cultural and musical landscape, it ends with a series of recipes from her native land, and hints at Kidjo’s original idea for the book itself.

“[It] was supposed to be a cook book with glimpses of my life in between,” Kidjo says. “The book took another turn, but I didn’t want to give up the idea of the recipes, because cooking is a true passion for me, right behind singing. I spend hours in the kitchen, more hours in fact than in recording studios!”


Angélique Kidjo performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 19, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $55 gold circle, $40 general.

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