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With 'Mother Nature,' Angelique Kidjo Passes The Torch To Young African Musicians

In January 2020, Angélique Kidjo took the stage at the Grammys to accept the award for Best World Music Album for Celia, a reinterpretation of songs by the Cuban "Queen of Salsa" Celia Cruz. Kidjo's speech wasn't about herself.

"The new generations of artists coming from Africa [are] going to take you by storm," she said. "The time has come."

It seemed as though Kidjo, who's originally from Benin, was anointing a generation of younger artists across Africa – and now, she's brought many of them together on a new album, called Mother Nature. The list includes Nigerian artist Burna Boy, who was also nominated for a Grammy behind his 2019 album African Giant. Many of Mother Nature's songs address issues across the world, from climate change to state oppression and police violence.

Angélique Kidjo spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about collaborating with African artists at all levels of the album-making process, how Burna Boy now refers to her as "Mom" and how she wants her music to be like a bullet in the fight against violence and oppression. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On proving her dedication to the next generation of African artists with this album

I wanted to prove it because, as I said often, talk is cheap. Action is expensive. Every corner of the continent, there are these youth, hungry for something different. They want to have an impact in their own life, in their own community, family. They want to be reckoned with. Before, when I go to Africa, it's all about [artists saying to me], "How do I make this? I want to [be] like you. I want to do this." Now it's like, "I'm doing it."

The savviness of the creativity is out of this world. And what was really amazing for me doing this album was not only that I work with this young generation, but I'm working on all those songs with the young generation of producers — of beats, of sound, of recording — that are coming from Africa.

On collaborating with the Nigerian artist, Burna Boy, on "Do Yourself"

"Do Yourself" is a song that is written by Burna Boy because he said to me on the phone call, "I'm going to write a song for you, Mom."

And I said, "OK, go for it." And he [sent] me the song, and if you had seen me in this studio ... I was humming, jumping and dancing. I went crazy. All of them, every time, if the song – of Yemi [Alade] came, [Nigerian artist] Mr Eazi, [Zimbabwean American artist] Shungudzo — comes into the studio, the studio becomes the best place on the planet to be for me. I'm telling you, it's the climax of the world right here. I was crazy happy.

On "Dignity," a song about the October 2020 protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Nigeria

The track "Dignity" was born out of the #EndSARS movement, when the police start shooting with real bullets.

And I started worrying because I have family in Nigeria, too — in Lagos — and friends. And my first instinct, I sent a WhatsApp message to [Nigerian artist] Yemi and said, "Are you safe? Where are you? How are you?"

She called me and said, "Ma, I'm afraid. They're shooting at us. They're killing us." And I said, "Well, let's reply with music. Our bullet is going to be music. Go back to the studio. I have a song that I wrote called 'Dignity.' Let's work on it together."

So I sent her the song, and then in one week, she sent me her lyrics. And I have to tell you, listen to the lyrics. For a moment, I couldn't sing because it just took me by ... If I had wanted to talk about that movement, there's no way I could find those words to say.

[Using music to make an impact is] the best way. I don't believe in violence. Violence is the weapon of the coward. And every dictatorship, at the top of it, there's an insecurity.

On her upbringing as an artist under Mathieu Kérékou's communist dictatorship in Benin

I was brought up by parents to believe that freedom is a responsibility, is a duty. And my father used to say to me, "Do not affiliate your music to any political party because they come and go. You want to be an artist." [But there was pressure to do so.] That's what it is. That's what it was.

What disappeared first was the variety of different music that was played on the radio. When you opened the radio before the communist dictatorship comes in, you can go from Paul Anka to Michael Jackson to everything. And then suddenly, you wake up in the morning, the first thing you hear is "ready for the revolution," "the fights continue" — in every different language. And the bands in Benin were summoned by the government [so] that every music that they play [has] to talk about the change they're bringing about, about the propaganda. I never did that, and I couldn't do it. It was too much for me to bear. I can't stay. So it took us a year to plan my leaving [to France in my early 20s] because I couldn't do it anymore.

On whether opportunities for success in Africa have expanded since she started out

That's a fact. Burna Boy has not moved nowhere – he's in Nigeria. Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, Sampa the Great — and the list goes on and on. They are entrepreneur[s] and big star[s] in their own right in their own country, making lots of money for themselves.

I always say, if I could have the career that I have today, I am moving [in] no way. There's nothing better than home because home is your sanctuary where people love you and protect you and hold you and carry you and caress you. It's not somewhere out there.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]