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

Jun 23, 2021
Originally published on June 23, 2021 12:39 pm

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.

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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.

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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.

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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, HOST:

In January of 2020, Angelique Kidjo took the stage at the Grammys to accept the award for best world music album. But her speech wasn't about herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: The new generations of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm. The time has come.

SHAPIRO: It was almost as if Kidjo, who is originally from Benin, was passing the torch to younger musicians across Africa. And now she's brought many of them together on a new album called "Mother Nature."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRED UP")

KIDJO: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: When we talked, I asked whether this album, full of collaborations with young artists across Africa, is what she had in mind when she made that speech at the Grammys.

KIDJO: 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, how do I make this? I want to do like you. I want to do this. Now it's like, I'm doing it (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And how does that translate to the music that they're making?

KIDJO: 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.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about one of these collaborations. When you won that Grammy in 2020, you dedicated the award to Burna Boy, who was also nominated in that category. He's an up-and-coming Nigerian artist. Now he is on this new album. So tell us about the track where you two collaborated. It's called "Do Yourself."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOURSELF")

BURNA BOY: (Singing in non-English language).

KIDJO: (Singing in non-English language).

"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.

SHAPIRO: He calls you Mom.

KIDJO: Yeah. And I said, OK, go for it. And he send me the song. And if you had seen me in this studio, it was just like, mmm (ph). I was humming, jumping and dancing. I went crazy. I just - all of them, every time - if the song of Yemi came, Mr Eazi, Shungudzo - the song comes into the studio. The studio becomes, like, the best place on the planet to be for me.

SHAPIRO: It's like the club anybody would want to go to.

KIDJO: I'm telling you it's the climax of the world right here. And I'm like, yeah. And I got (unintelligible). I'm, like - I was crazy happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOURSELF")

KIDJO: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: The lyrics to so many of the songs are about issues that people are dealing with today, from climate change to state oppression and police violence. Can you tell us about the track "Dignity"?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIGNITY")

KIDJO: (Singing in non-English language).

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

SHAPIRO: This is in Nigeria in October of 2020. Yeah.

KIDJO: Yes.

SHAPIRO: SARS stands for Special Anti-Robbery Squad. This was a protest against a police unit. Yeah.

KIDJO: And brutality.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KIDJO: And I started worrying because I have family in Nigeria, too, in Lagos and friends. And my first instinct - I don't know why. I sent a WhatsApp message to Yemi and said, are you safe? Where are you? How are you?

SHAPIRO: This is a collaboration with Yemi Alade, a Nigerian artist.

KIDJO: Absolutely. 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.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

KIDJO: 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 - I mean, I just, like...

SHAPIRO: You're clutching your throat as you talk. Yeah.

KIDJO: Because...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KIDJO: Oh. If I had wanted to talk about that movement, there's no way I could find those words to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIGNITY")

KIDJO: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Those lyrics include, we come in peace, not in pieces, and, respect is reciprocal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIGNITY")

KIDJO: (Singing) Respect is reciprocal, is reciprocal. Respect is reciprocal.

SHAPIRO: It's such an interesting way of putting it. Our bullets will be music. Our bullets will be songs.

KIDJO: That's 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 and cowardness. Killing is easy. Sitting down and finding a solution together and discussing demand intelligence, compassion, empathy and understanding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEANT FOR ME")

KIDJO: (Singing) Can you hear? Can you hear where the angels sing (ph)?

SHAPIRO: You have experience with this in your own life. As you were growing up, Benin was run by a communist dictatorship. Can you tell us about what it was like to start your artistic journey in that kind of an environment?

KIDJO: I was brought up by parents that 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.

SHAPIRO: But was there pressure to sing for a political party, to write songs in praise of...

KIDJO: Oh, yeah. That's what it is. That's what it was. First of all, 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 languages. And the musician, the bands in Benin was summoned by the government that every music that they play have to talk about the change they're bringing about, about the propaganda. I mean, 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 because I couldn't do it anymore.

SHAPIRO: And you moved to France when you were in your early 20s.

KIDJO: Yes.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the young African artists who you're working with today, do you think things have changed, that they don't have to move to a country like France in order to find the kind of success that you've had in your career?

KIDJO: That's a fact (laughter). Burna Boy has not - haven't moved nowhere. He's in Nigeria (laughter). Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, Sampa the Great - and, I mean, the list goes on and on - they are entrepreneur and big star in their own right in their own country, making lots of money for themselves.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel a level of pride at having paved the way for them?

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE AND EQUAL")

KIDJO: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: Angelique Kidjo, it is such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.

KIDJO: Thanks for inviting me. And play the music, and have fun with it.

SHAPIRO: Her new album is called "Mother Nature." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.