Angelique Kidjo is for most people the African funk diva of the world- concocting musical blends out of jazz, rock, pop, souk, rumba, African ethnic rhythms and salsa, and pairing them with scintillating performances and heart-tugging lyrics. But last March I was to discover that she is, at her core, a seamstress.
A delicate and patient art form, the simplicity of sewing lies in the taking of two or more torn pieces, arranging them carefully, and precisely binding them back together. For an hour and a half, I sat, the fiber optics between us, as Kidjo, her words wrapped in a thick African accent, began to knit me back together.From Benin, Kidjo is a ball of passion, zest, fire and beauty. One of nine children, she was performing in her mothers theatrical company at age 6. At 9, she was shocked by revelations of the slave trade saga. At 13, she was writing her first song, Bela Bela, in reproach of the death of a friend. At 15, she was ranting against apartheid in support of a televised Winnie Mandela and later passionately composing Azan Nan Kape, in resistance to the oppression. By 19, she escaped a brutal communist regime and ran to Paris to become a human rights lawyer; and for the last two decades, Kidjo has been moving, touching, inspiring, rebelling, challenging, loving, and healing with her music. From her most recent Grammy nominated, Black Ivory Soul (2002), stretching back to Oremi (1998), Fifa (1997), Aye (1994), or Logozo (1991), Kidjo has been serious about leaving no stone unturned. Music is for us to keep questioning the social order, and when she realized that the law [did] not always serve justice, music became the needle and thread, emblazoning the social, political and economic struggles of a people.
Kidjo scissors in beats from Brazil or America with snippets of African drums or reggae rhythms. She sketches masterpieces with everyone from Carlos Santana to Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Caetano Veloso, Giberto Gil, and Dave Matthews. She has made music against the frames of Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, Fela Kuti, and Jimi Hendrix; and streaks her lyrics with English, Fon and French - a tapestry of music, language and rhythms across the pan-African diaspora.
But the shuttling of her loom reaches all parts of her life, and as an ambassador at UNICEF, Kidjo biggest concern has been the education of women in Africa. In her no-nonsense intonation, Kidjo says, "Girls become mothers...they raise the next generation," and she's a staunch believer in giving them strength to fight for their lives.
Bent on defying stigmas, stereotypes, status and at times, sanity, Kidjo has become the avatar of success for many generations of African women worldwide.
Fusing wisdom and wit, she talks fervently about the power of music to heal and transform, hoping that in some way, she can inspire people to love and grow together. Whether she's gushing about her close-knit family, denouncing the oppression of women worldwide, describing her love for riding the subways in Brooklyn, reminiscing on her life in Africa, or assessing the politics behind the media, Kidjo spins a tale that combines art and activism.
As in all things, Kidjo intertwines her music with spirituality, invoking voodoo and love at every juncture, and living with the truth of her inspirations. Her mainstay has been the integrity of her music, to be able to carry the pleasure of the same song into the future, to be able to sing it twenty times and feel it. In her latest project, which is the third part of a trilogy that began with Oremi, Kidjo plans to create another ensemble unleashing a plethora of Caribbean rhythms, embracing both Haiti and Cuba.
Angelique Kidjo pricks your soul, binding you to her values for love, life, independence, family, peace and unity. "People don't live out of their passion, even when they have access to it," she wails sadly, commenting on peoples complicity in their own sorrows. I listen to the clanking of the pots and pans in the background, eavesdropping on the banter of a mother and daughter. I hear the squeaky vocals of a young woman, Naima (her daughter), and somewhere in the distance I am certain that I come across the faint humming of the peddle of an old sewing machine, slowly seesawing back and forth. Like all great seamstresses, Angelique Kidjo is invested in our oneness taking us from nothing, and making us whole again.