SXSW Music Panel: Angelique Kidjo

Aural biopic of Mother Africa’s reigning diva

Beninese-born Grammy Award winner, human rights activist, master storyteller: Cosmopolitan bon vivant Angelique Kidjo may be the single most interesting person at SXSW Music.

photo by Jana Birchum

Described as one of Africa’s most influential artists and the continent’s greatest living diva, Kidjo’s fascinating ascent, as told to NPR’s Ann Powers on Friday, is borne out of rarity, revolution, and an irrepressible fervor, all nurtured through family and music.

Kidjo’s unique situation – both parents were born of single parents and are only children – fostered a need for, well, more family. She says they opened doors “to everyone, from everywhere,” calling it a “forum” where her father accepted “no racism, xenophobia, or anti-Semitism.” This universality set her path in life.

As many did throughout the continent, Kidjo, 55, discovered the concept of “America” via its best music, including Stax and Motown. She marks James Brown as a critical musical influence on West African musicians. Togolese songstress Bella Bellow, South African singer/activist Miriam Makeba, and Aretha Franklin proved to Kidjo that her aspirations could become reality. Her fusion eventually included all these musical stylings, plus Latin, jazz, and Caribbean zouk.

The flip side of this discovery was her accidental education of slavery and South African apartheid. She remembers reciting a new song, soaked in anger and fueled by her awakening consciousness, and having her father urge her to strive for unity.

“You’re the one that holds the keys to closed doors,” he stressed to her.

Her best stories were biopic-ready. Kidjo says she recorded her first album, Pretty, in one day – and in secret – as Benin had become a Marxist-Leninist state. In something out of a le Carré novel, she literally fled to Paris, under false pretense, and was left within walking distance of the airport, lest her father – her getaway driver – be caught and blacklisted.

She then managed to push through, with no paperwork to appease the airport’s regime guardians. Fortunate to find the turned back of a sympathetic customs employee, the young singer made her Air France connection, hiding onboard until an hour into the flight.

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SXSW, SXSW Music 2016, Angelique Kidjo, Ann Powers, James Brown, Bella Bellow, Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, John Le Carré

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