When she was seven, Angélique Kidjo told her mother that when she grew up she wanted to be like James Brown, known as the Godfather of Soul. When she was eight, she decided she would pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix. That was when Kidjo, who will turn 61 this month, was in her home country of Benin in west Africa. The stories give an idea of the diverse influences both on her and her oeuvre as a musician.
Singer, songwriter and activist, Kidjo is difficult to pin down to one or two genres. Her soaring vocals are equally at ease with Latin and African music, funk, jazz, gospel, soul and rock.
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She has had a storied career. Since her debut as a recording artist in 1981, Kidjo has released 18 albums, performing or recording with musicians as diverse as Dave Matthews, Bono, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Buddy Guy, Dr John and Ziggy Marley. And that star-studded list doesn’t even cover half of the people she has collaborated with over the years. And, yes, that tribute to Jimi Hendrix. It happened.
Kidjo’s interpretation of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return) opens her 1998 album Oremi, an album on which Kidjo explored the connections between African music and R&B, collaborating with musicians such as jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, gospel singer Kelly Price, and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.
Years later, in 2007, another interpretation of a similarly famous rock song, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, followed. The original, as Stones’ fans know, was the opening track in the band’s 1969 album Let It Bleed, which came at a time when youth activism and the fervour against the Vietnam War were at a peak. Gimme Shelter was received by many critics as an anti-war song that summed up the mood of the era. It is distinctive because of its signature opening, a lead guitar riff by Keith Richards. In Kidjo’s version, it starts with percussion and a stanza sung in an African language, presumably Fon. Kidjo, incidentally, is fluent in 10 languages, including Fon and Yoruba from her home country, and sings in almost all of them.
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As a child in Benin, Kidjo grew up listening not only to her country’s traditional music and musicians such as Brown and Hendrix but also to Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. As a teenager, she achieved success in Benin and other African countries with some of her early songs, notably an adaptation of Les Trois Z, a song by the South African singer Miriam Makeba (popularly known as Mama Africa). But political conflicts and civil unrest in Benin made it difficult for her to continue her career there and she moved to Paris in 1983. That’s when her career took off.
In mid-June this year, Kidjo released her latest album, Mother Nature. It is a continuation of her quest over the decades to find connections and cross-influences between traditional African music and soul, R&B, rock and hip hop. The album works on different levels. For people who aren’t that familiar with her back catalogue of albums and songs, Mother Nature offers a good retrospective view of the wide range of genres Kidjo, often called the African funk diva, can straddle. Afrobeat meets Caribbean reggae; soul meets funk, and R&B and jazz.
But there is a second, more impactful level at which Mother Nature works. On the album, Kidjo has assembled a range of collaborators from across the world; many among them are young, from Africa, rising musicians who could be tomorrow’s stars. Some are stars already. Do Yourself, a dance-club ready track, features the Nigerian rapper (and Grammy winner) Burna Boy. Take It Or Leave It, another track, has EARTHGANG, the rapper duo from Atlanta, US. The Zambian-born rapper Sampa the Great collaborates on another track, Free & Equal.
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The songs of Mother Nature are steeped in modern funk, R&B and hip hop but also have large helpings of traditional African beats and chants. More importantly, they deal with issues that reflect Kidjo’s activism. The title track is about climate change; Dignity (which also has Nigerian singer Yemi Alade) is against police brutality; and Free & Equal is about empowerment and rights.
Mother Nature is the first Kidjo album since 2015 to have original compositions. In between, she has done a track-by-track re-imagining of the renowned New Wave band Talking Heads’ 1980 album, Remain In Light, her version coming out in 2018. This was followed in 2019 by Celia, a tribute to the late Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz. Both paid homage to musicians Kidjo admires.
Mother Nature, however, is different. Here, Kidjo is celebrating young talent, mainly from Africa or with roots in that continent. In a sense, you could say the album is a kind of musical philanthropy, from a veteran diva to a host of rising musicians.
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