Afropop’s Sean Barlow visited Angélique Kidjo recently at her home in Brooklyn to talk about her new live album, ‘Spirit Rising‘ (Razor & Tie/WGBH).
Sean Barlow: Angélique, congratulations on Spirit Rising. It’s a beautiful album. We play it a lot. This your first live album, right? You’ve waited a long time. How did it come about?
Angélique Kidjo: It is difficult to do live albums. It’s the same frustration I have some time when I am in Africa and I record everything and I come back and the image is not there. Even if you film it, the energy that you experience there, you cannot put that energy on tape, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter who is filming. There was a time when everyone was like, “I think you should do an album, live album.” And I’m like, “Ehhhh… I don’t think so.” I will do it when I’m ready, when I feel like I have something that will make it close to what it is to see me on stage. And the thing that triggered that is a lot of odd situations where you meet a fan and they say “Oh my god, oh my god, Angélique Kidjo!,” and they are with friends, and their friends are looking like, “He is losing it.” What is wrong with this person? Why are you so excited?” And then the fan goes, “You don’t know Angélique Kidjo!?” And the man says “No.” And then “You never saw her play live?” “No.” “Man, you don’t know what you’re missing!” And it goes on and on and you’re like “Okay. Calm down. Just take it easy.” “No, they don’t understand!” and I go, “Okay. We’ll talk about that later.” So the whole point to do this live album was also to… to try to catch the spirit of the public because when you are in the studio it’s a different vibe. And the studio is not my favorite place in the world to do my art. Because for me it’s too technical, and it’s too cold, unless I have all of the musicians in the room in the studio recording live. I don’t like the studio. Period.
But going on stage, nothing stops me from going to stage. I can’t just sit quiet when I’m on stage, I’m in heaven. So how do you put that on a CD and on a DVD? That was the challenge. And where can you do that and have your artistic freedom? Who will you do it with? So all of those questions had to have answers before I jumped into it. And it took us a year when we approached WGBH, PBS, to do this. To think about how you carve this. Because through all the years I have written so many songs, so many albums. How do you do a live album? And which songs to choose and which ones not to choose? Who to invite and who not to invite? How to make a balance between the guests and what you are trying to achieve? So it was a long process of discussion, and to find a right producer. It’s very very important, because a producer for live concert is different from a studio producer. They have to have the sense of timing, of mixing it. They have to keep it up, how to keep the spirit of what you’re doing live. It took us time and it was headache to choose songs and the guests. It was easy to choose a bunch of them, what was not easy was to bring it down to a size that keeps the unity of what you’re doing and that sends a message of universality completely.
S.B: Spirit Rising is a really great mix of some of your favorite standards you perform and that your fans know well—“ Tumba”, “Afirika” (with refrain “Ashe Mama Africa”,) “Batonga,” “Malaika,” and others. And then your superb guests–Dianne Reeves, Branford Marsalis, Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend lead singer), multi platinum Josh Groban, and your covers of classics like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Ravel’s “Bolero.” Let’s start with some of your classics. It must have been like choosing favorite children.
A.K.: It was difficult to choose the classics because there are so many. On every album there are classics, all the way from the first one to the latest Aye that people like. And it’s always different from what I like from what they like. And that’s the freedom of choice right? When you write songs, people have the right to like what they like and what they don’t like. And it was difficult to choose but what made it easy was the live performance. People react to certain songs so that you cannot do a live album without putting those songs in there. Because they are going to say, “Awwwwwww, this is our favorite song, why don’t we have it there?” So that’s why you have “Tumba”, you have “Afirika,” you have “Batonga”– there are so many songs. You can have “Agolo.” A lot of people are like, “Angelique, why don’t you sing that?” I cannot sing all the songs!
S.B. Okay. Let’s talk about “Afirika” a bit. The last time I saw you perform was at your Metropolitan Museum of Art concert in celebration of the inauguration of their fantastic “African Heroes” exhibition. I looked around in the hall and right across from me there was a ten year or so old girl and her eight year old brother. Their faces were glowing, and they were singing their hearts out. I said to myself, “My god, they know all the words of this song!” They looked like they could be white suburban kids. And I thought, what an advancement in human evolution that these American kids, one plus generations from me, have this direct experience of you as an African performer. And can sing along with your songs! That’s beautiful. But tell me about “Afirika” and how it fits into your performance repertoire.
A: It’s a song that I wrote at the eve of the 21st century. Everybody was so excited, “We’re getting to a new millennium,” and I was like, “Well, what difference does that make for us? Does it mean that there will be less poor people, less war, less hate?” And I said “Come on, Angélique. You’re always thinking about making this world a better place.” I was like, “Well- don’t you think so? Why else are we here, the purpose of us being here what is it?” And I wrote that song because it was a time when everything that comes from Africa is always seen as bad. And that’s still happening. It reassures most of the people to have a place where they can dump all of the hate and all of the bad things to make themselves feel better, and they choose Africa for that, even if all of us we come from Africa. So that song came to me after an extensive discussion I had with Miriam Makeba, when she was concerned about the fact that the traditional music in Africa that had helped her become who she was, and that is helping me do what I have to do, that she was not seeing that in the young generation. And I said to her, “Times are different. Things go differently.” The way we approached the traditional music we grew up in, both of us, is different. Because that traditional music also evolved within the time. Those people who were playing it centuries ago are not here anymore, and the reality we live in today is different. So that is what makes the traditional music in Africa so different and so modern. What I’m saying is that if we don’t see the beauty of Africa, how can we see the beauty in us? It doesn’t matter who we are, what we come from. And also, in that song, what I’m saying is that some of us, we wake up every morning wanting to make a difference in our own lives and in other people’s lives, want things to change, want to evolve, want to move on, WHILE some people will sit and criticize, become cynical, and not be doing anything, not producing anything but just negativity. And blessings to Mother Africa because Mother Africa will always be there. The strength of it is there, and the strength of it and the positivity of it and the beauty of it will always be there. Just turn to it, and you will find the beauty in you and the strength in you.
S.B.: Beautiful! Every show that I’ve ever seen you do, you always sing Malaika. (the Tanzanian folk song that Miriam Makeba recorded and popularized worldwide) Tell us the story of how Malaika became such a centerpiece of your repertoire.
A: I started singing Malaika when I was very young. I began singing Miriam Makeba songs when I was eight. Because my mother had a group of women in Benin at that time. They were activists for women’s rights to vote, for women’s rights to choose who they want to marry. Just to be perceived with respect as humans in their society. They choose one of the songs of Miriam’s to be their anthem, her “Retreat Song” but they didn’t sing it in the language of Miriam Makeba. They put their language in the front. And the head of that organization always called my mom before the meeting and the marching. She asked for her to bring me, to bring me to sing the song. And my mom said “Why?” Then the woman said, “Because she sings better than us. She will save the day. We sound too bad. We need someone who sings very well so that people will listen to us.” So I started becoming an activist at 8 years old, singing the “Retreat Song” in front. And then Malaika came in right after that and I was like, “Okay. I love this lady (Miriam). Simple.” But I didn’t have the sense of the importance that she was going to have in my life until I was 13, 14. 15, actually those were the years when everything just was like a big bang in my life.
When I heard Winnie Mandela talking about Nelson Mandela..It makes me look back to South Africa differently. Makes me look back to Miriam Makeba’s music differently. Makes me discover all the music that comes from South Africa that I was listening to at that time, Ipi Tombi (the famous SA musical) and so on and so forth. And Malaika is really a song that everybody knows in Africa. It doesn’t matter where you go. And that song comes from Tanzania. And I love that song because of the message of it. That love is not about money. You can love somebody and be the poorest person on earth. But that if you are rich enough with the love that you can give to a person, you are the richest person on earth. And it’s always among the songs that I sing because that’s something I want the people to understand. That we live in material world, and we all need money– of course we all have bills to pay. But at the end of the day, what lasts longer than money? If somebody loves you really, that can be there for you day and night, throughout your life? That is powerful.
SB: That brings up an interesting point. There are some performers that just sing through their sets, they hardly talk to their audience at all, that’s just what they do. But your rhythm is different. You sing a song and then you make time for a little reflection, a little philosophizing. There’s even sometimes a bit of the preacher in you. About everything from politics to Africa to women to women everywhere. And something as basic as how human beings treat each other. So I wonder about how you think of that role yourself as an artist who not only gives people pleasing melodies and exciting dances and everything, but also gives your audiences something to think about. Is it because you’re singing in several languages and you want to provide some context?
AK: One of the things that I realized growing up, listening to the traditional musicians in my country, is the time that they spend, discussing, before, between, and after about things. And I always ask questions, I’m always somewhere like a fly somewhere. As soon as I hear something that I don’t understand, I’m like “Okay, he can explain it to me,” And also they are available to me to explain, especially when I ask, one day, “Why are we dancing on such a horrendous subject, why? People are smiling and jumping around- Well you can’t do this!”
S: Like what?
A: Like war. Talking about war and everyone is jumping and having fun. Talking about abuse in a family and how a whole family can collapse when there is hate in it. A lot of subjects are really not something that you should be dancing on. Like DEATH. I mean death has always been a subject of songs, like life. In our societies and civilizations, it is important for us not to be shy of death. Because death is part of life. If you don’t think about death, you can’t live fully. It is always a tension between positive and negative all the time, sometimes the negative overwhelms the positive side and you don’t see why until it finishes. And the last part of the song gives you the hope to bring those two worlds together. If I didn’t ask questions, I wouldn’t understand it. And the answer given to me is that it is not up to us, musicians, to make people guilty. We bring the message to them, give them pleasure dancing it, but when they go home, the message sinks in–that everyone has to have the free will and the freedom of choice to do whatever they want to. You do not impose on people what they have to do. And that is why, sometimes, I take the time to talk to people, not to explain my songs, but just to let them understand that the fact that they come to the show is already a huge commitment. They could have been doing something else. Therefore, they have to understand that, not only is their presence important to me, but that they are important to themselves. That’s why I spend the time connecting to the public like that, because being on stage for me is not just doing a show, it’s trying to empower people for them to take the lead in their lives. It doesn’t matter which country you come from, everybody goes through hard times all the times. And I’ve experienced, on stage, people that I’ve invited on stage to sing with me, they would tell me, on stage, the story of their lives, and how my music has helped them overcome diseases, overcome hardship. They wanted to thank me for being there tonight, and sharing this stage with me. And therefore you have to take time and connect with people.
SB: Let’s talk about some of the collaborations on Spirit Rising. One of my favorite songs is the Stones classic “Gimme Shelter,” with the jazz diva Dianne Reeves. Tell me how that collaboration with her came about, and also how you choose “Gimme Shelter” as the song that you wanted to do.
AK: (Laughs.) I just tell her, “I want you to do this song with me,” and she says “Send it to me sister!” And I sent it to her, and then she called me back and she said, “I love this song! Can we do it any way we want?” I say, “Yeah, of course, you know that. Let’s do it, let’s jam it. Done.” With Dianne there’s no problem, I have no problem doing any kind of music with Dianne. Because any music you bring to her, she’s right on top of it.
SB: Well, what do you like about her?
AK: I like her spirit. I like her energy. I like the fact that she calms me, but at the same time keep she keeps my energy going. And I like her passion for music. Because she certainly is one of those powerhouses, voice-wise, and spiritually too. For me she is the only, only one, who sings Ella Fitzgerald. And Billie Holiday Nina Simone are favorite singers too. Dianne is absolutely amazing. Just bring any music to her. She has taught me so much. We spent time listening to Aretha Franklin and then I start listening to Aretha Franklin differently. I started listening to Marvin Gaye differently. I mean it’s beyond music, we have a bond like we have been sisters in another life. And it’s something that is really rare to find in the music business. If we do not talk on the phone, as soon as we pick up the phone or send a text, it is like the conversation that we had six months ago is still going on. And it is something that really doesn’t happen often. Two, no, three other people who I have that relationship with are Brandford (Marsalis) Josh (Groban), and Alicia Keys. And it’s like it doesn’t matter where they are in the world, if I send them a text they will reply. And I’ve been fortunate with music to have met some wonderful people on the way of my journey in music and in life. And Dianne is one of them, I hope that one day we are going to sit together and do something absolutely mind-blowing.
SB: I’m sure you will! What about the song you chose “Gimme Shelter”?
AK: Well, “Gimme Shelter” is a song that is on my (Grammy Award winning) album Djin Djin, and at that time, when I was writing Djin Djin, there are two songs that talk about immigration–“Aye” because of the movie “The Departed.” And a lot of African youth, till today, have to leave their country for a better life. And it take a toll on the family. Sometimes the mother has to sell everything, not having the assurance that the kid might make it safe to somewhere. And for me, it’s unfair in this 21st century that we call the century of communication, and we think that we have evolved so much, that people that are born in different parts of the world who don’t have the right to happiness and to achieve their dreams. Because of where they are born. And “Gimme Shelter” has been talking about that already in the 60’s, and here we are in 2012, and it’s still a problem. Where immigrants are perceived as the ones that take your job, but they are doing the dirty jobs you don’t want to do. So how do we help a people to live in their country and have a decent life. Or to migrate without being the one that everyone hates. Because if life is better somewhere, if it’s better in my country, if I could have had the career I have today living in Benin, nothing in the world would take me out of the country. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But unfortunately it was not possible because we do not have good studios, we do not have the infrastructure. Till today the rights and the stature of an artist in Benin are not something clear. There is no law that defends their rights. Piracy in Africa is a huge burden on the income of artists there. So, you see, we live in a world where there is a double standard–“Don’t do what we do, and do what we tell you to do.”
How can that work? So if the way that the world is has been talked about before, somebody has to say, “Hold up a minute, we are in 2012, it’s still accurate.” So how can we use music to make people realize that closing your door to somebody else doesn’t make you safer. Because that person, when you are not in your surroundings, in your comfort zone, that person can save your life later on.
SB: Definitely. And also who cleans the streets in Paris? It’s the Moroccans and Algerians. Or who picks the fruits and vegetables, does that back-breaking work under a scorching sun in Arizona and California? It’s the Mexicans. Or who are the bus boys and pizza deliverers in New York? Mexicans. It’s such a double standard, you know, “We want you, we don’t want you.”
AK: We profit from the comfort that the immigrants give us in our daily life, but we just don’t want to recognize that they have the right to live too. And it becomes political. And for me it’s a shame when a political party uses immigration to get votes, and in his own house, he has immigrants.
SB: One of the other things that is remarkable about you, Angélique, is that you say “yes” to so many things. You say yes to special events and to tributes and to events for Africa, events for women and so on. How does that fit into the world that you see for yourself beyond your own artistic career? You probably get twice, ten times as many things that people want you to as you can do, so how do you sort it out?
AK: Sometimes I have to say “no.” Because there is only one me, and I have a family. I pick what I can do within the time that I have. Because I’m the type of person who when I commit to do something I do something fully. And if I can’t, I tell you I can’t. And it saves headaches to be clear upfront. And my parents have taught me one thing. My father always said, “Your words are what represent your honor and dignity. If you don’t follow your words, then you have none.” So I’m always careful when I’m asked to do something. If I don’t have my calendar in front of my face, I can’t say “yes.” I’ll ask you, “ Can you give me your contact, whatever it is, and I’ll come back to you. Let me think about it. And if I can, I will, and if cannot, I cannot. What does the future hold? I do not know. I’m not god. I don’t even know what the next half-hour holds for me to be talking about future. One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to do politics.
SB: Not like Youssou? (Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour announced in January that he was quitting music for the time being and running for President. He was stopped, his people say, by manipulation of the state electoral commission’s regulations.)
AK: Not like Youssou. Youssou has a lot of courage. He has the courage of doing what he does, because the country needs an electric shock, and someone has to step in because people in Senegal are sick and tired of what is going on. But it’s Youssou, because he is a man, he can do whatever he wants. I’m a woman, I can do whatever I want to, but politics is certainly not part of my thing.
SB: I think you know your priorities.
AK: Politics is a dirty game. You gotta be a mobster to be a politician.
SB: Why don’t you pick, of the hundreds of performances you’ve done, one or two performances that are peak moments for you, performances that you’ll always treasure as super, super special.
A: The World Cup in South Africa. And the last show I did for the Nobel Peace Prize awards last awards year, the three women—President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (Liberia), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) and Tawakkol Karman (Yemen.) It was a moment of joy, emotion, and hope. Because for the first time three women, from two different parts of the world, have received the Nobel Peace Prize. And the one I really worry for, a lot, among those three, is the woman from Yemen, even though she came with her husband, her husband is very supportive. I don’t know what could happen. I pray for her every day. And I completely support her, because something has to change. Someone has to have the courage of standing up for things to change. That is how we are where we are today. And that’s how you and I are sitting down and having a conversation in complete freedom. Someone has given their life for us to keep our freedom of speech.
Eh! Let’s hope that 2012 will be the year for all possibilities for peace and positivity. I am sick and tired of negativity and pessimism. I want more optimism, and I want all of us to get to work for ourselves, for our families, for our communities and countries and for the world!
SB: Well said.
AK: Let’s do it!
SB: Angélique, thank you for your time. It’s always a delight talking with you. I only wish we could talk more about some of your other songs on Spirit Rising but I know you have to go now. Our readers and listeners will just have to explore them for themselves.
AK: You got it.
(Thanks to Sam Backer for doing the transcription.)