The War on Silence

Monday Magazine | February 20, 2008
Angélique Kidjo is giggling gleefully over the phone. And for good reason;:she’s just won a Grammy—her first after three previous nominations. She says accepting the small gold statue of a gramophone was surreal.

“Whoo, I went up there and I’m thinking ‘What is that? What is that?’ It’s so heavy,’” she says with a laugh. But there was no champagne for her that night. “Ohh noo, not that stuff. Sparkling cider, that works for me,” she hoots merrily.

The Best Contemporary World Music Album Grammy win is for her 10th record, Djin Djin, a 13-track exploration of love, birth, alienation and hope, sung in a variety of languages from Kidjo’s mother tongue Fon (Benin) to Ewe (Togo), French and English with the likes of Ziggy Marley, Peter Gabriel, Alicia Keys and Malian duo Amadou & Mariam. Kidjo wanted to do an album with “friends, hoping they’d return my call,” she laughs, so she could revisit her Beninese musical roots. Previous albums include the Grammy-nominated trilogy of Oremi, Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya that had Kidjo tracing the ancestry of music in the United States, Brazil and the Caribbean by Africans displaced by the slave trade.

Kidjo was born in 1960 and by her early twenties had moved to Paris to escape her country’s political insecurity and focus on her musical career as a composer and singer. Later, she moved to New York where she still resides. She has been quoted in Time magazine saying, “music is the ultimate power.” On the phone, she explains her Djin Djin cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (with soul-R&B singer Joss Stone) makes the connection between music, activism and war. Growing up, Kidjo remembers the images of the Vietnam War, the era when the Stones first wrote the song. “Now we’re in the 21st century, but have we really evolved since even the 18th?” she asks. “How is it that we are always at war?”

To that end, Kidjo didn’t say no when Oxfam and UNICEF came calling—she is a goodwill ambassador for both aid agencies. She says she did so because of her childhood in Benin. “I saw the UN trucks coming and us running like a wild [thing] to get our vaccinations,” she says. “That medicine allowed me to stay in school without being sick all the time.” She has also set up her own educational foundation, Batonga, to increase access for women and girls to go to and remain in school. Batonga means something like “gimme a break, get off my back,” says Kidjo. “I invented it with a girlfriend in school because the boys were always bullying everyone.”

Thus her children’s rights concerts and HIV/AIDS activism are a natural extension of her philosophy. “Making a social, political or economic change in Africa, in the world, comes with education,” she says. “How can we make change if there is no education?” She loops back to the video for “Gimme Shelter,” with its images of Darfur and blunt statistics of war and death. “We are ignoring the women and the rape in Darfur and a war for oil.” Kidjo wants to remind us of the universality of humanity despite geography or skin colour or advantage or disadvantage. On Djin Djin, “Pearls” is a Beninese cover of a 1992 Sade original that opens with Carlos Santana’s guitar work and has Kidjo in duet with classical-pop singer Josh Groban as they sing the haunting line, “There is a woman in Somalia.”

But Kidjo also wants to propel us to resist violence in places like Somalia, Darfur, Chad and Iraq in the name of peace and embracing diversity. This is what she means by the ultimate power of music. “We are accepting of war by our silence.”

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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