When Angélique Kidjo takes the stage at Carnegie Hall on May 5 for the debut performance of her take on Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light, a circle will close in a most exciting way. Here is an artist, born and raised in the West African nation of Benin, reimagining music created by an American rock band influenced by the music of Africa.
“The first time I came to New York to sing, in 1992, David Byrne from Talking Heads came to my show—the first American artist to do so—and we met afterwards,” says Kidjo. “Not long before, in 1988, Talking Heads had recorded an album with some of my African friends from Paris. At that time, I discovered their music and fell in love with the Remain in Light album. [Producer] Brian Eno and Talking Heads understood the magical power of African music, but instead of trying to clone it, they created their own style based on the hypnotic rhythm patterns of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. The cryptic lyrics were also resonating with me. Somehow I felt I was hearing, in a strange way, social commentaries on the state of my continent.
“Now I want to pay it back and create my own African take on Talking Heads’ songs,” she continues. “We all know that rock music came from the blues and thus from Africa. Now is the time to bring rock back to Africa, connect our minds, and bring all our sounds to a new level of sharing and understanding.”
For Kidjo, it’s always been about soaking up all that comes her way, making connections and reinventing. “I grew up in a household where my parents were convinced that in order for us to live in the challenging world we were going to be facing, it was important to be open to other cultures, to see the endless possibilities of the human brain and heart,” she says. “I’m putting it in words now, but when I was growing up I didn’t think about it like that. I took for granted that that’s the way things go.”
When she was only nine, her older brother was enthralled with an album he’d acquired by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The curious Kidjo looked at the cover and, she recalls, “I thought he was African. My brother said, ‘He’s an African American.’ I said, ‘How can he be African and American? It’s two different continents.’ He said, ‘Yeah, smarty-pants, go ask Grandma.’”
She did. But when her grandmother also told Kidjo about the history of slavery in the Americas, she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I looked at her like she was losing her mind because not a day went by that my parents didn’t tell us that a human being is not a matter of color,” Kidjo says. “I didn’t even know that I was in danger because of my skin color. I just lost it.”
Eventually, having absorbed all of the music she could find, including traditional African sounds as well as Western jazz, R&B, and rock—she loved Otis Redding and James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Santana, Motown and Stax 45s, great vocalists like Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone—Kidjo began singing and writing her own songs. One of her first compositions expressed her wrath toward the racism she’d begun to learn about. “I started singing and my father said, ‘I understand that you are hurt and angry, but hate is not a solution. You have a brain, use it. It’s your ultimate weapon.’”
Kidjo rewrote the song, “Azan Nan Kpé” (“The Day Will Come”) as “an anthem of how we as a human family can live with diversity, how there will never again be oppressors nor oppressed people. My father said, ‘Now, I accept that. You continue on that path.’”
In 1983, Kidjo left Benin, which was then under Communist rule, for Paris, where she attended music school. “The freedom that I regained was like someone had lifted a weight from my shoulders,” she says, “but at the same time, I was facing big differences of culture and the ignorance of people with all those clichés they have in their minds, like that if you’re African, you ride on the back of an elephant—all this stupid stuff I had to deal with.”
Nonetheless, she managed to launch her music career in earnest and by the end of the 1980s had become extremely popular in Paris, leading to a recording deal with Island Records. By the ’90s, she was known internationally, ultimately being named one of the 50 most iconic figures in Africa by the BBC. She’s received honorary degrees from Yale University, Berklee College of Music, and other colleges and universities, and has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002. She’s collaborated with a variety of artists in various genres and spends much of her time as an activist and advocate for numerous organizations.
Kidjo still finds it sobering that she’s come to this place in her life and career, having risen from obscurity. “You dream about a lot of stuff, but there are things that you think are out of reach or you would never be able to do, never be able to achieve,” she says. “Playing Carnegie Hall was one of them, as was Royal Albert Hall in London and the Sydney Opera House. Those are the prestigious places that are in everybody’s psyche—magnificent places and magical places and spiritual places. So for me, being born in a poor country, to a poor family, and coming from Africa, to be able to spread the variety of music that we live with and to be able to share it—at Carnegie Hall, of all places—is something. I wake up in the middle of the night and ask, ‘Is this just a dream?’ But then I say, ‘Yes, it’s all happening!’ But you still have to keep it humble.”
Jeff Tamarkin is a freelance music journalist.