Angélique Kidjo returns to Berkeley as Cal Performances’ first season-long artist-in-residence

Defying logic and destroying skepticism fermented in 19 months of Zoom interactions, I watch the image of French-Beninese singer and composer Angélique Kidjo on the screen of my home computer as she leans back into a plush, cream-colored sofa cushion … and performs a miracle. Familiar with her artistry and humanitarian activism, and having experienced firsthand the phenomenon that is the four-time Grammy-winner Kidjo—seen live on stage at Cal Performances on the UC Berkeley campus in 2012 during a previous Bay Area appearance—I am struck by an improbable memory.

Sparked by her exhilarating, infectious energy, did we dance joyously in the aisles at Zellerbach Hall and sing in languages not our own with lyrics we did not understand, or was that a dream? I could have anticipated being blown away during our 15 minutes together online, but I didn’t. I had told myself Kidjo was doing the publicity stint; several hours of back-to-back conversations with members of the media. She would be phoning it in; her energy would dwindle, I was a bleary blip on the daisy chain of conversations, and so on.

I was wrong. Much as happens when witnessing onstage the woman recently named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2021” and called by the same publication “Africa’s premier diva,” my encounter with Kidjo proved to be uplifting, invigorating, empowering and intimate—even when virtual. During our brief conversation, in which we talked about music and her upcoming activities as Cal Performances’ first season-long artist-in-residence, her charismatic vibrancy never wavered. After three decades of making music, she spoke enthusiastically about paying respect and bringing attention to Black sonic canons from the African continent and its diaspora that include the traditions of her Benin heritage, American R&B, funk, jazz, afropop, hip-hop and classical and contemporary music of Europe and Latin America and more.

To begin the conversation, I asked what is most true about her music, and why it remains central in her work. “What remains true is the inspiration,” she said. “That I never try to manipulate, to veer against the music; because I try sometimes to embellish too much stuff and then the inspiration will vanish. Then you have no more song. You have nothing to say. Less is more was the hardest lesson I learned when it comes to writing songs. When it comes to the inspiration for a song, just be in that moment. Sometimes it can pull you off and you go, ‘This is beautiful, where did it come from?’ If we start asking questions, it can cripple your ability to embrace that song and to know that song will someday leave you to go to others. It’s like having a kid. When a kid grows up, it just leaves home. They have to live their own lives.”

Kidjo insisted that original truth is inseparable from our humanity. “Why do people listen to music?” she asked. “Sometimes you don’t understand what is said in a song, but it speaks to you. That is a power that we artists have to be careful using, because it is something that is bigger than us. It’s more powerful than us. We have to be humble to hold that power in, and to be able to give it. My mum used to say to me, ‘When you get on that stage you have to be ready to be naked spiritually.’ You have to be unbelievably vulnerable onstage to give it your all. If you hold back, you don’t get back. Music is the only language we speak that has no nationality, no color. Music is not divisive. It unifies people.”

Kidjo’s visibility as an activist in causes supporting children’s access to education and increased investment in businesses owned by women entrepreneurs—along with her talents as a composer, vibrant onstage presence and remarkable voice—have her involved in multiple endeavors. She is the founder of her own charitable foundation, Batonga, which is dedicated to supporting the education of young girls in Africa, and travels worldwide as a UNICEF and OXFAM goodwill ambassador. Kidjo’s memoir, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music (Harper Collins), was released in 2014 to critical acclaim. She has appeared with the Bruckner Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Philharmonie de Paris and in a collaboration with Philip Glass, IFÉ: Three Yorùbá Songs, which debuted in the United States with a sold-out concert with the San Francisco Symphony in June 2015. Among her 16 albums, recent releases include Mother Nature (2021), created over the past year in quarantine and featuring next-gen musicians such as Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, Salif Keita, Burna Boy, Shungudzo, Zeynab, Lionel Loueke, Sampa The Great, Blue Lab Beats, Ghetto Boy and EARTHGANG; Celia (2019), paying homage to the West African percussion and spiritual roots of Cuban salsa star Celia Cruz; and the work she will bring to Cal Performances Oct. 29, Remain In Light (2018), a track-by-track re-imagination of the Talking Heads’ landmark 1980 album.

Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Jeremy Geffen wrote in an email, “Angelique has an infectious joy and easy laugh that can be mistaken for breeziness, but she is tenacious and constantly searches for connections, especially between styles and cultural elements that seem disparate. Whatever she touches, she makes her own, but she never diminishes the value of the source material. She is an artist with whom invention and respect live in balance.”

Balance, Kidjo suggested, especially during Covid and after she and her siblings experienced tremendous loss due to the sudden brain hemorrhage and passing of their mother in June 2021, has not come easily. “If I hadn’t had those memories [of performing in Berkeley and locations worldwide] during the lockdown I don’t know if I’d still be here, actually healthy,” she said. “After a while it is crazy, because we are not made to be grounded for so long. It’s not good for your body, your brain, your creativity. Having the memory of the stage has allowed me to do my new album. Every concert is different. Every place I play is different. They are all a tapestry that is in my memory. This helped me during this year-and-a-half of lockdown. I love being onstage; being in the studio is a painful experience for me. The only way I can go to the studio is to envision myself onstage. It is the culture of Benin; performing. I started singing out to people when I was a young girl. There were no recordings, we just went out there and did music. That’s where I come from. It’s embedded in my DNA, and when I am onstage, I’m like, oooh, looks like paradise.”

Paradise will return to Berkeley in April 2022 when Kidjo performs the Bay Area premiere of the Cal Performances co-commission, Yemandja: A Story of Africa. The musical theater production as part of Cal Performances’ Illuminations “Place and Displacement” series exploring the effect of migration and gentrification on individuals and communities, presents a panoramic parable. Gods and humans through song and movement interweave fantasy and realism to investigate how people robbed of their culture rise up through acts of love, honor, revenge, and courage. Yemandja’s libretto is written by Kidjo’s daughter, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo.

“It’s all about transition,” Kidjo said. “You know we raise our kids, and we try to instill in them values. One is how to be a decent human being. Coming from a different culture, since my child was three months old, I started to take her to Africa, to my country. She would listen and ask questions, but I never thought she was so impacted by my family story and the story of slavery in our history. How the visits impacted her and had given her a different vision about that story that is still a scar on our shared humanity. To see her grow to become that writer—that adult who could tell complex stories such as slavery—keeping that complexity, and yet offer something called redemption, is to me is amazing.”

Willpower, she suggested, is key to transformational change. “When you lose your willpower that’s when it’s infectious, because you get angry at everybody but yourself,” she said. “You have lost your willpower to do something better for yourself, and therefore to share with others. You can be angry, but stay positive. Be angry, and use your anger to change the world in a positive way; not to harm other people. If you take pleasure in harming other people, that pleasure doesn’t last long because you come back to the same thing you are running away from. Willpower is what keeps us loving people, waking up every morning and saying, ‘Today I’m going to do my best and whatever happens today, I’m gonna cruise through it.’ The willpower to change yourself, to be a person to bring something to the table, is part of what keeps us away from other beings that we fought to leave behind. Leaving demands courage. Every day is a struggle. You wake up in the morning, you make plans, those plans can go completely wrong, completely bad. You don’t know what will happen.”

Kidjo told me of prayer her mother spoke aloud to her and to her siblings every day. It taught her to cherish the wisdom of elders. “What keeps me going is that my mom said, ‘Even if I go from this earth, I have prayed to God every day since you guys were born, that you will find people along the way to help you,’” she said. “She was telling me that prayer 10 days before she passed, when she said, ‘I’ll give you 10 more years [with me].’ I was saying, ‘Ten more, please, we must have them.’ It was our wish, but we didn’t have them. But she gave me and my [siblings] enough strength.”

When visiting Benin, she spends time in public marketplaces, listening to elderly women. “Sometimes I have to hold [my] screams, because those women are doing so much in Africa, but no one gives them thanks,” she said. “They don’t want the thanks, but those women are not acknowledged, when those women are the ones holding the continent. They make the day go by seamlessly for men who walk around saying, ‘We are doing this and doing that.’ Meanwhile, these women are doing everything. We, in this society, underestimate the wealth that lies with our elderly. We live in a society where we worship the youth, discard women and the elderly. And yet, there can be no youth without women and the elderly.”

During a number of workshops and panels held during her residency, Kidjo plans to learn different truths from young people. “I’m a curious person,” she said. “I love to learn. My father used to say, and I agree with him, the day you die is the day you stop learning.

“I want to learn from the young kids the questions they have, because the world and reality is ever-changing, every day. What are they holding onto; how are they holding on? What is the future we are able to prepare for them? How do they see us, we aging people? How is this climate change affecting them? With all the issues they are facing, I’m curious to hear what they have to bring to the table. Will their studies help our humanity evolve?”

While Kidjo prepares for a triumphant return, Geffen is focused on the continued presence of Covid-19 and the challenges of returning to live performances. Charting the course, he says steps are incremental, aimed at safety, equity and diversity, and events are adjusted with new timelines and increased flexibility regarding access. With live appearances in the next two months by top-caliber artists including Ballet Hispánico, Aaron Diehl Trio, Damien Sneed, Vân-Ánh Võ and Blood Moon Orchestra, Mark Morris, Kronos and others, the task is monumental, but crossing each “mile marker” is enormously rewarding.

At the end of our 15 minutes, Kidjo told me to “go do your writing magic, girl.” I told her we expect four more decades of her music and miracle-making. “Yeah, I’m gonna have it,” she said in affirmation.

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