Angélique Kidjo connects with Africa’s next musical generation

By Jon Pareles

Angélique Kidjo, the singer from Benin who has been forging Pan-African and transcontinental hybrids for three decades, didn’t really need another Grammy.

In 2020, she received the best world music album award for the fourth time with “Celia,” her tribute to the Afro-Cuban salsa dynamo Celia Cruz. True to form, Grammy voters chose familiar names and snubbed the year’s world-music phenomenon: Nigerian songwriter Burna Boy’s “African Giant,” an ambitious, thoughtful album that drew hundreds of millions of streams and made him an international sensation. (“African Giant” also included a guest appearance by Kidjo.)

In her acceptance speech, Kidjo was gracious, but she pointedly looked ahead. “The new generations of artists coming from Africa gonna take you by storm,” she said, “and the time has come.”

Kidjo, 60, follows through on that declaration with her new album, “Mother Nature,” which is full of collaborations with rising African songwriters and producers: Burna Boy, Mr Eazi and Yemi Alade from Nigeria as well as Zambian rapper and singer Sampa the Great, Zimbabwean American songwriter Shungudzo and singer Zeynab, who was born in Ivory Coast and lives in Benin. Throughout the album, her guests give their all to keep pace with Kidjo’s leather-lunged fervor.

“This young generation has the same concern that I’ve had throughout my career — trying to give a very positive image of my continent, Africa,” Kidjo said via video from Paris. “I also wanted to hear from them about climate change and the impact it’s having on their life, and the way that they want to tackle that. With climate change, we in Africa are going to pay the greatest price for it, especially the youth. It’s going to be up to the future generation not to ask questions, but to act. Because the time to ask questions is running out.”

The songs on “Mother Nature” feature snappy programmed Afrobeats, lilting Congolese soukous, rippling Nigerian juju and a dramatic orchestral chanson. Irresistible beats carry serious messages about preserving the environment, about human rights, about African unity and about the power of music and love.

Kidjo recorded “Dignity” — a song that was galvanized when protesters against police brutality in Nigeria were shot — with Alade, 32, a major star in Nigerian pop whom she had worked with previously, in 2019. Alade, like Kidjo, has collaborated with musicians from across Africa and beyond (including with Beyoncé on the “Black Is King” soundtrack).

“I grew up listening to her music,” Alade said in an interview from Lagos. “She is one of the few role models that I have. The one thing that definitely drew me to Angélique is her unapologetic Africanness, no matter where she goes. As far as Africa is concerned, she’s definitely our Angélique, our songbird — any time, any day. It’s always heartwarming to see her do what she does and the way she does it, despite the fact that she’s been doing it for so long. I look at her and I’m encouraged to just keep doing what I do.”

Like most of Kidjo’s music through the years, the new album is multilingual — primarily English, but also French and West African languages like Fon and Nago — and it fuses new sounds and technologies with Africa’s past. In “One Africa,” Kidjo celebrates the year she was born — 1960 — because it was a turning point in African history, when multiple countries gained independence. (She planned a March 2020 Carnegie Hall concert around the milestone, which was canceled as New York shut down for the pandemic.) She based the music on “Indépendance Cha Cha,” released in 1960 by Joseph Kabasele’s group L’African Jazz.

For “Africa, One of a Kind,” Mr Eazi constructed the track around a sample of Malian singer Salif Keita’s 1995 song “Africa,” but Kidjo raised the ante: She coaxed Keita, now 71, out of retirement to sing it anew. The song’s video features a dance, gogbahoun, from Kidjo’s home village in Benin, Ouidah.

“Gogbahoun means the rhythm that breaks glass,” she said. It’s a beat, she explained, that was originally tapped on an empty bottle with a piece of metal: a ring, a spoon, a coin. “And when the bottle is broken, the party is over,” she said.

The recording of “Mother Nature” was shaped by the pandemic. “We had time on our hands and nowhere to go,” Kidjo said. Her two previous albums were re-Africanized tributes to music from the Americas: “Celia” and, before that, a transformative remake of the Talking Heads album “Remain in Light.” But Kidjo and her husband and longtime musical partner, keyboardist and programmer Jean Hébrail, were writing songs of their own in 2019, the year she also released and toured for “Celia.”

When lockdowns were imposed in 2020, Kidjo set out to complete the songs with new, far-flung collaborators working remotely. On an album concerned with global warming, there was an upside: “a minimal carbon footprint,” Kidjo noted.

She assembled the album’s personnel through connections and serendipity. Kidjo happened to hear Sampa the Great, 27, a rapper and singer who was born in Zambia and built her career in Australia, on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert and contacted her via direct messages on Instagram. They had actually met years earlier in a fan encounter, when Kidjo autographed a T-shirt for Sampa at WOMADelaide, a world-music festival in Australia.

Their song together, “Free & Equal,” draws on the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights and the United States’ Declaration of Independence. “We been in the struggle since before I could speak,” Sampa raps, then praises “Angélique/connecting through the generations, power of musique.”

“She was that person I saw who looked like me, who was from the continent, who spoke in her own language and made a huge impact outside of the continent,” Sampa said in an interview from Botswana.

“She knows how much of a reach African music is having now — the continent is just connected with the world,” she continued. “The beauty of this album is to have legends who are able to give a nod to the young people, to acknowledge that we continue what people like Salif Keita and Angélique Kidjo had started. She said, ‘I want you to express yourself. That’s why I’m reaching out to you.’”

Kidjo didn’t just invite songwriters and rappers to add vocals. She also handed skeletal tracks over to some of the electronics-savvy producers, like Kel-P from Nigeria, who are spreading Afrobeats and other African rhythms worldwide. “I said, you guys have found a way to make this a global rhythm,” Kidjo said. “Anyone in any part of the world can claim Afrobeats and do it their own way, because their own culture fits in perfectly. The jigsaw is just perfect. All the music that comes from Africa, based on our tradition, always has an inclusive way of doing things.”

Some of Kidjo’s vocals get a computer-tuned twist in “Do Yourself,” a duet with Burna Boy that calls for self-reliance for Africa. “I asked Burna Boy, I asked his engineers and producers, ‘What did you do with my voice?’” she said. “He sent me a snapshot of the board, and I don’t understand anything about that stuff. It looks like something from out of space!” She laughed. “But it’s OK, I’ll take it. I don’t have to understand it to love it.

“Every time I do a collaboration, it is always about keeping people’s freedom,” she added. “I would say, I’m going to send you the song, and you let the song lead you to what you want to do. I said, ‘Just go for it.’ What this album taught me is that if we take the time really to speak to one another, we come up with beautiful stuff.”

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