Angélique Kidjo: "Be you."

Angelique KidjoThe Grammy Award-winning singer offers advice and reflects on the importance of education in an artist's career. 

By Olivia Munk '16

It’s easy to see why Angélique Kidjo has been dubbed “the undisputed queen of African music.” The West African singer speaks four languages, sings in five, and has recorded 10 albums, two of which have won Grammy Awards. In addition to being a prolific musician, Kidjo is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and founder of the Batonga Foundation, which provides girls across Africa with access to secondary education in an effort to empower the next generation of female leaders, further solidifying her “undisputed” role as queen.

On November 17 and 18, Kidjo will visit Harvard to earn three more titles: Louis C. Elson lecturer, Eileen Southern Distinguished Visitor, and Blodgett Distinguished Artist in Residence. On NovemberAngelique Kidjo 17, she will give the Louis C. Elson Lecture at 5:15 p.m. in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall. On November 18, she will conduct a master class with undergraduate students at 4 p.m. in Paine Hall, co-sponsored by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and in conjunction with Learning From Performers. I spoke with Kidjo prior to her visit to Harvard about the relationship between her artistry and her activism, penning the word “batonga” and the importance of young artists discovering their unique work.

Kidjo, who grew up in Benin, has been performing since age 6. While she cannot imagine her life without being an artist (“Not possible!”), she once entertained the idea of becoming a human rights’ lawyer—a passion for humanitarianism that is at the heart of her philanthropic endeavors and in her music as well.

The role of an artist is first and foremost to entertain but “you can entertain and educate at the same time,” she said. She cited artists such as Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye as examples of musicians who have used music to convey not only personal sentiments (such as opposition to the Vietnam War), but also attempted to encompass the feelings of a nation. Musicians, said Kidjo, “are kind of the relay for the political world and the concern of everybody.” Kidjo frequently pairs her performing and her advocacy. Most recently, her 2014 album Eve was dedicated to “showcasing the positivity [women] bring to their villages, cities, culture, and the world.”

Kidjo is committed to furthering the education and empowerment of girls across Africa through the Batonga Foundation. Kidjo invented the word “batonga” when she was in primary school, as a reaction to the taunts she received from bullies.

“I was tiny,” said Kidjo. “I was bullied all the time, and I would come home and cry. And my parents told me to outsmart them.” They advised her to come up with something to defy  and defuse the bullies.

Thus “batonga,” a term that still holds great significance for her today. “For me, it means ‘give me a break,’” she said. “Get off my back. Leave me alone. I’ll do whatever I want, be whatever I want to be. What I do is none of your business. Just cut me some slack, and get out of here.” Today, the Batonga Foundation has a number of pursuits, such as funding secondary education for girls, building wells, providing microloans and improving teaching standards.

As she developed as a musician, Kidjo found that her connection to language was one of the things that made her unique. “The way my mouth and tongue [make language] is different from any other person,” she said. “Someone who comes from Benin will sound different from me, because vocal cords are like fingerprints.”

Kidjo encourages aspiring artists to find out what makes them unique—a search for self that must come before their search for fame. “The glamour of the celebrity stuff is just one side of it. It’s a lot of work, a lot of integrity and being on top of your art,” she said. “You also have to have identity. It’s not only your look, but something in your music that’s original—when people listen to it, they need to say, ‘That’s that person.’”

“Digging deep” in the traditional music of Benin and discovering its connection to the roots of American blues helped Kidjo create her original sound and an identity of her own.

As her founding of Batonga suggests, Kidjo stressed the importance of education. “Go to school and play at the same time,” she encouraged. “Being in the school, you have security. You’re taken care of. But what kind of artist are you going to be? You have to start finding out in school.” The first step? Seek out a role model, a musician or artist whose work you admire. “Inspire yourself from it, but don’t copy that,” she said. “You can’t be that person. Be you.”

Angélique Kidjo will deliver the Louis C. Elson Lecture 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, November 17 in Paine Hall; free tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis at the Harvard Box Office, located in the Smith Campus Center. Kidjo will also conduct a master class with undergraduate singers 4 p.m. Wednesday, November 18 in Paine Hall. Admission is free, and no tickets are required for entry; the public is invited to come and observe. This project is supported by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund.