Universal Ties

By on May 9, 2018

African pop star and activist highlights a world of intercultural connections

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The tiny West African country of Benin could not seem more distant from one’s perch in Jackson, Wyoming. For Angélique Kidjo, though, there is a direct tie.

“We all come from Africa,” Kidjo told Planet Jackson Hole. “If you cannot envision that and see the African in you, you’re in trouble.”

Kidjo is the African pop star. Time magazine crowned her “Africa’s premier diva”—a weighty title, given the continent is comprised of 54 countries whose inhabitants speak more than 1,500 languages.

In 1983, Kidjo fled Benin’s political turmoil and censorship, replanting her roots in Paris. Since then, the three-time Grammy winner has bridged countries and cultures. On her 13 albums, she sings in four languages: Fon, French, Yorùbá, and English, as well as in her own made-up language, “Batonga.”

She also bridges seemingly distinct musical styles.

Her most recent project, for instance, is an interpretation of the Talking Heads’s 1980 album Remain in the Light. When she first heard it, she sensed an African-ness at its core. Her remake puts more emphasis on rhythm and horns, but seeks to reveal its inherent soul.

Music, she said, is everybody’s birthright: “It is in the heartbeat first, before anything else. We all have a rhythm when we walk, we don’t all walk the same way.”

But for her, there is a uniquely African rhythm, one that touches everybody, whether they know it or not. Africa is the source of life and of music. They are inherently tied, impossible to cleave. Within much of American culture and music, there is an African seed, the legacy of slavery. African rhythm was embodied and expressed by slaves, and continues to appear in much of present-day western art and music.

Without slaves, “American music cannot be,” she said. “The blues does not exist. Jazz does not exist.”

In her music, Kidjo embodies and honors the irrepressible joy of African music, and also the inconceivable pain and injustice experienced by the mothers and fathers of American music.

In her activism, too, she sees how joy and pain are always in conversation. She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has traveled through much of Africa, advocating for the education and empowerment of young women.

In 2007, she founded the Batonga Foundation, whose initial goal was to provide secondary and higher education to African girls. Their mission has shifted in the past decade. Now, their goal is to find and empower the most marginalized girls—those who are orphans, teen mothers and child-brides.

They highlight the girls as agents of change, sources of power, and “wellsprings of community stability, family health and economic growth.”

Indeed, some of the largest and most well-funded programs in the continent focus on the formal education of young people, but traditional schooling may not be a reality for these girls.

The Batonga Foundation listens to girls, and gives them resources and tools to execute the dreams they have for their lives, families and communities.

Kidjo wants to find the girls who think they are damaged, who think their lives don’t matter and “give them financial literacy, help them be independent and break the cycle of poverty.”

She knows how difficult it can be.

Her family believed in educating boys and girls alike and her father refused to take her out of school to be married off. “Girls aren’t merchandise,” he told her. But she saw other girls who weren’t educated. Her best friend was a child-bride. The shame was so great that when Kidjo saw her in public, her friend refused to acknowledge her.

At the Batonga Foundation, nobody is excluded.

“Everyone can meet together, the ones who’ve dropped out, the ones who’ve had kids.”

One of the foundation’s programs asks girls create business models for their communities and provides them the skills and resources to make their vision a reality.

“Education as we know it isn’t the answer to everything,” Kidjo said. What is more important is listening to and believing in the power of those so often left out of the conversation: “We can’t make decisions for other people’s lives. We empower them to tell us what they need, and we provide it.”

Much of what she does with adolescent girls is “empower them to love themselves and have confidence in themselves.” Young girls’ self-love isn’t frivolous or inconsequential; it is the core of strong families and communities.

On Thursday, Kidjo will share some of the stories of these girls through song and spoken word. The event is a timely exploration of the lives of young girls. Again, while their lives may feel far away, Kidjo says it is important for American audiences to hear about them.


“What you see about Africa is all misery, because people profit off the misery of Africa. The media doesn’t like to portray anything besides poverty.”


The complexity of such lives—their passion and their pain—are rarely portrayed in this part of the world.

“What you see about Africa is all misery,” Kidjo said, “because people profit off the misery of Africa. The media doesn’t like to portray anything besides poverty.”

It is also important for westerners to understand that many of their privileges are made possible by the poverty of Africans.

It’s time for people to take accountability, Kidjo said.

“We all have to hold ourselves accountable for what we do, how we go about our lives, how we impact our family, our community, and the world. We are each others’ keepers.” 

Angélique Kidjo performs 7 p.m. Thursday at Center for the Arts, $32-$42.She will meet with 30 area middle school girls during a reception after the show.

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