Angelique Kidjo: On feminism, gender equality, music and African culture

‘Damage has been done to our brain because we train our boys to think that they are more important than girls.’

Audacious, daring and never one to stay silent in the face of injustice, Angelique Kidjo is one of Africa’s most celebrated singer-songwriters and does not shy away from what other artists in her position may consider damaging to their brand. With a career that spawns 30 years, 14 albums and four Grammy Awards, Kidjo knows the power of her voice and presence on the world stage. It is this that she uses to fight for a cause that she is passionate about – to advance the rights and empower African women and girls. She spoke to Belinda Otas.

You have never shied away from speaking out and this is a recurring factor in your autobiography, Spirit Rising, even when it could get you into trouble. What does it take for you to stay courageous and keep speaking the truth as you see it?

Well, I think it comes from my parents, that sense of justice to stand up for yourself, and if you stand up for yourself but don’t stand up for others, you are going to fall because you are not alone in this world. For me, silence is a killer and a lot of violence towards women continues because they are silent about it. From a very young age, my father always told us that his house was going to be an open forum. There will never be any taboo subject, with the exception of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. That was made clear from the beginning. So anybody who brings that subject to the house, we would all look at them and say it is not open for discussion. You can’t hate somebody and come here, and think you are going to have a platform for it. It’s not going to work.

So I have been taught since I was a child to speak, but because it’s not the rule in Africa, kids don’t speak most of the time. But my father’s point was this: “If you don’t tell me what is going on, I can’t read your mind, therefore, I can’t help you.” So really, that’s where it comes from – I have been empowered to have my own opinion and to express it. People can disagree but I’m always open for discussion, I never close the door to discussion.

Why is it important to you to be authentic at all times?

I don’t even think about it, that I have to be authentic, because I spent a great amount of time with elderly people, goofing around, asking questions (my nickname is ‘why, when and how’) and I never got enough answers because I was a curious child. Being born in a family where you have no sense of fear because wherever you go, you are protected and are able to ask questions. You annoy them and they tell you, “Wait till I have the time to talk to you”, but not in a way that you feel threatened.

Asking questions has brought me to understand a great deal about our own history that is not taught in schools. Which is an issue for me because we talk a lot about educating girls and boys, but what is the content and context of that education and relevance to the times we live in? I’m the kind of person, if I don’t understand something, I can’t sleep because it bugs me and I want to have the answer.

What I learned from my aunties and uncles and the older members of my family, when I was growing up, is that it helps to also understand where other people come from because when you understand the differences – be it in education, language or background, you come to the realisation that at the core of us, we share similar values. You realise that everyone wants happiness for their children, everyone wants to live in dignity and decency and those values are unwaivable.

Equally, honour is part of it. For me, being authentic is giving your word and being true to what you say. When I give my word that I’m going to be part of something, I do it. Hence, I think about it before I say yes, because whatever it takes after I have said yes, I can’t go back. And being authentic is something that you feel deep down in your soul.

You dedicated your album and Grammy Award for Eve to African women and you never stop speaking out for women. After years of making gender equality a priority, we are still dealing with so many ills that hold African women back, including gender-based violence and sexism. Do you think we have made any progress and what more would you like to see happen to ensure the safety and healthy place of women in society?

 We are not gaining anything because the damage has been done to our brain because we train our boys to think that they are more important than girls, and it’s still going on. The day we decide that the boy is not going to have a different status under the same roof as their sisters, we are going to win the gender war. And hating men does not make any difference.

Gender equality has to be done in a way that does not give the impression and  arguments that we hate men. We don’t hate them. We love them, we cannot live without men and they cannot live without us. A lot of feminism around is too aggressive for me and we cannot find solutions to women’s issues if men are not part of the solution, more so if they are the ones committing the violence.

How do we get the men who like independent, strong, skilled women to come onboard and say okay, let’s do a campaign together for our fellow men and tell them this is the benefit you get for empowering women and getting the women to be next to you and not behind you?

This is what you get when you position women on the same level with you – equal diploma and equal salary. For me, this is one of the solutions.

The other thing we can do is create a platform among ourselves. The internet has made the world small. What are we waiting for? Let’s have corporations of women, led by women, that deal with women’s issues and if the men don’t want to come onboard, let’s prove that we are not against them but show them how much we weigh economically and this is how we want to do it, and we all come together and do it.

For example, how do we come up with an application that can help women around the world who deal with and go through domestic violence and sexual abuse, so they have somebody to talk to? Silence is another violence that has been imposed on women and girls. While technology is advancing the world, how do women become pioneers of technology to help other women, especially in the areas where women are still marginalised? It’s time we start thinking about such.

Damage has been done to our brain because we train our boys to think that they are more important than girls…The day we decide that the boy is not going to have a different status under the same roof as their sisters, we are going to win the gender war.

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You are an advocate for the girl child. Why is it important that now more than ever, the status of the girl child must be clearly defined across the continent?

 It comes back to the traditions in Africa where women are just meant to be wives. We have to start with us, women that have the power of getting people’s attention on this issue and to start lobbying the various African governments on the status of the girl, that from the day that child is born, that child is a human being and has the same rights as any boy. We have to define who is a child, who is a teenager and who is a woman? Right now, it’s not distinctively stated in our constitutions. Even if it is, no one is implementing or has implemented it because those that are leaders have the same problem under their roof. So when we don’t have a very carved out identity within our society, how do we take the issue globally?

When a girl is born, her father has the right to marry that girl away. Who gave the father the right to do that? A child is not a possession. She is a human being. That’s the start of the discussion we need to have with our leaders and with civil society.

In Africa, every year we lose half a million teenagers giving birth. It’s about time all of us, both outside and inside Africa, formed a coalition to tackle African women’s issues. It has to be a global goal. We have to be so powerful and get issues implemented. We have lost so much time talking. Today, when you have the power of money, people listen. So how do we come up with ideas and solutions to save the lives of the little girls of today and little girls of tomorrow?

When a girl is born, her father has the right to marry that girl away. Who gave the father the right to do that? A child is not a possession. She is a human being. That’s the discussion we need to have with our leaders and with civil society.

In your book, you talk about the power of education in transforming the lives of young girls in terms of productivity, business and economic power. One cannot help but ask about the Chibok girls from Nigeria, who were taken from their school two years ago and are yet to come back home…

For me as a mother, from day one, my heart was broken because I tried to put myself in the place of those mothers and it’s not acceptable. I can’t bear the idea of it. And I am kind of mad at the response that was given to this matter at the initial stage in Nigeria. This is what I was referring to earlier about the issue of a girl child born in Africa. If those abducted kids were boys, they would have been brought back home. So that’s what I’m saying. We cannot let any government in Africa walk away from such a crime thinking that because they are girls, it’s not necessary to fight for their lives and for them to come back.

It’s also necessary for us as a civil society to ask what power do we have to transform this? Fear is what Boko Haram has implemented and that fear is creating more silence and a viscous cycle of violence. The mothers are alone, who is listening to their grief? How can we be talking in the 21st century, when in broad daylight so many girls were abducted and we all sit here and say we can’t do anything about it? That is the question I am asking not just of the leaders in Africa but of the leaders of the rich countries.

What has also been interesting about the abduction of the Chibok girls is the galvanisation that ensued thanks to the #BringBackOurGirls movement and the backlash the women at the forefront of the movement had to deal with. Why do you think people questioned their motives to bring attention to the plight of the abducted girls and their families?

It was because they put the finger on the vacuity of the government that didn’t do the right thing. Therefore, they were in the face of those government leaders that let down those girls. Silence was not an option. I encourage all of them to keep doing what they have to do. I mean how can we look at ourselves in the mirror, knowing that we haven’t done everything for those girls to come back?

Africa has been through an interesting period in recent times. The Ebola health crisis brought major health concerns in sub-Saharan Africa to our attention along with the continent’s ability to deal with such delicate situations. What message do you have for our governments?

You have to ask, are they thinking of building and scaling up the hospitals? I hope they are going to take this opportunity and start examining the infrastructure across the continent and be better prepared for the future. Don’t let the people die. Don’t let innocent people die because you are incapable of leading. A leader is responsible for the wellbeing of his or her people and in Africa, our leaders have let us down for so long. Today, when you travel and have an African passport, it’s like you are a criminal with a capital C.

But they, the leaders, they travel in different ways. They have diplomatic passports. But how can you be proud of that and how can you call yourself a leader when you know the people in your country are going to suffer if you don’t do the right thing and make the right choices? We have our responsibilities and we cannot blame the West all the time. I’m tired of African leaders looking like beggars everywhere. They come and they beg and beg. There’s no shame and no pride at all and they can do better than that and I know they can. It’s the will of doing it that I want to see get started.

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We have our responsibilities and we cannot blame the West all the time. I’m tired of African leaders looking like beggars everywhere. They come and they beg and beg. There’s no shame and no pride at all and they can do better than that and I know they can.

In spite of all the challenges Africa is facing, you are still making music and taking Africa’s stories to the world. Why?

Across the continent, people are so amazing, sometimes I just open my mouth in awe. We can make great things from nothing. And that waste of talent is something that kills me, so we need leadership to really help in that regard and for us to stop thinking that what comes from outside is better than what we have. It’s important for me to say this; I don’t envy anything in other cultures because I take from other cultures what came from Africa, and I take it back.

African music is growing outside the continent and in particular, music from Nigeria. However, one cannot help but notice the Americanisation of the music we hear and the videos we see.

Well, I was lucky enough to have a mother who trained me to dance and she always used to say, you don’t have to be naked to be sexy. It’s a state of mind. It’s because we consume those videos that come from outside and we value them more than we value our own music. It goes from the radio all the way to the TV. Why are we following the trend of America? Do you think America is going to put my video on their TV let alone give me a platform to say anything?

We are still colonised and enslaved mentally in our way of doing things. We think we are free but we are not free. Why do you think those girls are naked in the video? It’s because they know that if they do it like that, they will get on TV. We are diluting because people don’t know their culture. I mean my first music knowledge was traditional. And everything that comes after in my life goes through that lens. If my traditional musicians cannot make anything out of it, I’m not listening to it.

So where are our traditional musicians in Africa? Where are they represented in the media and on the radio? Are they played? Do we hear it? Those are the questions we need to ask. We have an identity crisis in Africa. When young artists come to me, I tell them you cannot be Beyoncé, there’s only one Beyoncé. She can be a role model of yours but take it to another level. Miriam Makeba was my role model but I never thought I could be Miriam Makeba, I simply emulated her. We have to teach our girls to have pride in their own talent.

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Given all that you have done over the years when it comes to fighting for justice, be it on the frontline of gender equality or for the education of girls, speaking out against authoritative regimes or harmful traditional and cultural practices, is this validation that your job is done or is it the catalyst for the next phase of your passion – to use your voice for the voiceless?

I don’t think my job is done. It is far from done. Something has been accomplished though: the perception of Africa, and specially the perception of African women, has changed somehow. We are not always perceived as victims and the world is getting a glimpse of our energy and beauty.

Are there specific areas in which you would like to engage more when it comes to your quest for justice and equality in society and the world?

With the Batonga Foundation, we are starting a new programme that is data driven. With the help of the Population Council, we are starting to study whole communities in Benin in order to identify systematically what are the problems of adolescent girls and how we can improve their prospects. We hope that what we’ll be learning will benefit the whole continent.

After over 30 years in the industry, with 12 albums to your name, doing different genres of music including opera, and being a voice for the voiceless, what new surprises should we expect?

I always try new challenges and explore new routes. There is so much to do and to still explore. If I tell you what I’m working on, it would not be a surprise anymore! I have a couple of new projects cooking in the oven. You’ll have to be a bit patient!


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