Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Culture Shock

African singer tackles American values

By Michael McCall

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Angelique Kidjo is determined to make music without borders. "Music for me is without category," says the native of Benin, a country on the West African coast. "Who the hell cares about categories? Pop, rock, dance, hip-hop, traditional, world music--what does all this mean? Why do we do this to the music we make? Why not just put alphabets in the stores, from A to Z, and put the music out for the people without categories? Wouldn't this be better?"

Indeed, it would. It also would eliminate a problem Kidjo has confronted since the release of her first internationally distributed album in 1990--that is, where do her albums belong? More than ever, Kidjo's fourth American release, Oremi, finds her aggressively yet seamlessly blending the music of Africa and America.

Because she draws on modern R&B and light jazz as much as she draws on traditional African sounds, Kidjo and her record label, Island Records, have been pressing to have her albums stocked alongside pop and R&B releases. Currently, they get stuck back in the world music section. To Kidjo, that's like saying her music is so esoteric that it needs to be separated from the music of America; it's saying that because she's from another land, she must reside in a ghetto.

"My music does not belong to one world," she says. "Everything I do is very contemporary. I don't think, 'This song is hip-hop and this one R&B, and this one African.' I just express what comes to me in my inspiration."

As Kidjo explains, she heard all kinds of music growing up. "My knowledge that black people existed outside of Africa comes through music," she says. "To me, as a child, all I knew were black people, and they were all in Africa. Then I discover American black music, and I realize there are black people outside of Africa too. I see the album covers and the black faces of Otis Redding, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith. It teaches me about other countries and about how black people interact in other worlds. So my knowledge of how black people live on the planet outside of Africa comes through music."

Her knowledge of the world also comes from personal experience. A Paris resident since her late teens, and now a well-traveled singer and songwriter, Kidjo says her music reflects her diverse background. For instance, she opens Oremi with a hypnotically rhythmic cover of Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." "I record it with no guitars, because no one else has fire in their fingers like Jimi Hendrix," she says. "It is my tribute to his greatness to play the song without the instrument [of] which he was the master."

Elsewhere, she duets with the outstanding jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson and with up-and-coming R&B singer Kelly Price. Musical guests include jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Kenny Kirkland. Throughout, the singer's emphasis is on undulating, liquid rhythms and on bright, sparkling melodies.

Singing in English, in French, and in her native Fon tongue, Kidjo says she purposely accentuates the positive in her lyrics. "I decided when it was time for me to go out in the world and into new communities, that I must do it with love and not with hatred for the sins of the past," she says. "The future of the universe is based on the fact that we must learn to live together. We cannot stay separated. We can't have a world made only of black people or white people or yellow or red people. I do believe we all need to know our roots and our history. And we must make the bad things from the past not happen in the future. Our legacy is we can't make the same mistakes."

Still, as she becomes more familiar with musical practices in America, Kidjo is increasingly confounded by the role of music in our country. "People involved in music in the West always think with their head instead of listening to their heart," she says. "Music here is always involved with business, and the business for some reason wants to keep people separated."

With this assertion, Kidjo launches into a number of observations about Western culture, all of them quite insightful. She often begins her statements with a rhetorical query, such as, "Let me ask you, why do American artists let someone else tell them how their music should sound?"

She has a few theories about this, but they only raise more questions: "Why is there such a star system here? It's so useless! Such a waste of time! It's a very unhealthy way for artists to communicate with the world around them. To put yourself in the place of a god that is unreachable, that is damaging to one's art and to those with whom you are communicating. If artists care more about being stars than being communicators, then they care more about business leaders than about people. It's a shame artists let themselves be a part of that game. This is why the music companies are having problems."

Kidjo also questions the role of producers in American pop music. She herself has worked with a couple of U.S. producers: Former Prince sideman David Z produced her outstanding 1996 album, Fifa; and on Oremi, she collaborates with Peter Mokran, best known for his work with R&B sensation Maxwell. But regardless of who the producer is, Kidjo makes sure the music represents her vision, not someone else's.

"It seems in America sometimes the producer makes the music more than the artist," she says. "That's why I choose producers carefully. I don't want him to come to my music and want to make his own music with it. If he does that, I give him the microphone and take my tapes and go. I believe in working with a producer who gets inspired when they have a real artist in front of them. These are the producers who want to be a part of an artist who has good songs, and they want to be a part of the loving and sharing of music that comes from good songs."

Kidjo's distaste for the American music business points to a larger, more pervasive question about Western culture. "Why do you worship money so?" she asks. "The sad part is humans created money, and now it is our god. People kill mothers and sisters and kids for money. But what is money, really? Money cannot buy you love and health. It can buy you a nice house, clothing, cars, travel. But without love and health, what good are they? Without love, you cannot feel complete. Without health, your house and clothes and cars are nothing."

That's why, for Kidjo, music and artistic expression are inseparable from life, love, health, and spirit. "For me, it is all about spirituality and positivity," she says. "Spirituality is important to me, to all of us. I believe that a person with no spirituality is not complete. Spirituality is what makes you leave the bad part behind and stand strong for the good part. Your instinct for survival is stronger if you have a spiritual life. You find the power and faith in yourself to keep on moving."

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