Stephanie Sy: You were well educated as a child. How did your early education end up playing a role in your success?
Angélique Kidjo: I think that when you are educated and you learn and you read a lot about not only your own culture but other people's culture, you don't see differences. You see similarities and uniqueness of people. I think, also, that education … empowers you in the way that you don't feel threatened when you go somewhere else.
That formed your entire perspective of people?
Yes. It does. Because that's what my father used to say to us all. “Read, be curious, your brain is your ultimate weapon. Be open to people. Don't judge people according to their skin color — that cannot define them.”
But there are men like my father in Africa. Not [all men] that have girls think that they are commodities. They think of them as human beings. Because my father always stood against tradition.
My father stood against tradition that could have harmed us in any way, physically or our brain. Because he always said the tradition that our ancestors set has to move according to the time that we live in. The society that we are in today is moving forward. Therefore, we can't go back. So how do we adjust those traditions to the reality of today? If you let anyone do wrong to your child — it doesn't matter the sex of that child — then you are not doing your job as a parent.
My father stood against tradition that could have harmed us in any way, physically or our brain. Because he always said the tradition that our ancestors set has to move according to the time that we live in.
And there are other traditions that are harmful to girls in Africa. African nations still practice genital mutilation, child marriage.
I think that once again, all those issue that you raise will step by step disappear if we educate more people. I always said tradition exists, but that the way we approached it, that's what makes the difference.
The problem we are having today is that girls in some countries, in some traditions, are still seen as [a] commodity. Therefore, they can be kidnapped. They can be married. The only thing that I know as an African person that can transform my continent is girls' education.
Let's talk about your foundation, Batonga, which really deals with some of the practical issues as it pertains to girls' education: shoes, bicycles — having them have a means to go to school. Are sometimes these problems more simple than we realize, in the sense that, if we could just get enough girls shoes and bicycles to get to school, and bathrooms when they get there, many more girls will go to school?
It is true. It is simple but complicated. My take on this is you cannot help the African people by patronizing them and pitying them. Then your help becomes obsolete. Because no one wants to feel like that. If you see the people of Africa as statistics, as numbers, as inferior beings that don't have the same right that you have in your country, then you can't help us.
I think a lot of people acknowledge today that educating girls and women does hold the key to solving so many of society's ailments around the world, which brings me to the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria. What are your thoughts on the rise of extremist groups like that?
I think that the extremist group comes more from frustration, not being able to participate in this world global economy. Religion is just an excuse for me. I don't believe that all of those extremists, they really believe in what they are saying regarding religion. It's just a matter of thinking that they are getting some power by kidnapping. I think it questions, also, for me, how we do business with one another.
What do you mean?
I think there's enough wealth for every single human being on this planet to live in dignity. I'm not saying that everybody is going to be a billionaire or a millionaire. But the problem we are having is, how do we distribute the wealth of this planet?
So, you're saying if members of Boko Haram had jobs, they wouldn't need to kidnap schoolgirls?
If they have a prospect of a future, you think they're going to blow that away and kidnap girls? I don't think so. Most of them have never been to school, probably, and [they] sit around frustrated. That's the problem we have not only in Africa but even in the rich countries today. So how do we have a society that is more balanced?
This issue about schools and education in Africa — it's not just Nigeria. In the Central African Republic, two-thirds of the schools have been closed for most of the year. What do you think the responsibility of great powers like the United States should be to places like that?
I think that what we should do, the United States should do, is work with governments in Africa to have them build sustainable schools, to help them build their own economy. Because the problem in Africa is that after the colonization era, lots of countries never have had a chance to reach their full potential. Because the interests of the rich country always come before …
So, in that way, do they have a responsibility? Do they owe something to the continent?
I think everybody owes something to the continent. Every single rich country owes us a lot.
Some people here would say the United States government doesn't do enough to invest in education in this country. Why should the United States do more to fortify education in Africa?
Because the security of the United States is at stake, as much as the security of the rich country and the democracy in the world. Because if we do not invest in the education in this country and in all those developing countries coming up, we are giving power to Al-Qaeda, all those extremist group[s] ...
I think everybody owes something to the continent. Every single rich country owes us a lot.
If it becomes the responsibility of places like the United States and European countries to intervene in Africa, where is the agency among African leaders to do more?
I'm not saying they have to intervene. What I'm saying is that they have to form a different relationship with the leaders in Africa. We owe our people to have plans, economical plans and social plans for our people. Not that America will come and do that. Not [that] Europe can come and do that. But the thing is, if you have that plan in place, no one else’s agenda should come before you completed that plan.
Many of the songs you write are about the strength of women that inspired you in Africa.
Absolutely. I've been raised by my mother, my two grandmothers. They always said, "A man that says I love you that doesn't respect your brain and your body and the person you are, run away."
Your mother is actually the inspiration behind one of the singles on your new album —
— which, by the way, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard World Chart. What inspired that album?
What inspired that album is many trips throughout the years in Africa with Oxfam, with UNICEF, different organizations. In 2005, I took a trip to go to Chad at the refugee camp of the women from Darfur. And that has impacted my sleep till today.
I swear to God. I came back, I could not sleep anymore. I have the voice of those women in my head. What happened to them, I can't even start telling it here. But one thing they [said] before we left that keeps me going is, "Do not victimize us another time. We do not want to hear the word 'victim.' All we want is to get out of this camp, go back home in safety and security to raise our daughters and the little boy[s] that we have still. And to keep on going on. We want to get on [with] our life."
You're sometimes singing about very difficult topics, and I can't be sure because 95 percent of the lyrics are actually not in English.
One thing that I know for sure is that the fact that you don't understand what I sing about doesn't make any difference in the message being delivered. Because music is a universal language. When you touch somebody's soul, you touch the person's soul.
I understand that one of the first songs you wrote was a song about apartheid. You describe it in your memoir as being a violent song that your dad then told you to rewrite.
When I was growing up, my father always used to say to us … "A human being is not a matter of color. Don't come back here and tell me you failed because you're black. Because that's the first time I'm going to raise my hand on you. Never say that." So, when I was 9, I discovered Jimi Hendrix with his Afro. For the first time, I heard the words "slave descendant" and I couldn't put it together. Because when my grandma start[ed] telling me about slavery, I'm like "She's senile. She's losing it. It's impossible." … Then I saw and heard Winnie Mandela talking about Nelson Mandela and apartheid in South Africa.
And I was sitting in the living room with my parents watching the news. And it's like a bomb would drop on me. Because suddenly, those words that my father used to say to us make no sense to me anymore. If we are the same human family, how can we do this to one another?
So you wrote a song?
I wrote this song called — the first draft was "If they don't like us, we kill them."
That is violent. You said it was violent, and that's violent.
And my father said, "No. Not under my roof. I always told you that hate and violence are never going to have any place in this house. I understand how you feel. But you, as an artist, you are the one that builds a bridge among people. You are the one that holds a key whenever doors are closed for dialogue … You will go back and write this song. I want this song not only to heal your pain, but to heal also your anger. Think about it.
"Where do you go from here with that anger? What does it create? What positive thing you're going to create? How do you feel right now?"
I say, "I feel so bad, Dad." He said, "OK. Now, go back and write it the way you feel." That song has become an anthem of peace, where I said, "One day, my dream is to see a world where there will be no more oppressors and no more oppressed people — we all live free to achieve our dreams." My father said, "That is acceptable."
Does that mean you never wrote an angry song again?
Do you ever listen to angry songs?
I don't. I don't have time for that. I don't have space in my heart for that. I don't have time. I don't have any desire to listen to somebody singin' about hate of women, hate of this — no. I can't. You can have issues, social issues, to talk about. You can be angry. I understand that. But if you [are] just negative about it, what good does it make? What does it change? You turn people away. And if you are in that bubble of hate, you don't see the light. Because you don't allow yourself to see the possibilities that are out there.
You don't like the term "world music." Why is that?
Well, I started with a conversation with Miriam Makeba a couple of years ago where she was furious. She said, "What is it about the rest of the world that anything that come from Africa have to be put in ghetto and put a label on? Why should they call the music from Africa world music? The music of Africa is the bedrock of hip-hop, rock and roll, pop music, name it. But now, they wanna single it out. Because we Africans are doing it and the rest of the world can do anything with African beat, they don't call it world music." And she has a point there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.