Singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo was born in Benin, West Africa. Today, she lives in New York City and is widely considered Africa's greatest living diva.
For Kidjo, music provides an outlet for both activism and pleasure. "Those two things are part of my stability," she tells NPR's Michel Martin. "I need that. No human being has endless compassion, you need to replenish yourself, and I know that if I didn't have music, I'd go crazy."
Creativity has always been part of Kidjo's emotional resilience. She recalls her father's advice to deal with boys' taunting her when she was trying to go to school. "Your ultimate weapon is your brain. Use it. Be creative. Find something that will baffle the intelligence," she says. "That's when I came up with the word 'Batonga.'" It was a word that she made up, and that became her mantra to help ignore those boys.
It is also the name that Kidjo decided to call her organization. The Batonga Foundation helps girls achieve a secondary education in Africa. "Because I want to give them that mantra. I want them to have wings," she says. Indeed, the foundation's logo is a butterfly. "I want the metamorphosis. I want those girls who come from a poor background to dream big, and to make that dream happen through education," she explains.
At the moment, the foundation works in five African countries. But Kidjo, also a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, is most concerned with the girls she helps in Mali, where fundamentalist Islamists have caused major unrest.
"I've no news since this conflict started," she says. "There's no day that goes by without me thinking about those girls." Even before France deployed troops to Mali to combat the violence, Kidjo said the girls were vulnerable. She says that every year, they would send messages saying "don't give up. We've dodged the bullet. We go to school."
The crisis in Mali has left the country in turmoil, and Kidjo also worries about the effect that Sharia law has had on its rich musical heritage. It reminds her of her own experience of the Communist regime in her native Benin. "The first thing they banned from radio and TV was the music," she remembers. "Why? Because from music people can find strength in themselves and say this is not right."
Kidjo notes, "When they shut the music down, they bring darkness. I don't see any society that can live without music."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo was born in Benin, West Africa. Today, she lives in New York and is widely considered Africa's greatest living diva.
Music gave Kidjo the power to move people. Hers packs a punch with its rhythm and its message. She earned her first Grammy nomination in 1994 for the hit, "Agolo." It's a plea to protect the environment. Let's hear a little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGOLO")
ANGELIQUE KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language).
MARTIN: Angelique Kidjo also uses her voice to speak for those who can not. She's been a UNICEF goodwill ambassador for a decade. She set up an organization, the Batonga Foundation, to help girls achieve a secondary education in Africa, and Forbes magazine lists her as one of the most powerful celebrities in Africa.
With all that going on, we were very happy to find that she was willing to take a break from her concert tour. She stopped in Washington, D.C. and she was nice enough to come by our Washington, D.C. studios.
Angelique Kidjo, welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
KIDJO: Thanks for having me back. I haven't been here in a while and I was missing it.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. You know, there's a song that goes by the same name as your foundation, so let's listen to that and you can tell us a little bit more.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATONGA")
KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language).
MARTIN: The translation - do you want to translate?
KIDJO: Well, this song is a song that is talking about how you can empower yourself through education and for who you are. It's talking about the story of a young girl that comes from a very poor background that happened to have a light skin color and very intelligent and they would not let her have access to education. And she celebrate her beauty. She celebrate herself. And Batonga pretty much was the word that I invent when I was going to school. I was in high school. It was my mantra to turn boys away from me because they taunt you.
At one point, you can go to school to a certain level and, as soon as you're reaching the point where you can get to university and transform, you're like - you become a leader in your own right, there's many different words, stuff that I said to just make you feel so bad that you don't want to go back to school or you just want to avoid the trouble.
And I remember vividly my father telling me, you can get into a fight - because I was complaining - and he always said to me, your ultimate weapon is your brain. It has no color. It has no frontier. Use it. Be creative. Find something that will baffle the intelligence that will try to find (unintelligible) that mean nothing to them, but to you, means a lot. That empower you to continue going to school and do what you have to do. That's when I come up with that word, Batonga.
And, also, I call my foundation Batonga because I want to give them that mantra. I want them to have wings. That's why the logo is a butterfly. I want them (unintelligible) forces. I want those girls that come from a very poor background to dream big and to make that dream happen for education. We can only empower our women in Africa, our young girl, to transform Africa because that's what we need to create democracy, to create a fair and just society. We need people to be educated. That's the key for everything.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, I mean, your foundation is working in five countries in Africa, but one that's been in the news recently is Mali and there was this movement in Mali that is kind of an Islamic fundamentalist initiative has taken place by force of arms. What are you hearing from your sources there about particularly how women and girls are being affected by this?
KIDJO: Oh, well, the news is not really good for the women. I mean, the girls that are supported in Kidal have no news since this conflict started. And it's kind of a worry for me. I mean, there's no day that goes by without me thinking about those girls because, every year, even before this conflict, Kidal was already a very fragile place and I remember, every year, they would send me messages through USAID that support me and that program in Mali, telling me, don't give up. We'll dodge the bullet. We go to school. Don't withdraw on us. I really respected the courage of those girls. Today, we have France intervening and I hope that intervention won't last long.
MARTIN: And the African Union.
KIDJO: And the African Union. I just hope that those interventions won't linger on and become a conflict like in Iraq or in Afghanistan, that the regular army in Mali will be helped logistically for them to be able to take over and create the rule of law in their own country. I want that to happen. But before we do that we need to go through this process which is a very painful one, and the women are the first victims. Because one of the things that those fundamentalists did, where they installed the Sharia law, so religion becomes an excuse for those people to commit horrible crimes. Why do we have that? Because the unfairness of this world. We need justice and fairness and freedom for every single human being, not only in America, but around the world.
MARTIN: We're speaking with the singer-songwriter, humanitarian Angelique Kidjo. She was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios while she's on tour. We were talking about the toll that this, I don't know what you want to call it, insurgency is taking on girls and women in Mali. But it's also taking a terrible toll on musical artists there.
MARTIN: Particularly, you know, music has essentially been banned. We're hearing reports that many people have had their instruments destroyed. I just was hoping that you could describe as an artist a little bit about Mali's rich musical history. I think people will have heard the music even if they don't know their names, but there are some very famous musicians who have come from Mali like the late Ali Farka Toure or Salif Keita...
KIDJO: Salif Keita.
MARTIN: ...or Toumani...
MARTIN: And so could you just describe a little bit for people of why it's so important that these artists are being denied the opportunity to do their music there?
KIDJO: You know, one thing I realize when I was living in Benin when the communist regime arrived, the first thing they banned from radio and TV was the music. I mean, not only the music from the Beninese artists, but the music of America, of England, of France. The whole world music was banned. Why? Because from music people can find strength in themselves and say this is not right. Music, what it does, it represents the country positively. We are the ambassadors of our country and our cultures and that is something they don't want to.
When they shut the music down, they bring darkness. I don't see any society that can live without music. Music is part of our history in Africa. We have griot in Mali. They are the ones that keep on telling us the story of our ancestors till today and how we as musicians, we are imparting this music for the next generation. If you take that away it means that the next generation, if they succeed, the next generation won't have no knowledge about Ali Farka Toure, about Salif Keita, about any other music in the world.
Mali is the cradle of blues, everybody know that and what make blue so important is because it has also on the other side of Africa slave to keep the dignity of human beings. Music helps everybody to stand tall in their shoes and they will take you on. And that they don't want strong people. Fear, when you install fear somewhere, you take everything that give people the strength to regroup themselves and to come back and say I'm not listening to you and I don't care if you kill me. Music give you the power to stand for it.
MARTIN: You wrote a piece for The New York Times Opinion Pages back in November, and you said that music is more powerful than the a spoken word quote, "because when someone sings truth speaks directly to your heart," which is also pretty powerful coming from someone like you who speaks what, five languages?
KIDJO: More than that.
MARTIN: More than that? Five, six, seven? I've kind of lost count. But what would you urge the musicians in Mali to do now? What should they do?
KIDJO: They should just be in resistance and continue doing their music no matter what. If they have to leave the country for a while to continue being the voice of the country, for their country to not be forgotten, for people to pay attention, we can do that for music. Because music talk to everybody, talk to the common person in the street that doesn't know anything. Then people are going to start looking at the geography of Mali and see how it is intertwined with Libya, with all West Africa. That is at danger today of peace because you have Boko Haram from Nigeria joining this. And they're killing Christians every day because the world goes silent. Who can speak for the one that are dying today if it's not us musicians that have no political tie to anybody?
MARTIN: So you're saying that they should find a way to keep the music alive even if it means leaving.
MARTIN: Even if it means living in exile for a while.
MARTIN: That the music has to survive. Do you ever personally feel torn between your desire just to create music just for your own pleasure and for the pleasure of the listener and for your - you can hear it in your voice, your intense need and desire to speak about the very pressing things are going on in the world. Do you ever feel those things in conflict?
KIDJO: No, because those two things are part of my stability because there are songs that I write for just the pleasure of singing them because I need that. I mean no human being have endless compassion; you need to replenish yourself. And I know that if I didn't have music I'd go crazy, not only because of the situation, but also what I see on the field as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. When you're facing a girl of 16 years old that had been raped constantly that can't speak and all her demeanor, the way she holds herself is just pain from head to toe, and you look at that eyes, you don't know what to do. And the only thing that gives you glimpse of smile is songs when you start singing. Because it bring her back to her childhood, it bring her back to good memories. And that's the power of music. Same thing happened with a child soldier. It's just like music is such deep, engraved deeply in our DNA to free us, to get the goodness out of us. That's why the extremists just want to get rid of it. And art in general, not only music, poetry, art, drawing, sculpture, everything.
Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan and in different places, they just take every piece of art out. And look what they did in Timbuktu. I mean, why? Because it represents something that is universal. That everybody can come around and try to trace back your roots out of that because in every piece in every places there's a little bit of us because we all come from Africa. That's what music said, and that's what I sing too sometime. I'm not only sing about all the frustration, I also sing about positive story of people. I always so sing about the flamboyant and the beauty of my continent. The women of Africa, they are my backbone. They really inspired me because in every difficult situation they always rise. When I walked in the market and a woman comes to me and says, thanks for what you're doing for us. Thanks for speaking for us. Thanks for representing us. We see the future differently. We putting our kids to school, why? Because I spoke to you, because I sing, because I had been at one moment the voice that needed to say what they have to say that they couldn't say at that time. That for me alone, it means the world to me.
MARTIN: Speaking of singing...
MARTIN: ...we were able to catch up with you - as I mentioned - while you are on tour with the great Dianne Reeves and the great...
KIDJO: Lizz Wright.
MARTIN: ...Lizz Wright.
MARTIN: The tour is called "Sing the Truth."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL SISTER")
DIANNE REEVES: (Singing) I am here tonight to party. Yeah. I am here tonight. Are you with me? Yeah.
ANGELIQUE KIDJO, DIANNE REEVES, LIZZ WRIGHT: (Singing) Soul, soul sister. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Soul, soul sister. Hey. Whoa.
KIDJO: (Singing in Foreign Language)
MARTIN: How did this come together?
KIDJO: Well, we started his tour in 2009, I think, and we were paying tribute to Nina Simone because her repertoire is vast. And also, her story is important for us to tell because when you're a woman in this business, it is hard. And on top of it, when you're a black it's even harder. And people like Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Odetta, Abbey Lincoln - I mean, all of those women have been there for us. They paved the way for us to be the free singers that we are today. So we decided after that first edition that we're going to open it to all different women singer-songwriter's of the 20th century. So we have Ani DiFranco in the repertoire. We have Joni Mitchell. We have Etta James. We have Shirley Caesar. We have even - I mean, we have songs that tell the story positively about women. It's not only victimize us. We are not victim. If we perceive ourselves as victims they would have won. And the question I always ask - and I'm still waiting for the answer - is what threat do we pose to men for us to be always the one that come after? Without us there is no manhood. Without women there's no humanhood. We give birth. Even though we need men for that, it's a relationship that have to be done in harmony. No one should be superior. We are partners in life together. You cannot disrespect the woman that gave you your children that you are proud of. If you dismiss her you, dismiss yourself, you dismiss your children.
MARTIN: You save a little bit of that voice for later on. We thank you for spending some time with us. I hear that you are at work on a new album. Correct. And also a memoir. Do I have that right?
MARTIN: A memoir which is going to come out later in the year. Can you just give us a little hint of what we can look forward to?
KIDJO: Well, the memoir, when I start this I thought it was going to be a simple process and I'm realizing that writing a book is much more complicated than writing a song. And I have a ghost writer friend of mine that is really taking in a lot of information. It's not easy because there are a lot to deal with. And it's not only going to talk about how my struggle from a poor family in a poor country to where I am today, it's also going to talk about issues like child labor, child trafficking, what I have witnessed and how those things have to change. Because I cannot be happy if I know that there are children that goes to bed every day without shelter, free meal a day and to have access to good education and good health. And we are far away from it. And even here in America we still need that. It means that something in our society have to be addressed differently. We have the power of change; we just have to have the courage of putting our resources and our skill to it to make sure that everything's done perfectly.
MARTIN: Well, we'll look forward to both of those things. Angelique Kidjo is an award-winning singer, songwriter, humanitarian, activist. She was born in Benin and she was kind enough to take a break from her tour to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.
Angelique Kidjo, thank you so much for joining us. Don't make it so long next time.
KIDJO: No. I'll try to come very quick. I have a lot of thing going on. But I have to be humble here because I haven't finished yet. I can't talk too much about it. I might take a different direction. But I'm always working in music and different things for people to see the diversity of things that we can do. We are not pigeonholed, all of us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And one more thing. Mali's musicians are rallying together. Last month, some of the country's best-known musicians - including Toumani Diabate, who actually Kidjo mentioned just now - gathered in Bamako to release the song "Maliko" or "Peace." So let's end with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALIKO")
TOUMANI DIABATE: (Singing in Foreign Language)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.