As energetic as she’s enigmatic, while Angelique Kidjo is a name most familiar to Nigerians, little remains known about her. In this story, we attempt to break down the legend of Angelique Kidjo with 5 facts about her.
Whenever the Nigerian national football team has to play a qualifier with nations like Egypt, Tunisia, Ghana or the likes, there’s always a near perceptible air of well-meaning tension between the two countries, with Nigerians nursing at the back of their heads that these formidable teams are not to be taken lightly, even amidst Twitter bants. This has now become the case for Nigerians whenever an artiste from the country makes an appearance on the Recording Academy of the Grammy awards alongside Beninoise singer, Angelique Kidjo. A formidable vocalist with a streak of achievements almost as dated as the face of Nigeria’s music industry, Angelique Kidjo has not only bested Nigerian musicians multiple times on the Global stage but has been gracious enough to envelop the conceding musicians in the aura of her win. Yet while hers is a name we have come across several times, little remains known about her colourful life and inspiring rise in music. In this story, we attempt to breakdown the legend of Angelique Kidjo through 5 amazing facets of her life that make for fun facts;
1. Descent, childhood and musical background of Angelique Kidjo
On the 14th of July, almost 62 years ago, Angelique Kidjo was born in Ouidah in Dahomey, now known as Benin to a musician father and a choreographer mother. SA cultural hybrid thanks to her Fon father and her Yoruba mother from Nigeria, Angelique Kidjo grew up listening to Yoruba and Beninese traditional music and at 6 was performing with her mother’s cultural troupe.
This had helped to break her into the world of traditional music and dance and she soon started singing in a band named Les Sphinx in her school. Kidjo’s talents soon peaked at a national level with the success of her adaptation of Miriam Makeba’s “Les Trois Z” when it got played on national radio.
2. Blossoming into a continental star
Following the success of her breakout song, Angelique Kidjo put out her debut album, Pretty, in 1981 as a collaboration with Cameroonian producer, Ekambi Brilliant and her brother, Oscar. A huge fan of Togolese singer, Bella Bellow, the album featured a tribute to her among other well-received songs. Soon after, the album had taken off, not just in Benin but in neighbouring countries and Kidjo had toured all over West Africa.
She however had to relocate to Paris thereafter for greener pastures for her music due to political unrest in Benin.
3. Becoming an international star; the rise of Mama Africa
Now fondly referred to as Mama Africa, Angelique Kidjo had cultivated this reputation over several decades but her move to Paris had proved to be a blessing in disguise that had been the kickstarter of this movement. It was in Paris that Kidjo had studied English, learning Jazz in the reputable CIM. She also met musician and producer, Jean Hebrail who not only ended up being her most frequent collaborator but also her husband.
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In Paris, she’d worked several jobs to offset her tuition fees and was a backup singer for local bands as well. Her backup runs had paid off and after, Kidjo landed a gig as the front singer of Dutch Jazz pianist and keyboard player, Jasper van ‘t Hof’s band, Pii Pii.
With Pii Pii, she put out three studio albums and by the end of the 1980s, she’d become one of the most popular live performers in Paris.
4. Bagging a deal with Island Records and then Columbia
These days, it has become tradition for the most commercially successful Nigerian musicians to bag an international deal, further signalling their feasibility. This journey is one Angelique Kidjo made several decades ago first in Paris, back in 1991 with Islands Records. With them, she recorded 4 albums till the departure of the founder from the label. Then in 2000, she was signed in New York with Columbia Records.
5. Mama Africa and her achievements; multiple Grammys and more
In 1994, Angelique Kidjo got nominated for her first Grammy for the video of her much-loved song, Agolo. Prior to that, Angelique Kidjo had already proved to be a chart-topping showstopper when her first album for Island Records, Logozo, released in 1991 had reached the number one position on the Billboard World Albums chart.
1996 had seen Angelique Kidjo truly consolidate her Mama Africa role with the release of her Fifa album for which she and her frequent collaborator cum husband, Jean Hebrail had toured all of Benin to record the traditional rhythms over which the album was laid. The album had birthed Wombo Lombo, another continental smash hit from Kidjo and its video had been well-loved as well.
Kidjo’s tour to create the Fifa album was not her last as the musical maestro continues to display a keen interest to gather knowledge, infusing techniques, traditional or modern and also covering records from musical greats who have walked before her. A more recent example is her Grammy nomination with American cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, Blewu which was originally sung by the late Bello Bellow, a Togolese singer whom Kidjo cites as a major influence.
With her unwavering grit and talent spanning at least two decades, Angelique Kidjo is currently one of the most awarded African musicians on the Grammy stage with 5 Grammy wins and 12 nominations.
Kidjo has gone from winning her first Grammy in 2008 for her album Djin Djin under the category of Best Contemporary World Music Album, to bagging her latest gold-gilded Grammy statuette at the just concluded 64th edition for her Mother Nature album.
An interesting and fresh fact about Angelique Kidjo’s scope of work is that her Mother Nature project is her first album of original music in 7 years, a strong testament to the fact that the virtuoso vocalist is not just the firebrand act she was several years ago when she hit the scene, but is a legend through and true.