This Wednesday, Yale’s campus was graced by a woman whom NPR calls “Africa’s greatest living diva” and whom the Guardian labels as one of the “100 most inspiring women in the world.” Music groupies and social activists alike flocked to the Stiles Master’s house for a tea with world-renowned singer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo. This was Ms. Kidjo’s second time at Yale this academic year; in early December, she performed a benefit concert at Woolsey Hall in support of the Yale Africa Initiative Student Scholarships. This week, she returned to talk with students about her career in music and expand on her interests in education and global justice.
Ms. Kidjo’s music has long been informed by keen social awareness. She discussed how various inspiring vinyls entered her household throughout her youth, but how she also noticed that most records were adorned with pictures of men or white girls (until a game-changing Aretha Franklin album reached her hands). In 1983, she snuck out of her home country of Benin, which at the time was wracked by suppression of speech and art under a dictatorial regime, and fled to Paris to freely pursue her musical career.
She described her time in Paris as a period of growth, but also one of turmoil. “What is said in a book about a country is different from reality,” she explained.She had to grapple with the tensions of being an ex-pat in a rather xenophobic country (“If you are born to immigrant parents — third generation, fourth generation, it does not matter how long you have been in this country, you are never French…”). She also had to deal with off-putting differences in day-to-day interactions (“you don’t greet people! Courtesy is seen as an aggression.”).
In the latter half of her talk, she shifted into speaking more about her political views. “Unless every developed country today takes into account the immigrants of their countries and has a politics that gives perspectives to the future of their youth, we’re going to have chaos.” She spoke on a broad array of issues – everything from minority representation in government to pan-African consciousness to the nuances of international charity regimes. She particularly emphasized the last problem, calling out Western nations for their biases in non-profit work on the African continent. “Rich countries are living at the cost of the African people…they ask you and me to put an end to poverty and they are the ones creating it.” Ms. Kidjo, who is a founder of the Batonga Foundation, which promotes girls’ education in Africa, is particularly passionate about school as a liberating solution. “For me, information is power. My interest is giving power to the people.”
Whether passing along personal advice her mother told her (“Don’t let other people define your fate – whoever you want to be, be that person”) or telling fascinating anecdotes about the political edges of her performances (such as a risky, irreverent, moment onstage in Zimbabwe), Ms. Kidjo had many things to share with the Yale community that have direct bearing on the lives of undergraduates. Her responses to every question were enthusiastic and expressive, and she drew in every member of the room as she painted pictures of her childhood, her music, and her vision of a better world. In the final response of the hour, Ms. Kidjo synthesized her musical and social outlooks on the world. What she had to say is worth reading at length:
…if you sing, you are a story-teller de facto. You are the one that tells the story of your society, of your time, of the people you meet, for people out there to say to themselves, if they are in the same situation, ‘I am not alone in this.’ To empower people to see that each one of us can transform this world. We think so little about ourselves, about the power we have, and we get silent, and the more silent we are, the people who have interest in you being silent to walk on you, will grow. Silence is not an option. So when you are a singer, when you write music, even if you are a writer, any artist, from the moment you start writing, start painting, you engage yourself in your society. You have a responsibility and that society has to hold you accountable for that. That’s the link I see in it. Because people think it’s good to use art to spread hate. No. Hate is a vacuum. You get in there, it sucks you in, and you never get back out. So we, all of us here, have to be super, super careful when we are writing, even our essays, whatever we do, we always have to think, to look and see, how can my work today empower me and, if it reaches somebody’s hand, empower that person and trigger something in the life of that person to pass along.
Inspiring words for students of all kinds — singers and essay-writers alike.