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Angélique Kidjo’s spirit for building bridges

Activist and Grammy-winning artist Angelique Kidjo looks forward to joining groups from around the world at the Roundhouse for this year’s On Mass project

08 September, 2017 — By Róisín Gadelrab

Angelique Kidjo leads the On Mass project at the Roundhouse on November 12

It is not easy to keep up with Angélique Kidjo. The triple Grammy-winning artist, Unicef ambassador and much-lauded activist has a mind that runs at a million miles an hour – and it’s not surprising given the vast array of accomplish­ments this formidable woman has amassed.

When we speak Kidjo, who left her home country of Benin in 1983 after coming under political pressure, is shopping for couches in a store in Paris, where she is due to perform this week.
Her memoirs, which were originally published in English, have been released in a French translation  – with a preface by Bishop Desmond Tutu. “Father Tutu is a friend of mine and I’m glad to have him in my life,” Kidjo says. “He’s a different kind of human being. He has a very contagious laugh.”

Although she wrote her memoir Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music in French, it was originally released in English. “It’s kind of absurd,” she says, “that it is now being translated back into French,” adding: “The whole book started with the passing of my father and it was a process of healing for me, it was a process of mourning.”

Kidjo is due to appear at the Roundhouse on November 12 to take part in On Mass, a project aimed at “stripping away borders and breeding unity through creative collaboration between international groups of young talent”. In this case, Kidjo has written a song specially for the event, which has been given to a number of groups to interpret in their own way. This will culminate with an evening of live performances headlined by Kidjo.

Participating groups include carnival band Kinetika Bloco, Breakin’ Convention, Roundhouse Choir, Street Circus Collective, Battersea Arts Centre’s Beat Box Academy, Roundhouse Audio Collective and Roundhouse Music Collective.

Kidjo was invited to participate by the Roundhouse’s head of music Jane Beese, with whom she has previously worked. “I’ve known Jane Bees for a while,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of stuff together in the Southbank and she asked me if I’d be willing to do this and I fell in love with the concept of bringing together choirs from around the world, different cultures. I’m in for that building bridges in different countries.

“The world we’re living in is being deconstructed for profit. It’s going to be a different slavery… I’m all for freedom and no-one has the right to profit from our freedom and hijack our freedom in the name of capitalism. Music is one of those rare places where we can show it’s not about colour, division or race, build bridges.”

Kidjo has already handed over the song and looks forward to hearing the interpretations at rehearsals – and she’s not afraid to give her input where necessary. She says: “It’s about self-confidence, self-loving and self-respect – to be confident in the world and respect yourself and other people. For me that’s where I start. I’ve been told by my grandmother, if you don’t know where you’re going how can you start? Everything comes from inside.”

She adds: “Collaborating means freedom on both sides to bring something to the table so when we come to rehearsal we will see where it will be.”

And how does she manage to juggle all the many sides to her life? “By sleeping and having a loving and present family all the way from Benin to wherever I live, that’s where my roots are, knowing you’re loved and people will be there for you. That is priceless for me. I’ve always been a curious person and I believe every day you learn, the day you stop learning you might as well not be living.”

Kidjo’s activism has often focused on women’s and children’s rights, the latter, partly influenced by her own childhood experience of discovering a young friend had been married off. She says: “We are focusing on Benin right now. I have to start somewhere, that’s why I collaborated with Beninese male and female artists to cover the country in our languages so the message is going to the people in the regions. We are asking the parents to listen to us, we want our younger sisters not to go through hell. We are the ones doing it, it’s not We Are The World, we’re not patronising or telling it.

“The people are listening, it’s making a lot of people uncomfortable probably but we’re trying to bring government to the table because in our constitution it’s against the law.”

She adds: “The power of music is beyond me I’m just a little tiny bit in there. Look what happened with Nelson Mandela, when everybody got together finally for western governments to pay attention. We have more power than people think because we are in people’s intimacy. While we’re sleeping people are thinking about our songs.”

• More details of On Mass at the Roundhouse, Sunday November 12, 7.30pm, at www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2017/on-mass-2017/

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