A year ago, at a concert in Harare, Zimbabwe, Angélique Kidjo broke off in midperformance, walked to the front of the stage and declared: "I can't understand someone who is burning his own country and abducting his own people. Not being able to take care of your own people, becoming the worst nightmare, doesn't make you a leader. It makes you a monster. If you live by violence, you die by violence." The crowd was stunned. Berating Robert Mugabe, the 83-year-old autocrat who has overseen his country's implosion, was an invitation to be deported, jailed, even killed. Agents from his feared Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) pushed through the crowd, making for the stage. And then, as one, the audience erupted, cheering and clapping Kidjo and blocking the CIO men. Kidjo was bundled out of the venue and next morning, displaying uncharacteristic caution, she left on the first flight.
Being Africa's premier diva is not a crown that Kidjo wears lightly. As an African, she says, she comes from a place with problems. But as a musician, she argues, she can solve them. Kidjo first came to prominence in the 1980s, a time when Bob Geldof was fashioning Live Aid around the idea that music could be charity. Kidjo had an even more ambitious idea, which drew on her voodoo roots in the old African slave port of Cotonou, Benin, where she grew up: music is "the ultimate power," she explains over lunch in Paris, her adopted home in the 1980s and 1990s before she moved to New York City. "Listening to music, the color of a person disappears, language disappears. Even enemies listen to the same music."
Her beliefs led Kidjo to a twin-track career. There is Kidjo the composer and singer four of her seven albums have been nominated for Grammies. And there is Kidjo the activist: she is a unicef goodwill ambassador and has founded her own aid group, Batonga, which works to improve women's education in Africa. At the foundation of all her endeavors is a conviction that it's good to talk, and that music is the universal tongue. "Music has been a communication tool since humankind has existed," she says. "Music is a healer, a unifier. It breaks all the barriers between different nations. It relieves despair. It dampens war. Because when you listen to music, your brain is following your soul. I'm not scared by any genre, any musical background that is different from mine, because I know it's the same language."
Kidjo's ideas have never been better expressed than on her latest album, Djin Djin, released last month. The 15 tracks, which address fundamental themes like birth, love, alienation and hope, are sung in a variety of languages from West European (English and French) to West African (Ewe and Fon). Styles range from Beninese to Brazilian to Bowie a touch added courtesy of legendary producer Tony Visconti. And the album features a dazzlingly diverse set of collaborators among them Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis, Peter Gabriel, Mali's Amadou and Mariam, Ziggy Marley, German singer Joy Denalane and Italian Carmen Consoli. Some tracks almost seem designed to explain why they call it world music. Pearls, for example, is a Beninese cover of a Sade original that opens with the guitar and maracas of Carlos Santana, who is then joined by the American balladeer Josh Groban and Kidjo, in duet, singing: "There is a woman in Somalia."
It doesn't always work. Mixing Groban's operatic voice with African rhythm and Spanish guitar feels like several fusions too far. But Kidjo's African dance-hall cover of the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter with Joss Stone is as irresistible as the original. And Lonlon, an African folk a cappella adaptation of Bolero, might have pleased even Ravel.
At 46, Kidjo shows no signs of mellowing. If anything, her travels with unicef and her gathering fame have only strengthened her faith in music as the great unifier. Running through a sales report for her last album, she was amazed to discover that she's a hit in Malaysia, a place she says she can hardly envision. She was just as astonished to be contacted by an American scientist studying the effect of music on the brain who told her that when he played her music to Inuit fishermen, they registered thought patterns indicating overwhelming serenity. "Two years ago," she adds, "I was playing Houston, and this lady came up on stage and sang with me, as sometimes happens. She was crying. And I said, 'Are you hurt? What's wrong?' And she replied: 'I'm crying for joy. I was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago and my sister brought your music to play me. And I hung on to your music all through my illness. Now I'm in remission. I'm safe.'" Kidjo exhales in wonder. "I mean, what more proof do you need?"