At sixty-one, the doyenne of African pop is recording with everyone from Burna Boy to Philip Glass—and still searching for new rhythms.
By the time she was twenty-one, Angélique Kidjo was singing in more languages than most people will ever understand. The Beninese diva received her first standing ovation at six, for an impromptu rendition of a traditional Fon melody at her mother’s theatre. Before long, she’d moved on to French yé-yé, Cameroonian makossa, and covering Miriam Makeba with her high-school band. After Kidjo’s first album made her a national star, her family feared that Benin’s government, under the dictator Mathieu Kérékou, might stop her from attending school in France. They arranged a late-night escape without official clearance; luckily, the customs officer at the airport was a fan.
Kidjo enrolled at the Centre d’informations musicales, a jazz school in Paris, and immersed herself in the city’s emerging world-music scene. Her début album with Island Records, “Logozo” (1991), vaulted her to the top of the international music charts, thanks largely to the swaggering dance hit “Batonga.” (Kidjo appeared on the album’s cover in a zebra-print catsuit.) Her follow-up was the joyous earworm “Agolo,” whose iconic music video celebrated motherhood and African deities more than two decades before a pregnant Beyoncé staged a viral photo shoot as Oshun, the Yoruba river goddess.