Building Our Own Bridge

One of the most common misconceptions about Africa, my continent, is that its culture and its arts are primitive. It suggests that African art is closest to the beginning of mankind, closer to a time when we were still half-beast/half-man! Why so much ignorance?
07/06/2015 11:31 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2016

One of the most common misconceptions about Africa, my continent, is that its culture and its arts are primitive. It suggests that African art is closest to the beginning of mankind, closer to a time when we were still half-beast/half-man! Why so much ignorance? Would it be because the story of Africa has been told by the Western and Middle Eastern civilizations, who had to dehumanize African people in order to justify slavery?

But the truth is our culture is extraordinarily rich, diverse and beautiful. A few years ago, I was visiting the IFÉ exhibition of Nigerian art at the British Museum in London. I was struck by these magnificent bronze sculptures with very realistic features. When they were discovered in the Yoruba kingdom at the beginning of the 20th century, scientists were so puzzled by their realism that they claimed a Greek tribe must have landed on the shore of the African Gold coast in the 14th century. Such sophistication could not belong to what used to be called the "Dark Continent"!

As a globe-trotting singer-songwriter from West Africa, I have always felt that my mission on this earth was to bring the warmth, the beauty and sophistication of African culture to the attention of the rest of the world. I wanted to fight the preconception of a primitive Africa. On this journey, I have made many musical collaborations with Brazilian, Cuban and American artists. It came naturally because the music of the slaves has travelled so much and influenced the music of these cultures. But through all that, one last frontier always remained: the world of Classical music. It appeared insurmountable because it had been made to embody the essence of civilization and contrasted with the supposed primitiveness of African music.

Then, one day Timothy Walker, the artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, heard me sing in New York and told me: "I am not familiar with the African musical traditions but I love your voice and I think it would be a perfect match with an Orchestra." When he asked which contemporary composer I would like to work with, I told him: Philip Glass. I loved the man and his music and I knew the respect and knowledge he had for cultures outside of the Western world.

And there it was: the idea for the philharmonic piece -- IFE, THREE YORÙBÁ SONGS, which will premiere on July 10th with the San Francisco Symphony -- was born out of a discussion in Philip's kitchen. It was all about the marriage between the mysterious Yoruba legends of the kingdom of IFÉ and the beautiful style of his music, which is like a living organism, constantly growing, moving and developing in a hypnotic way, all of which resembles the trance of my Beninese rhythms.

Philip told me: "Angelique, together we have built a bridge that no one has walked on before." In this world we're living in today, in which every community seems so connected yet so isolated from one another, it is all the more important to build this kind of bridge.

Maybe I am naïve, but I believe music is a powerful tool of social change. Last year in August, on the night Ferguson was burning, during a James Brown tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, I told the crowd: Music has to be the language of the people, has to be the freedom of the people. Now I want you to understand one thing tonight: we're all Africans, so when I say "Say It Loud", please tell me, all of you, it doesn't matter what skin color you think you have, that you are "Black and Proud"! To my amazement, I saw 15,000 people, from all origins, stand up and, caught in the moment, they sung with me James Brown's Anthem: "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." It made me feel so good!

Music has the power of breaking boundaries and unifying people beyond all the barriers we create. IFE, my collaboration with Philip Glass, represents exactly this: we're the living proof cultures are not exclusive one to the other -- they can and they will melt with each other. I hope this piece will change the meaning of "African music" and "Classical music." Their limits are just in our minds. The reason this kind of collaboration hasn't been done before is because, for hundred and hundred of years, the legacy of colonization has made everyone think of African people as primitive and ignorant people. This is the same logic that prevented Jazz music from entering the concert hall for decades and rap lyricists from being considered great poets. But, in the end, when politics fail, art can succeed.

In her famous TED talk, Chimamanda Adiche has warned us that people are easily buying into the single story of Africa. In fact, it's not just about the single story of Africa or the single story of Classical music, it's about fighting the danger of the single story everywhere. It tends to always be "us" versus "them" but I believe, in art, there should only be "us"!

Philip, I'm so proud of the bridge we have built and I encourage everyone to built his or her own.