THE BLOG
10/24/2014 09:30 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

With New Album and Book, Kidjo Gives Voice to Women of Africa

A new album, a new book, a special performance at Carnegie Hall. After 40 years in the public eye, the whirlwind that is singer Angelique Kidjo seems to have found a cruising speed that suits her.

On November 5th, Kidjo headlines a multi-performer Carnegie Hall tribute to the iconic Miriam Makeba.

As a young girl in Benin, Kidjo loved African music as well as American soul and jazz, but looking around, she didn't see women making music. "I was like, 'Do you have to be a man to be on the cover of a record album?'" she said. "I'm going to have to change my sex to be a musician." Then she saw Makeba's picture on a record cover and saw a path for herself as an African singer.

At the upcoming Carnegie Hall show, she will perform Makeba songs and her own, and will share the stage with Whoopi Goldberg, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, South African singer Vusi Mahlasela and Makeba's back-up singers. The show is part of Carnegie Hall's sprawling Ubuntu festival, which highlights the music and culture of South Africa.

Kidjo's latest album, on 429 Records, "Eve," is named for her mother and, she said, aims to celebrate African women and give them voice. Kidjo did just that by recording groups of female singers in villages in Benin and Kenya and then incorporating them into her contemporary electrified pop performed by a stellar core ensemble, including Lionel Loueke and Christian McBride, as well as guests such as Dr. John, the Kronos Quartet and Romero Lubambo . The album, one of Kidjo's strongest and most consistently propulsive efforts, actually arises from some tragic circumstances.

The inspiration for the album came after Kidjo visited women in refugee camps near the troubled Darfur region. "I wanted to hear their story - and it has impacted my sleep until today....The women care for their kids, they care for the country. They are the backbone of the African continent."

She later went to Kenya to learn about childhood malnutrition and its impact on society there. "They saw me coming, completely wrecked," she said of the Kenyan women in one village. "They started singing." She got shivers and thought: "This is the voice of the African women."

Kidjo later took a boombox and recorder to villages to record women. She said the hardest part was getting them to take money. As usual, Kidjo would not take no for an answer. "They said, 'We owe you more than you owe us.' And I said, 'It's not even discuss-able. If you don't take the money, I'm walking out of here.'"

She added: "All I want is when [Westerners] are talking about Africa for them to have in mind that those women have a voice that needs to be heard."

She also recorded her mother singing with cousins. She had wanted to record her father's singing, "but death cut me short." Her father died of cancer a few years ago, which shocked Kidjo into a depressed state.

"I struggled with it," she said. "All my friends were worried about me. They said, 'You're not there as we know you.'"

She dove into the long work of writing her book in part as an antidote to her grieving. Working with a ghost writer for months, Kidjo wanted to tell the story of her struggles.

"It started to trigger stuff that happened a long time ago. All the stupid stuff I used to do - how reckless I was - because I thought I was a boy; I wanted to do whatever my brother did."

In her Harper Collins book, Spirit Rising, Kidjo says that she was the first girl in five generations in her family to have been given - in a Benin tradition - a male guiding spirit. The daughter of parents who encouraged her outspoken-ness, Kidjo recalls her father saying: "When you tell the truth, you don't have friends and it makes your life hard."

With the 1991 release of her album Logozo, Kidjo suddenly became an international success. She would go on to attain five Grammy nominations, make many guest appearances on albums and at concerts, and participate in high-profile humanitarian efforts including being a UNICEF ambassador.

Kidjo's book details the obstacles she encountered. "Success is made of failure and hard luck," she said.

When she was a young girl, many told her singing popular music was synonymous with being a prostitute. She recalled overhearing the mother of a young man she was dating saying as much and Kidjo confronted her: "Every time I greet you, you treat me like a piece of crap....You can keep your boy under your skirt. Me? I don't want it, bye." And she walked out, literally and figuratively of the young man's life.

When Kidjo moved to France, she confronted a new set of prejudices - against Africans. "We are still living the clichés of this world that have been set up [during colonialism]," she said, adding that she experienced a dominant culture that in effect said: "We will tell you when you can open your mouth, we will tell you when you can sing and we will tell you who you can be."

"My father said to me: 'You're a human being with the same rights as any other human being. if you fail or succeed it's because you use your capacity. Your brain is your ultimate weapon: use it to challenge any human being.' That's where I came from. People were not ready for that. We are in the 21st century and it is still the case."

From Kidjo's new album - a combination music video and public service announcement about polio

An early hit, "Agolo"