Music makes

Angélique Kidjo


‘Give out the water, spread out the water,’ sings Angélique Kidjo in the all-African thriller Critical Assignment. The message, from her song ‘Goddess of the Sea’, is appropriate, as the film – described as an ‘African James Bond’ – tackles the issue of access to safe drinking water.

Written by a young Nigerian screenwriter, Tunde Babalola – and based on his own experience of water shortage as a child – it contrasts clean water and dirty politics. Shot in five African countries, with daring stunts and high-speed car chases, it depicts a battle with a clique of politicians and corrupt businessmen who try to siphon off funds supposed to be spent on providing water for the poor.

‘I like the message of the film: corruption can be overcome by passion and conviction,’ Angélique Kidjo told Our Planet. ‘I guess it’s naive, but that’s my belief!’

The Benin-born singer and songwriter is no stranger to concerns about water and sanitation. In 1996 she sang at the Stockholm Water Festival, and she has long campaigned on sustainable development issues. She has communicated strong messages on HIV/AIDS to African young people, and is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

Her lyrics have explored issues like race, homelessness, the environment and the need for integration, and she performed at the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and at the 2002 UN General Assembly Special Session on Children.

Her greatest concern is education, which she believes is the key to her continent’s future. ‘Education is my priority because sanitation issues, social and political issues, can’t change if the people are not aware of what the world is, what their rights are and what the value of their life is. So many health problems come from ignorance (and lack of financial resources, of course).

‘Almost everybody agrees that it is unbearable and scandalous to know that children are suffering so much in some parts of the world. Changing the future of children is the only way to change the world. When you are an artist you want to move things, but don’t know how because you are so busy travelling and working. I have seen the presence of UNICEF in so many places where it is needed, and know that the money is spent for the children.’

One of nine children, Angélique Kidjo was born in a village called Ouidah on the coast of Benin and she speaks of the security she felt in the solidarity and community life of the village. Her music still throbs with the tribal and pop rhythms of her West African heritage. She was raised in the voodoo religion as well as Catholicism, and speaks of how it teaches respect for nature, without which people would not exist.

Her mother owned a theatre group with which she first performed, aged six. Later the family left the country because of an unstable political situation, and went to live in Paris where she studied jazz and law and met her husband and collaborator, Jean Hebrail.

She considered becoming a human rights lawyer, but decided that she could make a greater impact through her music. ‘I have been singing onstage since I was a child, but my dream was to help the world get better,’ she says. ‘My law teacher told me that I'm not diplomatic enough to be a lawyer! I get much too passionate.

‘I like to write love songs, and I do sometimes, but a lot of my lyrics are inspired by social injustice. Coming from a very poor country always put things in perspective for me.

‘I truly feel that through music something magical happens that creates a special bond between people from very different backgrounds.’

PHOTOGRAPH: Angélique Kidjo

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Action for tomorrow | Turning words into action | One hand washes the other | People | Fragile resource | Realizing the dream | Washing away poverty | At a glance: Water and sanitation | Music makes magic – Angélique Kidjo | Targeting sanitation | In a city like Mumbai | Flowing from the bottom up | Books & products | Watering a thirsty land | Peace through parks | Reaching the unheard

Complementary issues:
Water, 1996
Freshwater, 1998
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
Freshwater, 2003