Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo’s career as a musician began at six years old, singing into the dark.
But with her new cover of the Talking Heads’ classic album, she’s asking us all to "Remain in Light." She spoke to Bill Radke from Los Angeles to explain why she doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation – and why stupidity just might be the thing that connects us all.
Power differentials exist in the way we treat cultures, and it would be foolish to think that money and accolades don’t affect the value that people place on certain sounds. But, she says, “The Talking Heads never ever tried to hide the fact that they’d been influenced by Fela’s music.” And it’s an easy spell to fall under, as music is at the heart of everything in Africa. “You play music when you’re joyful, when you cry, when you’re born, when you’re married, when you die – it’s there all the time.”
The song “Once in a Lifetime,” then, has universal appeal both in the West and on the continent. We all have moments when we get lost, when life has taken us on twists and turns we might never have expected. Learning how we work this, how to find joy and acceptance and flow again, is part of the job of being human.
Kidjo herself struggled to find that joy for some time. She left Benin as a youth, fleeing a communist dictatorship, and landing in a Paris that seemed devoid of connection and warmth. Music saved her, she said. The Talking Heads’ David Byrne saw himself as a documenter of his times. In her own reinterpretation of the album, the title is more than a throwaway line.
“Remain In Light is more than just words,” says the artist. “Remain in light in every way, shape, or form. Find people that have the same point of view as you – even people that don’t have the same view as you. Let’s go! Talk to people – even the most repulsive, hateful people – to bring them to light. Don’t leave them in the darkness.”
What do we see when we arrive in the light? “Stupidity is universal,” Kidjo says promptly. “That’s why we’re all brothers and sisters.” Being united by ignorance offers its own form of redemption: stupidity itself is nothing to be ashamed of, and we all have the ability to do better. The key element in that self-improvement is choice.
One of her favorite proverbs reflects this. “Words are like eggs,” she says. “Once you drop it and it breaks, you can’t piece it back.” Harsh words, and a self-admitted lack of filter, are something Kidjo has worked for a long time to manage. She’s learned instead to let her words hatch, and soar, in her music and beyond.
“What you say you forget, you know? But the people that get those words – it gives them the strength to stand up. I mean: it’s something you give them forever.”
"In order to do that, I want everybody to stay in the light." pic.twitter.com/sLZJfRyl4R
— KUOW Public Radio (@KUOW) April 30, 2018