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Superstar Angélique Kidjo sings at the 1000th Tiny Desk — and speaks from her heart

Angélique Kidjo performs at the 1,000th NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. She sings the praises of the series: "The Tiny Desk Concerts bring the whole world into this tiny place where you can make miracles and wonder."
Bob Boilen/NPR
Angélique Kidjo performs at the 1,000th NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. She sings the praises of the series: "The Tiny Desk Concerts bring the whole world into this tiny place where you can make miracles and wonder."

NPR is celebrating its 1,000th Tiny Desk Concert. And who better to mark the occasion than the 5-time Grammy award-winning Beninese artist and international sensation Angélique Kidjo?

Kidjo's music is equal parts boisterous and soulful. The strength of her voice commands attention while her band impressively manages to keep up with awe-invoking and radiant energy she displays. Her music transcends mere danceability and instead possesses you with its rhythm, leaving you no choice but to move with the groove.

We spoke to Kidjo about her music, her activism on behalf of girls and women – and what it means to perform at supercharged events like the Olympics and of course, the 1,000th Tiny Desk, which marked the occasion with a cake (it was ... delicious).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Angélique Kidjo says that singing at a Tiny Desk Concert and singing at the Olympics have something in common: "The Tiny Desk and the Olympics bring everybody together in one place to speak to the largest public around the world."
/ Bob Boilen/NPR
/
Bob Boilen/NPR
Angélique Kidjo says that singing at a Tiny Desk Concert and singing at the Olympics have something in common: "The Tiny Desk and the Olympics bring everybody together in one place to speak to the largest public around the world."

What was it like performing for the 1,000th episode of NPR's Tiny Desk?

I'm speechless. I've always been a listener to the Tiny Desk Concerts. They show that there's more than just American musicians we have to focus on. The Tiny Desk Concerts bring the whole world into this tiny place where you can make miracles and wonder.

The Tiny Desk Concerts remind us that we are each other's keepers and that music is a universal language. It doesn't matter who is behind the microphone, the music goes straight into our DNA and touches our hearts.

Last year you performed during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic games. How does that experience, being on an immense stage in front of people from all over the world, compare to performing here behind a tiny desk?

One thing that Tiny Desk shares in common with the Olympics is that they're both moments where we rediscover other people. You realize that, gee, this world is big, yet these moments bring all of us together in one place. The Tiny Desk and the Olympics bring everybody together in one place to speak to the largest public around the world.

Angélique Kidjo dances and sings for the 1,000th Tiny Desk Concert. She says that technology is helping bring more new African artists into the mainstream.
/ Estefania Mitre/ NPR
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Estefania Mitre/ NPR
Angélique Kidjo dances and sings for the 1,000th Tiny Desk Concert. She says that technology is helping bring more new African artists into the mainstream.

What does African music mean in the context of this new world where technology can bring us all together no matter where we are?

There is no music without African input. Why? Because Africa is the cradle of humanity, all Homo sapiens originally came from Africa. The music from Africa is here to last forever.

The new generation of artists coming up from Africa are talented and unapologetic. What's changed now is the platform that the internet has given them. They don't have to come all the way to the U.S. to get recognized. You just click and see how many millions of people like their work.

Your new album, Queen of Sheba, which was made in collaboration with French-Lebanese jazz trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, combines African music and Middle Eastern music in a way that's new for you. What inspired this collaboration – and how did that album come together?

I thought about what is the link between Africa and the Middle East, and I found the myth of the queen Sheba asking King Solomon riddles to tap into his wisdom. At the time, power had always been male, but here was a woman who had wisdom, too.

We scraped the whole project together from performances we did on stage. Ibrahim Maalouf and I did three shows, then looked at each other and said "We're going to do an album." And that was how we got Queen of Sheba.

When you hit the 1,000 mark, there must be cake. Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen (in blue shirt) and the Tiny Desk crew celebrate this milestone with Angélique Kidjo and her band. The first Tiny Desk Concert was in 2008 and featured folk singer Laura Gibson.
/ Estefania Mitre/NPR
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Estefania Mitre/NPR
When you hit the 1,000 mark, there must be cake. Tiny Desk creator and creative director Bob Boilen (in black shirt and beige pants) and the Tiny Desk crew celebrate this milestone with Angélique Kidjo and her band. The first Tiny Desk Concert was in 2008 and featured folk singer Laura Gibson.

How has your advocacy work been going? You've led campaigns against child marriage and domestic violence against women. Has the pandemic had an impact on those efforts?

I'm campaigning every day, because when you witness abuse and you say nothing or do nothing, you are a part of that abuse. Lately, I've learned a great lesson of humility. I realized we don't have all the answers, we don't have all the solutions.

We lost a lot of progress on the fight against child marriage and violence against women during the lockdown. We are back at zero, really. The lockdown allowed a lot of abuse from men who didn't have a job and had to stay home. Men going away to work protected a lot of women in Africa. Without that women and children were forced to live with the perpetrator at home all the time.

My father always said, a great man is one who accepts both sexes, men and women. We all come into this world created by the two. So when you embrace that, you cannot see another person of a different sex as inferior to you.

How can people help? There are so many people out there who want to make a difference but don't know how.

Everybody is an advocate, that's what the song "Free and Equal" we sang today is saying. It's saying that we belong to the same human family and we all have to advocate for that human family so that justice can exist for everybody, no matter your skin color or where you come from.

You need to embrace love more than hate and violence. Life demands courage, I tell people to live every day like it's going to be your last one. Challenge yourself to be the best version of yourself. If you see somebody saying something outrageous, fight back.

That being said. We in Africa are not your charity work. As long as you have homeless people here in America who don't eat three meals a day or have access to basic health care, then the human rights of the American people are being infringed too.

Last question, you've been on the biggest stages and had all of this success, so what's next for Angelique Kidjo?

I don't know. If I knew, then I would have the pretension and arrogance of God, so I don't know.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Max Barnhart
Max Barnhart is the 2022 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at NPR. He is a 5th year Ph.D. candidate and science journalist studying the evolution of heat stress resistance in sunflowers at the University of Georgia.