Angelique Kidjo is known as Africa’s greatest living diva for good reason: The Grammy-winning singer has influenced generations across the globe with her diverse style, which draws from traditional Beninese music as well as rock and soul classics by Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Nina Simone and even Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
Kidjo — the first woman ever to make Forbes magazine’s list of the 40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa — graces the stage Friday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. She talked to The Miami Herald about the show, her many musical influences, and how it feels to be a role model.
All of your early musical work and performances were in Benin. How was the creative atmosphere there compared to Paris and then later in New York?
I have been performing since the age of 6, and the music scene when I was a teenager was vibrant. There were many groups, and a competition of bands was created between high schools every Friday. We were learning all the songs coming from Europe and America and also playing our own modern versions of traditional songs from Benin.
As a child, did you feel differently about traditional Beninese music than you did American and British rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, etc.?
This is my problem! I don’t see barriers between genres of music. I don’t like labels. I follow Duke Ellington’s advice: There are just two kinds of music - good music and bad music. So in my imagination as a young Beninese girl I would mix Otis Redding with our griots and it didn’t make a difference to me.
You’ve been called Africa’s greatest living diva — what does that mean to you?
It is very flattering, but it comes with a sense of responsibility: I need to work hard every day to deserve this. The truth is, Africa is full of talent in its 52 countries and my dream is that people would learn more about the wonderful artists that have not been able to travel like me.
And winning a Grammy Award — where does that rank among your many achievements?
I had been nominated so many times before winning one [that] I had lowered my hope, but when it happened it was so wonderful! I put the Grammy on my head as a tribute to all the women in Africa working hard every day and who had supported my career. My Grammy was dedicated to them.
You have such a diverse and expansive body of work. What can we expect from your show?
A mix of old favorites and new songs. I always try to create the right balance. There are a few songs that I always need to sing, like Malaika or Afirika and Tumba. But I always enjoy singing them when I see the reaction of the public: Those songs create a deep bond between us.
You’ve got a connection to Miami, as your first record for Island was recorded there. What do you think of the city?
In fact, Miami was the first city I ever visited in the U.S. I have some friends there and some spots I like to go back to. I love the Latin influence in the music - it gives a special energy to the city.
Name three of your greatest musical influences, and why they touched you or inspired you so much.
Miriam Makeba was my main role model: She showed me at an early age that an African woman could be successful and travel the world and represent her continent beautifully. The first time I met with her I was so impressed. She became a friend and gave me much advice. Aretha Franklin was important, too, because of the power of her voice. Musically, James Brown changed my life: Every young person of my generation wanted to dance like him. He has influenced my style for sure. The first time I came to New York, Billboard magazine organized a call between us: That was the most amazing moment for me. I could also talk about Celia Cruz: Her voice has the power of a whole rhythm section!
The list of artists you’ve worked with is packed with superstars, legends and all-time greats. Do you have any musical guilty pleasures that would surprise people?
When I was a young girl in Africa, I would listen to all the French singers from the Yeye movement like Sheila or France Gall — you may not have heard of them. Their music was not the most innovative but they were so romantic, and made me dream.