The Beninese artist turns Talking Heads’ 1980 album, Remain in Light, into a sonic call to action for humankind/ness

Nataal was recently invited to witness, in full-ferocity and shimmering light, a live performance by Beninese songstress Angélique Kidjo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The three time Grammy-winner was there to reprise Talking Head’s Remain in Light, the American rock band’s game-changing 1980 album. Although Kidjo starved the adoring crowd of some of the hits that steered her own rise to fame in the 90s and 00s, such as ‘Batonga’ and ‘Agolo’ (while still making time for ‘Afirika’ and ‘Cauri’), we were nonetheless captivated by her fresh take on this seminal LP.

Over luscious Afro-Cuba and Congolese Rumba percussion, Kidjo’s inimitable voice and evident zeal and humour, not to mention her syncopated showgirl / tap dancer moves, ensured spirits soared sky-high. “Now is the time to bring rock back to Africa, to connect our minds, and bring all our sounds to a new level of sharing and understanding,” she urged the crowd, later welcoming them to join her and the band on stage during her anthem ‘Tumba’. A scene of beauteous chaos ensued as all ages and races danced together, unified by a shared love of song.

After the show, Nataal spoke with Kidjo about why she chose to record her own version of Remain in Light. “The inspiration comes from my encounter with the music in 1983. The album was released in the era of Ronald Reagan, and from the beginning there was anxiety in it. It was the anxiety among the people of not knowing what was going to happen,” she explains. “Profoundly, America had changed from being a country where people were being taken care of, to becoming a war against all safety nets for the people, and we are still under that anxiety…. Today is a moment of awakening in many different ways.”

Producer Brian Eno and frontman David Byrne’s original work spoke to Kidjo at a time when she too faced turmoil as she migrated from the Republic of Benin to France to begin a life away from the social sickness, political extremism and economic stagnation that defined the regime of Mathieu Kérékou and his Marxist-Leninist failed-state. “Living in exile is not easy,” Kidjo reflects. “There is nothing better than home, ever. When you are forced to leave, that’s when you realise the resilience of human beings, and also our vulnerability. To be able to live no matter what, that is what we do all the time. To avoid extinction, you have to adapt, and to know where you come from, you have to know the richness of your culture.”

The album’s musical influences also resonated with her thanks to its fusion of funk, new wave and afrobeat. After its release, Byrne told Rolling Stone magazine: “At the time, it was a really hard sell. The reaction that we heard was that it sounded too black for white radio and too white for black radio.” Thus now, just as Talking Heads borrowed their polyrhythms from Africa, Kidjo is delivering their music back to the continent where the roots of rock & roll first stemmed.

For Kidjo’s interpretation, she joined forces with Jeff Bhasker, whose other production credits include Jay Z, Rihanna and Kanye West. The new album boasts a more seductive and amplified swagger than the original thanks to Kidjo’s uplifting vocals and masterful rhythms. Her lyrics are a contemporary response to Byrne’s originals addressing issues including skin bleaching, patriarchy and terrorism. The jazz-fete ‘Houses in Motion’, the recently released single ‘Born Under Punches’ (a critique of corruption and state capture in places near and far), the stone cold classic ‘Once In A Lifetime’, and the woeful chant-like hymn ‘The Overload’ should be locked on repeat.

The album artwork and video for ‘Born Under Punches’ was a collaboration between Kidjo and established US artist Kerry-James Marshall. They present Kidjo in a dark space with light bulbs within her jacket, concealed, but for sale. Kidjo is a dealer, selling light instead of drugs. “From the moment that we arrived on this earth, what were the choices that some of us made?” she says. “Some say that it is better for us to share the wealth of this world, so that everybody can live in dignity. But a minority decided that this was not the way it was going to go.”

Kidjo speaks to this by building an essential dialogue between artists of many generations, genres and cultures. We hear Fela Kuti’s heroic drummer Tony Allen, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Antibalas Horns, Kidjo’s long-time guitarist Dominic James, and percussionist Magatte Sow. Kidjo adds to these layers by singing in Fon, Yoruba, French and English. “When you grow up in Africa, you have to speak so many languages; the language of your village, the language of the ex-coloniser and very often a few other local languages. So this is how I learned how to use the beautiful sounds of various languages in my songs. I have always sung songs in languages I didn’t understand.”

“We as Africans have to ask ourselves, where do we want our continent to be? If we want change, we have to be the change”

The end result is a call-to-action for a more co-dependent and conscientious mode of life for all. “We have been through two world wars, and still haven’t found a way to live together and be each other’s keeper, even though we are from one human family,” she says. “All we try to do is divide to exist. To find the meaning of our own lives, we believe that dehumanising another being gives us more credibility, or more power, or more sense of life. We should practice kindness and increasingly ask why we always focus on what gives a minority of people power. That is the problem of this world.”

Kidjo serves as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador channeling the influence of her art into a vehicle to reconcile a fractured world. Aside from organising impact-driving music events with UNESCO, a significant focus of her work includes frequent advocacy for education of the girl-child, as evidenced by Batonga Foundation, which she founded to support secondary schools and higher education for girls in Africa. In all of this, Kidjo leads by example but she is adamant that there is much more to be done.

“We as Africans have to ask ourselves, where do we want our continent to be? If we want change, we have to be the change. We cannot blame other people for our problems; we are part of our problems. When we are at the negotiating table, let us not be lured by something that we think is beautiful, because it is not.  We should be the continent that is helping other people, because Africa’s wealth is driving other economies in the world.”

Remain in Light is out now on Kravenworks Records

Photography Sebastian Kriz (portrait) and Simon Jay Price (live)

Visit Angélique Kidjo

Published on 20/06/2018