Angelique Kidjo: Artist in Residence

Angelique Kidjo on music, cultural appropriation and her latest concert at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Feb 10, 2018

Video by The Gazelle's Video Desk

“If we want to live in a world where everyone embraces everyone, we have to start with culture,” said Angelique Kidjo, in conversation with Professor Awam Amkpa.

“As an artist, you hold the keys to closed doors, when the conversation is stuck.”

Angelique Kidjo’s visit to NYU Abu Dhabi is characterized by conversations. Beyond her incredible Remain in Light concert on Feb. 3, Kidjo had dinner with community members, did a vocal workshop, a Howler Radio interview and talked with Professor Amkpa about cultural appropriation. Then there is the wider conversation sparked by the Remain in Light project, through a transatlantic – even global – cultural exchange.

Released in 1980, Remain in Light is the Talking Heads’ fourth studio album and a masterpiece, having been selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Lead singer David Byrne and producer Brian Eno were heavily influenced by African polyrhythms and Byrne’s lyrics were inspired by early rap and books on Africa. This provoked the discussion around cultural appropriation, a sensitive issue around which the conversation feels awkward.

But Kidjo doesn’t think cultural appropriation applies to the making of Remain in Light.

“Cultural appropriation is when you don’t acknowledge that something comes from somewhere else,” said Kidjo. “The Talking Heads didn’t lie about it. They came out and said, Fela Kuti inspired us,” she added.

The influence of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, father of the Afrobeat, is also acknowledged in the inclusion of an extra track, Fela’s Riff on the 2006 remaster of Remain in Light. Furthermore, Byrne’s press kit for the original release of Remain in Light stated that the album was heavily influenced by African mythology and rhythms.

“I did Remain in Light because the Talking Heads gave me the authorization to take it back to Africa,” Kidjo said in her talk with Professor Amkpa. I’m inclined to think that she doesn’t mean authorization simply in the permissive sense. Perhaps the album’s openness about its own eclecticism aligns it with Kidjo’s ethos of building bridges and dipping into any and every genre. Her interactions with the audience make it clear that she is capable of witty rebuttals, but also that she is less interested in arguments than continuing the conversation.

Kidjo’s conversation with Remain in Light began in 1983, when she heard the album in Paris after leaving behind the communist dictatorship in Benin.

“Sometimes you listen to music and you’re like, I know this, but really not,” she said on Howler radio.

“It’s something that grabs my heart. What am I going to do with it? When I have this kind of feeling about anything, I always leave time for it. It’s like a pregnancy.”

Now, 37 years after the album’s release, her concert on Feb. 3 recreated this feeling of unfamiliar familiarity in fans of the Talking Heads, of hearing the same words made beautifully, and unexpectedly, melodic. In the original album, Byrne used preaching spoken words sourced from radio evangelists. Kidjo replaced those with her incredible vocals. In a previous interview she
spoke
of how the album’s lyrics resonated with her when she first heard them, seeming to apply to the political situation of her country and continent, as they must have applied in Byrne’s time to his country and continent. For those inclined to analyze song lyrics, it’s easy to see how they can apply today, especially to college seniors listening to Once in a Lifetime on repeat — how did I get here? — or to anyone suffering the lyrics of Crosseyed and Painless — facts all come with a point of view — in the age of Trump.

Getting rid of the spoken word deemphasized the lyrics in a way that made the experience of the concert more communal. As a matter of fact, I saw everyone dance to the music without necessarily loving the Talking Heads or knowing the album word for word. Kidjo’s Remain in Light was much more than a reinterpretation of some songs from the eighties. It’s not quite the circle closing it has been likened to, but a branching out, or a spiral picking up new things along the way. Kidjo’s Remain in Light was punctuated by songs from her African repertoire. She performed Miriam Makeba’s energetic Pata Pata and sang her stripped down version of Malaika, her voice carrying strongly over a single guitar. The cries of recognition around me — “I feel like I’m at home!” — made the experience so much more communal than a series of Talking Heads covers would have.

To me, the original Remain in Light always sounded like it was decrying the times we live in, somehow matter of factly, but Kidjo’s interpretation was about deeply feeling the urgent issues of our time, not for complacency, but for hope and action. By throwing Pata Pata, Malaika and Afirika into the mix, she put us in the conversation between these songs of different — but ultimately the same — traditions.

“We’re all Africans. It’s in our DNA. All the music we listen to comes from there,” she said.

It was an experience we needed, especially less than a month after President Trump’s shithole countries comment. It’s heartening to know that in response, David Byrne made a playlist called The Beautiful Shitholes. It includes Fela Kuti and Myriam Makeba. The conversation continues.

Rosy Tahan is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at [email protected]

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