Growing up in the West African country of Bénin, Angélique Kidjo says music was always part of her life.
"My aunt used to spend a lot of time home when I was growing up," Kidjo said. "And I remember I spent a lot of times sitting on her lap, just listening to her beautiful voice singing all those songs to me, and teaching me the songs even before I started speaking."
Kidjo was born into the Petah tribe in July 1960. She grew up with eight brothers and sisters in a lively home environment. Her mother, Yvonne, was a famous choreographer who ran a theater troupe. When she was 6 years old, Kidjo made her public performance debut, substituting for an actress who fell ill in her mother's show. From that point on, she performed with the troupe all over West Africa.
As a teenager, Kidjo formed her own singing group, Les Sphinx. A radio show took notice and invited her to perform. It was her first big break, and it wasn't long before she was recording a solo album in Paris at the age of 20. The album was a huge success.
"I grew up in a very poor country where you are joyful and positive, or you disappear," Kidjo said. "So, since I was a child, I always had that positive approach to life. I always give people the benefit of the doubt."
And Americans were some of the people she chose to believe in. Although many warned her that the United States wouldn't like or need music sung in a foreign language, Kidjo chose to find out for herself whether or not that was true. Her third album, "Logozo," was recorded in Miami in 1991.
"I found the contrary here," Kidjo said. "People are eager to learn something new. Because they're not competing with anybody, they have every kind of music possible that exists in the world in [the United States]. There are room for me — for me and other people. Because what they like out of music, is they can relate to it … they can sing with me, or they can use it for their own."
Eventually, Kidjo ended up collaborating with several famous U.S. musicians, such as Josh Groban and Alicia Keys.
"The song that I sung with Alicia Keys is very complimentary, because she is one of the rare R&B artists in America that really loves the beat of my village — the 6/8 beat," Kidjo said. "And if you listen to her — all her successes — they're written in 6/8."
Singer-songwriter Joss Stone also impresses Kidjo, not only because of her innate talent, but her potential as well.
"She's just an amazing artist. And I hope that, throughout the years, she is going to bonify, because man, she's young, and the voice that she has now, I can hardly wait 10 years from now to hear what it's gonna sound like. I like voices, I really do," Kidjo said. "For me, it's the mirror of the soul of somebody."
If music is the mirror of the soul, Kidjo's music indicates environmental conservation is one of her great passions. Her 1993 song "Agolo" evokes an environmental awakening.
"One day, when I was pregnant, I realized that we pollute a lot individually. And instead of making people feel 'ughh, how can we do this?'" Kidjo said, "I just said to myself, 'why don't we write a song where everybody is invited to a party, and then we can all sit down and talk about individually, and collectively, we can all do something for this Earth to carry the next generation to come.'"
"Agolo" became an international hit, and spawned a global concert tour that was very popular in America. Proving the naysayers wrong, Kidjo still remains one of the most popular African artists in the United States.
The first time Kidjo heard American music, she was about 9 years old.
"When the music of James Brown came to Africa, it was something we could all relate to," she said. "When he screams to express things, how the voice was used close to the rhythm — we do that a lot in traditional music, and also a lot of people started mimicking James Brown having an Afro, and sliding the way he slides."
Brown is only one of the many singers beloved by this four-time Grammy-nominated singer.
As a child in Africa, Kidjo recalls singing the words, "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey … I got the feeling …" and getting strange reactions from people who, like Kidjo at the time, did not speak English.
"People are like, 'do you know what you're talkin' about?' I'm like, 'no. I don't know. I like the words, I like the song, and I'd make words on top of it,'" she said.
Kidjo said that when she was young, Brown's music gave her a sense of "how you can use space, how you can use your body to move, keep the groove going on, and keep the focusing, and use the body in every matters."
When growing up in Bénin, Kidjo also listened to a young Stevie Wonder.
"He came to play at the first musical festival — African musical festival in Nigeria … called FESTAC," she said. "I think that song 'Superstition' … he played over three or four times, because people would not stop moving and singing the song. People wanted the song over and over again."
She explained that it was Wonder's voice that overtook her as a little girl.
"Stevie Wonder — the voice, the emotion, the power of the voice in a place where, when you hear the voice, it just go, like pow, in your plexus, and you go, 'alright, I got it,'" Kidjo said.
During her high school years, Kidjo remembers Bob Marley arriving on the music scene. "[All the young adults] were all looking for an identity, something different from the political scene that we were living in, because we were not happy."
They found it in one Marley song, in particular: "Africa Unite."
"When you're in high school, you're very naive, and you're very idealistic. You want to change the world, you want the world to be a better place. Bob Marley came in, and at that time, I was already speaking English, and I could understand all his lyrics. He gave me the conscience of what you can do with music to touch people," Kidjo said.
"If we do not unite in Africa one day, at one point, we will disappear … Why can't we organize the African union to be efficient militarily, economically and politically? Today, it's not. And one of my dreams is to see the African union be really, really efficient, changing every single citizen of that continent."
Kidjo takes this to heart in her life, becoming a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador in 2002, and founding Batonga, a foundation that gives a secondary school and higher education to girls in Africa, so they can take the lead in changing their country.
Many people compare Kidjo to Miriam Makeba, another singer from Africa who is best known for her song "Pata Pata."
"That song, for me, was the turning point in Africa, where an African lady could have a planet — a heap on the planet — 'Pata Pata' was a song known everywhere 'till today."
Kidjo recalled that when she began singing as a young girl in Bénin, "it's very difficult for society to accept you as a modern performer, not a traditional singer. So, when you're doing modern music, what the elderly people in my country call 'the instrument of evil' — drums, guitar, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll hit Africa big-time — you're a junky, or you are a prostitute."
As Kidjo explained, "Miriam Makeba came in and proved to me that you can be an African woman, have a career and be a respectable woman. That is why 'Pata Pata' is really important for me, because it's always there in my brain."
"It's always a pleasure for me to listen to it, still today … because the topic is universal. What are we, and what can we do with our friends that we can count on, and with our family. It doesn't matter how hard life is, you always have to believe that tomorrow is gonna be better," Kidjo said.
"If you let the problem, the circumstances of life, beat you down … then you go downhill. And to come back up is very difficult."
Her mantra? "Never, ever give up, because you don't know what the next half hour holds; by extension, the next year," she said. "Every moment is important. If you can have music that can lift your spirit, grab it, do it. That's the power of music that no one else has — no politicians have that power. You don't listen to a politician's speech and go around going, 'I'm going to be happy … no. But music does that to you."
Angélique Kidjo will perform Dec. 1 at the World AIDS Day Concert.