Collaborating with artists like Mr Eazi, Burna Boy, and Sampa the Great, the Beninese icon builds upon a proudly pan-Africanist musical vision that celebrates the power of community.
Angélique Kidjo’s musical vision places Africa at the center of her work. Born and raised in Benin, the polyglot singer/songwriter/storyteller was sourcing from the roots of African rhythms long before they came into vogue as international signifiers of taste and worldliness. On Mother Nature, Kidjo serves up a feast of the most sublime sounds found in the Black diaspora. Recording in France, she calls upon a virtual collective of artists from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Mali, Zambia, and the U.S. to craft a dynamic, varied album that nods to the foundational sounds of Afrobeat, the spirituality of Zilin, and the role of the griot, while embracing the sounds of Banku and hip-hop. The end result is a project with shared memories, global reach, and a singular genesis that spans the continent’s artistic realms.
Kidjo is credited as either composer or producer on 11 of the album’s 13 tracks, but in both the studio and her songs, collaboration and community are of utmost importance. Singing in Fon, Yoruba, French, and English, she calls for women’s autonomy, uplifts an African generation raised on political disappointment, and aspires toward a world that understands the true weight of ubuntu. On “Dignity,” Kidjo and Nigerian singer-songwriter Yemi Alade sing about the women they’ve become and for the women who raised them, their voices weaving between pop and Afrobeat. Structured in a call and response between the two, the track hangs on the impassioned refrain, “Respect is reciprocal.” As an anthem of female empowerment, the message is understated but resolute. It doesn’t have the direct confrontation of South African star Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s “Who’s Got the Power,” but it is equally as determined to highlight those who are most marginalized as full and capable beings deserving of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
On “Africa, One of a Kind,” Nigerian Banku singer Mr Eazi joins Malian legend Salif Keita to reimagine Keita’s 1995 song “Africa.” Where some write songs to rep area codes or neighborhoods, Kidjo, Keita, and Mr Eazi address those who claim allegiance to the entirety of the continent, celebrating a pan-Africanist pride that recognizes no borders. These cross-generational collaborations give the album much of its power. On “Do Yourself,” Kidjo cedes room to Nigerian superstar Burna Boy but remains very much present via her distinctive vocal riffs, which, depending on the song, can be cries of celebration or shouts of defiance. Here they are the latter, serving to remind what makes her such a captivating performer and storyteller; her idiosyncrasies add fullness to her work. “Omon Oba,” with appearances by Beninese artists Lionel Loueke and Zeynab, takes its old-school feel from Zimbabwean township music pioneered in the early 1930s, and “Take It or Leave It” is unmistakably influenced by the urbane tones of highlife, with an amusingly frank verse courtesy of EarthGang’s Olu.
Kidjo, 60, comes from the same generation as Burundian singer Khadja Nin and South Africa’s late Brenda Fassie, and her narratives are part of a tapestry of stories collected, given color, and stitched together by African women. All three saw Africa as it heaved and gasped for air, and each offered melodies for the moment. Fassie’s “Boipatong” swept through Southern Africa in 1992, carrying its message of resistance to white colonial rule far beyond her native home. In 1996, on “Sambolera,” Nin sang of the bleeding soil and betrayed citizens who had emerged from the dust to be fed lies and deceit. Years later, Kidjo responds with “Fired Up,” an ode to those who have stormed through streets to get things done. “Ready, set, we are fired up!” she yells.
Kidjo’s music flows most easily, and the messages land with the greatest impact, when she’s not proselytizing, as she does on the Sampa the Great-assisted “Free and Equal” and the album’s title track. Analogies to color blindness and cultural mosaics on “Meant for Me” feel out of sync with an album that proudly centers voices of the Black diaspora. Her collaborators focus their collective lens on Blackness and daily African realities, both mundane and exceptional. To sing of a racial rainbow sounds forced and toothless, and lacks the persuasive power that marks the album’s strongest songs.
Kidjo’s calls for harmony might sound willfully naive were it not for the fact that the entire trajectory of her career has been shaped by a genuine belief that music can change the world. No one is left behind in her body of work. On Mother Nature, she looks backward, to the figures who have come before her, and outward, uniting regional traditions into a celebratory pan-Africanist movement, while nurturing musicians like Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, and Sampa the Great, young Black creators who follow Kidjo’s example of community-rooted artistry. Her success is not a pyramid but a constantly growing circle.