The Power Of Pop: Angélique Kidjo’s Most Iconic Performances

2 February 2024 | 11:09 am | Ellie Robinson
In Partnership With QPAC

The legendary polymath – once declared “Africa's greatest living diva” – is heading to Australia at the end of this month.

Angélique Kidjo

Angélique Kidjo (Supplied)

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Angélique Kidjo is one of the most celebrated names in Afropop for good reason: in addition to stunning crowds the world over with a kaleidoscopic brew of jazzy, soulful world music, reggae and pop, she’s made enormous strides in her work as a political advocate, and particularly with her own Batonga Foundation, she’s done incredible things to support and champion girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa – and indeed the world.

Kidjo isn’t just a household name in the musical scenes she’s traversed; she’s racked up dozens of worldly accolades, including a Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic (with which she was honoured in 2008), the United Nations’ Champions Of The Earth Award (which she received in 2011), the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award (2015), Amnesty International’s Ambassador Of Conscience Award (2016), the official Legion Of Honor (France’s highest award of merit, bestowed upon her in 2021), the Polar Music Prize (2023), and five Grammys (2008, 2015, 2016, 2020 and 2022).

She’s also the vice-president of the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d'Auteurs et Compositeurs (translation: International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers), a Commander of the National Order of Benin, a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France), and an Officer of the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg... Oh, and she’s earned honorary doctorates from Yale, the Berklee College of Music, Middlebury College and UCLouvain.

Needless to say, calling Kidjo an icon would be an egregious understatement. And in just a few weeks from today, she’ll be heading to Australia for a five-date tour of the country’s most prestigious venues. With additional shows lined up in Perth (Boorloo), Melbourne (Naarm), Sydney (Eora) and Adelaide (Kaurna), the centrepiece will be a transcendent performance at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane (Meanjin), scheduled for Monday March 4.

Though it comes in support of her 2021 album Mother Nature – a tour-de-force of musical and lyrical strength, tackling stark themes like racial inequity and the climate crisis with a grace wholly unique to Kidjo – the show will celebrate her full 40-year tenure in the musical zeitgeist, honouring the innermost corners of her sprawling catalogue (spanning some 16 studio albums) and shining a bold new light on the prismatic idiosyncrasies that made Kidjo the star she is today.

As we count down the days to this once-in-a-lifetime performance, we’re diving through the archives to reflect on some of Kidjo’s all-time most memorable performances: the shows that defined her as a living legend of the highest calibre, the shows that proved she means business when it comes to her activism, and the shows that will forever thrive in the echelon of pop-culture’s greatest moments.

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Read on to explore the (honestly rather insane) breakdown below, then head here to grab tickets for Kidjo’s upcoming QPAC show.

Shows for good causes

From 1997 to 1999 (and in 2010), Canadian pop stalwart Sarah McLachlan spearheaded the all-female Lilith Fair festival, fighting back against industry bodies (like radio stations and other festivals) refusing to platform women, and in the process raising more than $10 million for charity. Kidjo performed at the 1998 edition – just one of the many gigs she’s played to spread a loud and proud feminist message. Some 15 years later, for example, she performed at London’s Women Of The World festival – organised for International Women’s Day 2013 – sharing the stage with Malian folk star Fatoumata Diawara.

In 2012, Kidjo headlined a concert to raise awareness for the fight to end female genital mutilation, performing at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York City. It was hosted by the UN’s Permanent Mission of Italy and UNICEF, and it wasn’t the first time she’d been involved with the international peace org. In October 2009, she joined Nile Rodgers, John McLaughlin and Lang Lang to perform at the General Assembly for the concert event A Tribute To Peacekeeping; then, just three months later, she sang at the Dance 4 Climate Change concert at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change summit. She sang again for the General Assembly in 2015, supporting the launch of the UN’s Global Goals For Sustainable Development initiative.

Earlier in the 2000s, Kidjo worked closely with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. She performed at two editions of the charity’s 46664 benefit concerts – first a Cape Town gig in 2003 (where she linked up with Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour), then one in New York in 2009 (where she sang a riveting duet of her song Afrika with Alicia Keys). Also in 2009, Kidjo gave her debut performance at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall for the VSO benefit concert African Stars – where she was joined by “the father of South African jazz”, Hugh Masekela – and supported Rome’s Alda Fendi Experimenti Foundation with her appearance in a theatrical production of Storie Fantastiche Dal Delta Del Niger (translation: Fantastic Stories From The Niger Delta).

2009 was also the year Kidjo joined the International Advisory Board of SNV (a Dutch agricultural development org in the Netherlands), shortly after she performed at the Africa Day concert to support their (and the Evert Vermeer Foundation's) wide-spanning efforts to reduce poverty. A few years earlier, she performed at the 2005 Eden Project festival – hosted by Angelina Jolie for the Live 8 benefit series – and in 2007 she played the South African leg of the Live Earth tour.

Kidjo reunited with Alicia Keys for another benefit show in 2012, performing at the Black Ball gala for her nonprofit Keep A Child Alive. She sang a trio of duets with Keys – Pata Pata, Afirika and Djin Djin – and later shared the stage with Oprah Winfrey to receive the charity’s award for Outstanding Humanitarian Work. Another famous foundation she’s worked with is David Lynch’s – in 2015, she performed at their New York benefit Change Begins Within, joining the likes of Katy Perry and Sting to endorse transcendental meditation (which Kidjo actively practices).

Most recently, in November of 2018, Kidjo appeared at a ceremony honouring the 100th anniversary of World War I, standing under the Arc De Triomphe of Paris before 70 heads of state (with millions also tuning in to a live broadcast) to sing Blewu in respect of the African soldiers who fought in WWI.

Shows honouring political greats

As much as her heart belongs to music, equally so is Kidjo devoted to political activism. A particularly crucial plight for her is world peace, and she’s fit to speak on the plights of those entangled in political conflicts – in 1983, at the age of 23, gubernatorial unrest forced her to flee Benin for Paris. So it tracks that Kidjo be a staunch supporter of the Nobel Peace Prize, performing at several concerts to honour its laureates over the years. The first was in 1996, when she sang in support of Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, who were awarded the Peace Prize for their work leading the fight for peace in East Timor.

Six years later, in 2002, she returned to Oslo (alongside other global heavyweights like J.Lo and Santana) to celebrate the bestowal of former US President Jimmy Carter, honouring his work with the Carter Center to fight for human rights around the world. And in 2011, she joined the likes of Janelle Monáe, Evanescence and Ellie Goulding to perform at the personal request of recipient Leymah Roberta Gbowee (who that year shared the Prize with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman).

A few years earlier, in January of 2009, Kidjo shared the stage with another Peace Prize laureate, Jody Williams (who earned the title in 1997), to celebrate the first inauguration of Barack Obama. Performing at the Smithsonian’s Peace Ball concert, she appeared alongside the likes of Joan Baez, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne. She’d later sing at a 2012 concert honouring Burmese multi-hyphenate Aung San Suu Kyi – 1991’s Peace Prize laureate, and later the sole State Counsellor of Myanmar – where she was part of a cohort that featured fellow legends like Bono and Damien Rice.

Shows spotlighting her African heritage

The aforementioned Africa Day in the Netherlands isn’t the only show Kidjo has played to honour her Beninese roots. In 2005, for example, she performed at the Africa Unite Live concert in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to commemorate what would have been Bob Marley's 60th birthday. She also spoke at the African Unity conference that followed the show, staying true to her (and indeed Marley’s) activist spirit. The same year, she played to some 50,000 punters in Dakar for the Africa Live festival, bumping shoulders with fellow African icons like Youssou N’Dour (from Senegal), Corneille (Rwanda), Tony Allen (Nigeria) and Tiken Jah Fakoly (Ivory Coast).

Kidjo and N’Dour have played a swathe of similar shows together – like the Back2Black festival in Rio de Janeiro, where they shared the stage in 2009. N’Dour also appeared as a guest at Kidjo’s own Sound Of The Drum show at New York’s iconic Carnegie Hall – staged for a sold-out crowd in November of 2010 – where Kidjo honoured the musical roots of the African diaspora, and welcomed such other notable guests as Omara Portuondo, Dianne Reeves and Romero Lubambo.

The following October, Kidjo delivered a one-off concert of traditional Beninese music to soundtrack the Heroic Africans exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum Of New York. Museums mean a lot to her – she even contributed to an exhibit at New York’s MOMA (the Museum Of Modern Art) called Design And Violence, and she’s featured in exhibits at the National Museum Of African American History And Culture in Washington, DC. In September of 2016, she performed at a launch event for the latter institution, sharing the space with cultural darlings like the Obamas, Oprah, Angela Bassett, Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Patti LaBelle and John Lewis.

2016 also saw Kidjo launch her African Women All-Stars concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where she welcomed out guests like Aṣa, Lura, Dobet Gnaore and the Trio Teriba.

Tributes to fellow musical icons

Bob Marley’s posthumous birthday bash was just one of many tribute shows Kidjo has appeared at – she also celebrated Quincy Jones’ 75th at the 2008 Montreux Jazz Festival, for example, and the following year saw her tour with Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Simone for the Nina Simone tribute Sing The Truth.

2009 was also the year Kidjo launched her full-show tribute to Miriam Makeba (aka Mama Africa), one of her most significant idols, at the Festival D'Ile De France in Paris. Taking over the storied Cirque d’Hiver venue, the grandiose tribute featured guests like Rokia Traoré, Dobet Gnahoré, Sayon Bamba Camara, Vusi Mahlasela, Aṣa and Ayo. The same show was later staged in London, (albeit with Traoré’s role filled by Baaba Maal), and a separate tribute show – this time featuring the likes of Laura Mvula, Ezra Koenig and Vusi Mahlasela, with an introduction from Whoopi Goldberg – made it to Carnegie Hall in 2014. A few years earlier, too, Kidjo performed a solo tribute to Makeba at the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar, following the premiere of an eponymous documentary on Mama Africa.

In 2003, Kidjo linked up with blues god Buddy Guy and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid to smash out a wild cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child, which was later featured in the 2004 documentary Lightning In A Bottle: One Night In The History Of The Blues.

Speaking of covers, we’d be crazy not to mention Kidjo’s prismatic take on Talking Heads’ epochal 1980 album Remain In Light. Another sold-out Carnegie Hall show – this one held in May of 2017 – saw her reinvent the album in its entirety, with helping hands coming courtesy of Nona Hendryx, Jason Lindner, Antibalas and Lionel Loueke. David Byrne himself also made a surprise appearance on the night, joining Kidjo for a stellar duet of Once In A Lifetime. The show was lauded by critics, and in June of 2018, Kidjo released a studio version of the full set.

Other huge moments in pop-culture history

A few years before she appeared at Quincy Jones’ birthday bash – in May of 2004, to be exact – Kidjo performed at his Rome event We Are The Future, singing for a mind-melting 400,000 concertgoers. Also taking to the stage were the likes of Alicia Keys, Herbie Hancock and Andrea Bocelli. Another monumental Eurobash was the event celebrating 30 years of Solidarność (which translates to Solidarity, dubbed Poland’s independent, self-governing trade union), which went down in August 2010 and also featured Macy Gray, Philip Glass, Rufus Wainwright and Marianne Faithfull.

Towards the end of the 2000s, we learned that Kidjo fancies herself a bit of sport. She performed her song Agolo at the Final Draw of the 2009 FIFA World Cup in Cape Town, and returned for the following year’s kick-off concert alongside the likes of Shakira, the Black Eyed Peas and Juanes. Also in 2010, she performed at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. The committee clearly loved her, because in 2012 she teamed up with King Sunny Ade, Baaba Maal and Hugh Masekela for a concert hosted at the Summer Olympics in London. Then, at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, she joined John Legend, Alejandro Sanz and Keith Urban to sing a new rendition of the John Lennon classic Imagine – recomposed by Hans Zimmer – for the Opening Ceremony.

2012 also saw Kidjo perform at UNESCO’s International Jazz Day concert, where she shared the spotlight with such timeless stars as Herbie Hancock, Shaka Khan, Tony Bennett, Terrence Blanchard, Stevie Wonder and Ron Carter. The same year, she honoured the Dalai Lama with a performance at the Syracuse University’s One World Concert, where she duetted with Cyndi Lauper on True Colours.

Angélique Kidjo will perform at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre on Monday March 4 – head here for more info, and here for info on her other Australian tour dates.