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France Honors Angélique Kidjo

On Wednesday, May 11, 2011, Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the Embassy of France, confered upon internationally acclaimed artist, Angélique Kidjo, the insignia of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters for her musicianship, her dedication to humanitarian causes, and, more generally, for her efforts to further the arts in France and throughout the world.

I am particularly honoured and pleased to welcome you here tonight, dear Angélique Kidjo: you are not only a consummate artist of international renown, but also a New Yorker loved by the entire community of this city, and of the Services Culturels.

It is not only your musical career that we wish to honour tonight but also the path that brought you here today, as well as your humanitarian efforts which are quite remarkable.

I was listening to your music and in particular to your album “Oyo” (2010) that I realized the extent to which your childhood in Benin and your African roots have found their way into your music for over 25 years.

The Africa of the 1960s, in which you grew up, transmitted to you all its cultural richness… but it was also where you discovered the “black condition”, from the slave trade route (you were born by the way in Ouidah, one of the slave trade capitals) to apartheid sung by Miriam Makeba.

They say that it was an album cover for a Jimi Hendrix recording (borrowed from one of your 8 brothers and sisters!) that made you aware of the African diaspora in Europe and America.

Angelique, you are an artist who is celebrated the word over. You have travelled a long road since your mother, director of a company of music and dance, introduced you at a very young age to the African artistic tradition.

You began to sing with Kidjo Brothers Band, very much influenced by the music of James Brown, and then in high school with a group called Les Sphinx, and finally at the age of 20 with the help of one of your brothers, you put out your first record, “Pretty”, which revealed to the public your incredible energy and the exceptional quality of your voice.

The call of the world eventually won out and at 23 you decided to try your luck in Paris, a city which for many years has been the western springboard for world music and particularly for the African scene.

You are not entirely captivated by the law studies which you enrolled in so you switched to music, pursuing studies at Aux Ateliers-Chansons then at CIM (school of jazz and contemporary music) where you met the bass player and composer Jean Hebrail, present here tonight, who would become your husband. After various collaborations with African musicians, you toured and recorded with the group Pili Pili, and thus began to become known in Europe.

Next, with your own group, Angie Kidjo, composed of French musicians, including Jean Hebrail (who was writing some of your music at that time) you opened at the Olympia in 1989 for one of your idols, Myriam Makeba!

It was also in Paris that the legendary producer, Christ Blackwell, founder of Island Records (record label for Bob Marley and U2) discovered you and signed you to his label Mango in 1991 for which you recorded four albums.

In 1998 you relocated to New York and in 2000 signed with the prestigious American label Columbia Records, a real mark of distinction. You experienced success after success and regularly hit the top of the charts. Your openness to the most diverse musical influences facilitated collaboration with the biggest starts including Bono, Peter Gabriel, Carlos Santana, Ziggi Marley, Alicia Keys, Dianne Reeves, Philip Glass, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, and Youssou N’Dour.

Peter Gabriel said at the time that “she brings life to everything she touches”. Your album consistently receive recognition as much at the prestigious Grammy Awards as in France with, notably, the grand Prix de la SACEM in 2010. Thus you have become a musician to reckon with, one of the major artist to come out of the continent of Africa.

Philip Glass has written a special citation for this occasion tonight. It reads: “I have been an admirer and fan of Angélique Kidjo for almost a decade now. I’ve had several opportunities to collaborate with her artistically and the results have always been refreshing and exhilarating for me. She has emerged not only as unique and powerful artist in her own light but represents a broadening range of cultural achievement in the field of global music which is so important for our time.”

Your dynamic performances in the largest venues on the planet are a contagious fever of song and dance. Carlos Santana once even said: “Angélique’s voice affects me, it’s better than all the drugs I’ve taken.”

Debates about musical genres don’t interest you; you have said “my parents taught me to respect each style, each culture, each language”. By the way, speaking of languages, you speak four! What motivate you are values of tolerance and respect.

You have also performed at important occasions such as the Nobel Peace Prize concert in homage to President Jimmy Carter in 1998; at the grand concert for the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Cape Town in 2003 with Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour; in 2004 at the “We are The Future” concert produced by Quincy Jones in Rome before 400 000 people; in 2005 at “Live 8” presented by Angelina Jolie and Peter Gabriel in the UK; in 2009, you sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

All the while, you never let up on your humanitarian efforts. Since 2002 you have been a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

You also supported Oxfam International at the 2005 World Trade organization conference in Hong Kong for the promotion of fair trade and you were in North Kenya as well as on the borders of Dargour and Tchad with Mary Robinson in 2007. On that occasion you and your daughter, Naima (by the way, a brilliant student at The Lycée Français de New York), took part in the video “In my name” with Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas.

In 2009 UNICEF launched a campaign to eliminate tetanus and asked you to compose the song “You Can Count On Me”. Each time the song is downloaded the cost of a tetanus vaccination is donated for a young mother in Africa.

Finally, you made a video of the song Agolo, with pictures by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand for the UN environmental campaign “Seal the Deal”.

In 2007 you created the Batonga Foundation here in the US, in support of both secondary school and higher education for girls in Africa. The foundation grants scholarships, builds secondary schools, improves teaching standards and supports mentor programs, among many other worthy endeavours.

In March, you were honoured with an award from the Ambassadors of French-speaking countries In Washington, le Prix Spécial de la Francophonie. Given to artists and educators whose works bring to the fore la francophonie – the world of French-speaking countries – it is a testament to the high regard that the land of your birth and its extended compatriots have for you.

And finally, just last night, along with five others illustrious honorees including Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico, you received the “Champions of the earth” award given by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). You were specifically cited for your advocacy on social equity and women empowerment in support of sustainable development.

Angelique, there is so much to say and time is short. You have crossed musical boundaries by blending a variety of styles and people. You are an exceptional woman and artist – une artiste du “Tout Monde” - as the poet Edouard Glissant would say, one of those figures who changes our word and brings it closed together. The French government is very proud to honour you this evening.

Angelique Kidjo, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais officier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres.