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Angélique Kidjo On The Staggering Diversity Of African Musical Styles, Collaborating With Burna Boy & Yo-Yo Ma And Elevating Her Continent On The World Stage
Angélique Kidjo

Photo: Fabrice Mabillot

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Angélique Kidjo On The Staggering Diversity Of African Musical Styles, Collaborating With Burna Boy & Yo-Yo Ma And Elevating Her Continent On The World Stage

Ahead of the 2022 GRAMMY Awards on April 3, Beninese singer/songwriter Angélique Kidjo discusses her triage of GRAMMY nominations, working with Burna Boy and Yo-Yo Ma, and how the Recording Academy is coming to grips with the intricacy of "global music."

GRAMMYs/Mar 29, 2022 - 08:33 pm

Consider this next time you get bored or think there's nothing to listen to: You could spend lifetimes upon lifetimes communing with Africa's extraordinary range of musical styles and never reach the bottom. Even the word "African" sometimes fails as a summarizing agent, says the Beninese singer/songwriter Angélique Kidjo.

"Our continent is huge. From one place to another, the language changes; the rhythm changes," the four-time GRAMMY winner and 12-time nominee tells GRAMMY.com. "The way the rhythm is danced and the way it's sung and carried is different. Even in my small country of 12 million people, man!"

Despite this boundless range of forms — and the recent proliferation of Afrobeats around the globe — try asking the average American who their five favorite African musicians are. You might be dismayed. But in narrowing this cultural gap, Afrobeats takes on added utility — Kidjo refers to it not only as a standalone style, but as a "vehicle" for traditional rhythms and melodies.

"If you take any music from any part of Africa and put it in Afrobeats, it gives you a different flavor of Afrobeats," Kidjo says. "Because you have the pulse of Afrobeats in it, you can consume and discover music from north to south, east to west, and central Africa in a way that we haven't [before]."

For those interested in establishing a foothold in this musical multiverse, Kidjo is something of a hub for emerging talent; her ability to inhabit any style she wishes makes her an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the breadth of African sounds. Just look at the range of contexts that garnered her GRAMMY nominations at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards.

In the Best Global Music Album category, her multifarious album Mother Nature got a nod. And in Best Global Music Performance, she's got collaborations with Afrobeats hero Burna Boy ("Do Yourself") and household-name cellist Yo-Yo Ma ("Blewu"). What's her attitude toward these global accolades? Kidjo feels magnanimity toward everyone nominated — and a desire to see her musical community elevated on the world stage.

Read More: Yo-Yo Ma On His Lifelong Friendships, Music's Connection To Nature & His New Audible Original Beginner's Mind

"Whoever wins, I will be happy to celebrate with the person. It's not about my win or your win. It's about my company winning in a way that has never been done before," she says. "And it's opening a new era. It's a new chapter in the Recording Academy and the world of music today."

Ahead of the 2022 GRAMMY Awards on April 3, GRAMMY.com gave Kidjo a ring on Whatsapp to discuss her GRAMMY-nominated collaborations, how Mother Nature came to be and why she believes the Recording Academy is coming to grips with the unbelievable complexity of "global music."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Congratulations on three GRAMMY nominations. How are you feeling?

It is important for me to see the Global Music category opened up to my continent more. This Mother Nature nomination is really an honor and a pleasure. To see Wizkid, Femi and his son — it's been a long wait to see the continent of Africa forecast. I'm humbled and honored to be nominated three times.

How did you first cross paths with Burna Boy?

The first time we spoke, it was when he was doing his [2019] album African Giant. He was in London; I don't know [how] his mother got my number.

I received a call from someone who said, "Burna Boy's going to call you." I said "Me? OK!" And then he called, and he said "I can't believe I'm speaking to you.' I said, "Believe it. Everything happens for a reason, and I'm just a human being like anybody else, so let's speak." He said, "I would be really honored to have you on my album — on my song, 'Different,' with <a href="https://www.grammy.com/artists/damian-marley/4304">[Damian Marley]."

So, I said, "Oh, send the song! What do you want me to do?" He said, "Whatever you want." That's how our collaboration started — with that song, "Different." Now and then, I'd speak to his mother and him. I met him for the first time at the GRAMMYs in Los Angeles. I went to see him and had a conversation. I said to him, "The GRAMMYs are like any award — you don't know what's going to happen. If we know, it wouldn't be a GRAMMY anymore."

[I encouraged] him to keep on working — it would come with time. Meaning, my first nomination came in 1995. After that, many years passed before I would get nominated. I didn't win all the time, and that's the thing — being nominated means that your work has been acknowledged by the business and your fellow musicians. Nominations are as important as winning in the GRAMMYs.

How did this attitude manifest in your recent work and subsequent GRAMMY nominations?

Mother Nature happened during the confinement — the lockdown. I had started [that album] in 2019. And it became obvious with the virus that our world was going to change. And if you want to talk about the world we live in, we have to give a platform to the youth for us to listen to them.

We don't listen to the youth enough. When you give them the opportunity to speak, they come up with things that are amazing that we underestimate.

So, that's how it started. Burna sent [me a song] in the evening in the studio, making me listen to it through WhatsApp Video. I said, "This is torture! Send that damn song, boy!" [Laughs.] And then he sent the song right before I went to bed. I was like "Ah, man!" The next morning, we started working on it.

It was absolutely amazing to see how we worked together because he sent me all the files and everything. I was being very respectful of his song, and then he sent me one of my voice that I did. He said, "I like it, but I want more of you!" I said "OK," did another one, sent it to him, and he said, "I still want more of you!"

I put in more of my voice, layered the voice, and did more stuff — call-and-answer. When I sent it to him, I was saying to myself, "He's going to cut some stuff out." No — he sent me it uncut. And that's how we started.

You're nominated for GRAMMYs alongside Arooj Aftab, Femi Kuti, Wizkid, Rocky Dawuni and Daniel Ho. Anyone you're rooting for in particular?

All of those people you named are worthy of the GRAMMY. That's what I have to say. They are masters in their own rights, in their own music. So it happens that we are in the same category together because their craft got the attention of everybody. You don't get there just because it's pretty. It's because your music has significance.

Read More: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arooj Aftab On Her Latest Album Vulture Prince, The Multiplicity Of Pakistani Musics And Why We Should Listen With Nuance & Care

I can tell it's far less of a competition to you than an opportunity to uplift a global community of musicians.

Yeah, that's it. That's what I've said from the beginning: open up your ears. Africa has so much surprise in store for you. That continent — we can't see the bottom of it. Even us Africans can't see the bottom of it! Much less the rest of the world.

With all the strides made to bring African music to a wider audience, I imagine we have a long way to go. One could spend lifetimes poring over the cultural heritages of various African countries.

Even for us, "African" is a challenge. Our continent is huge. From one place to another, the language changes; the rhythm changes. The way the rhythm is danced and the way it's sung and carried is different. Even in my small country of 12 million people, man!

I come from the south part of Benin, and every time I go from one village to the other — my husband is French, and he goes, "Do you speak the language?" I say "Yes, I understand this language." And sometimes I go, "No, I don't." He's like, "It's your country!" I'm like, "Yeah! Every village has their own music — their own language." I can only speak four major languages out of Benin.

And the music is like that. It never stops! Every time, you go "I didn't know this instrument can sound like this!" It's crazy!

How can we continue to foster understanding and nuance in our appreciation of music from various African countries and regions?

I think the GRAMMYs are the best place to start. I've talked about and criticized the term "world music" for pretty much my whole career. I say, let's work on it. Let's bring many artists from Africa — and it's not just me and the Academy. We need to reach out to producers and new artists from Africa.

I think the Academy has, for the first time, a grip on the complexity of the music that's out there. Today, we have a vehicle, and it's Afrobeats. Because if you take any music from any part of Africa and put it in Afrobeats, it gives you a different flavor of Afrobeats.

The music that we do can make people say, "Oh, this language is different, or this aesthetic." But because you have the pulse of Afrobeats in it, you can consume and discover music from north to south, east to west, and central Africa in a way that we haven't [before]. The Afrobeats is underlining all those traditional rhythms.

I've been doing my career and living in France for many years, and they have the French GRAMMYs [Victoires de la Musique]. The GRAMMYs have opened to so many contemporaries in the world. It's not only the African continent; you have all the continents. Every artist is welcome at the GRAMMYs. If you're going to celebrate music, you have to celebrate it globally.

In your estimation, why is Afrobeats creating such a splash globally? To me, it's because it's more often than not very soothing and beautiful, which anybody can connect with.

It's just a matter of timing. In Afrobeat, you have blues; you have rock 'n' roll; you have funk. You have everything in there. That's why it speaks to people's ears here — because whatever music you like, you put Afrobeat on it and it speaks.

That's the greatness of Afrobeat, that Fela [Kuti] started playing a long time ago. Because Fela was a music lover. Beyond the music from Nigeria, he used to listen to all the [artists from] the R&B world. What was clear for him was that all of that had roots back in Africa. And Afrobeat is a conjunction of all that in the rhythm. That's why I say that in Afrobeat, there's no music that you can't do.

No matter which part of the continent they're from, what African artists are you enjoying lately?

I'm a curator for the Holland Festival, and I want to give a platform to women in rap in Africa. Let's face it: the music world is dominated by males. There are great, great female artists out there. I tell you, it's not easy when you're born a girl in Africa and want to do music. It's not easy at all!

I was lucky enough to have a supportive family. My father produced my first concert and did all kinds of stuff that allowed me to be who I am today. Many young girls in Africa don't have that. So, every opportunity I'm given to curate festivals and concerts, I always try to reach out to young women.

I have Sho Madjozi as a headliner. Tonight, I'm bringing a singer from Benin called Zeynab Abib — and other young girls from Senegal and Kenya. So, I try to open up roads and give people the chance to be known and start doing what they want to do with it.

Because I know how hard it is when you're in Africa and you want to be a musician. I can't even start talking to you about it!

What else have you got percolating, Angélique?

I did an album with a trumpet player from Lebanon called Ibrahim Maalouf. I performed with him recently at my Carnegie Hall show in November [2021]. And everybody was there — what the hell! He plays a quarter-tone trumpet. All the harmony will just take you to travel with what he's playing.

Also, I have a musical theatre work [Yamandja] with my daughter [Naïma] that we premiered at Mass MoCA at the beginning of March. We're going to do it also in Los Angeles on April 12, 13 and 14. And then we're going to go to UC Berkeley.

It is absolutely amazing — the story of the gods and goddesses of our religion. So, we go back in time, back and forth. The music is also pretty good, because we worked on it.

Anything you want to add before we get out of here?

I think that music can be the vehicle — more than ever today — for people to find meaning in this world. The song I did with Yo-Yo Ma, "Blewu," which is nominated, is the song I sang for the centennial of the First World War, in front of all the heads of state, including Putin.

That song's a song of peace, and it's relevant more than ever. Because we need peace. Even that day, when I was singing, I felt the division of the world between autocracy and democracy. When we believe in democracy, we can sit and say "I don't like this; I don't like that."

No one is perfect. The only thing that matters to me is how we protect our democracy. How do we perfect it? How do all of us together as citizens work with leaders for us to make sure that never again will our democracy be so much in danger?

That song, "Blewu," was the message that I wanted this world to understand. Our leaders, we put in power, but all we ask of them is to make sure that we have peace at any cost. So, music, for me, is the first and easiest thing that can penetrate and finally change things.

For The Record: How Wizkid Elevated Nigeria & Propelled The Ascent Of Afrobeats With His Star-Studded Album Made In Lagos

Press Play: Watch Ibrahim Maalouf Spotlight His Improvisatory Powers In Energetic Performance of "Right Time"
Ibrahim Maalouf

Photo courtesy of the Recording Academy

Press Play: Watch Ibrahim Maalouf Spotlight His Improvisatory Powers In Energetic Performance of "Right Time"

Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf showcases his improvisation skills in this instrumental performance of "Right Time," a hip-hop track from his latest album, 'Capacity To Love.'

GRAMMYs/Jan 26, 2023 - 05:35 pm

Since the initiation of his solo career, Lebanese instrumentalist Ibrahim Maalouf has strived to diversify music with his trumpeting.

The musician found his start performing at international jazz and classical competitions. After quickly becoming one of the most decorated trumpeters, Maalouf began his career as a soloist, where he could transcend the bounds of traditional genres. His skillful, unique improvisation caught the attention of artists globally, including Afrobeats singer Angélique Kidjo.

Together, they released Queen of Sheba, which snagged Maalouf his very first GRAMMY nomination in the Best Global Music Album category at the 2023 GRAMMYs and made him the first Lebanese instrumentalist to be nominated in GRAMMY history.

In this episode of Press Play, Maalouf performs an instrumental version of "Right Time," an upbeat hip-hop track on his latest album, Capacity to Love. Accompanied by an electric guitar and saxophone, Maalouf plays the track's melody, originally sung by Erick the Architect from the Flatbush Zombies.

Maalouf then trades off with the saxophonist, as the two musicians deliver an impressive, improvised solo.

Capacity to Love is Maalouf's fifteenth studio album and first self-produced project. The genre-bending release features collaborations with pop singer J.P. Cooper, rapper D Smoke, New Orleans funk band Tank & the Bangas, and more.

Press play on the video above to watch Ibrahim Maalouf's performance of "Right Time," and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.

Meet Kibrom Birhane, A Keyboardist & Vocalist Fusing Jazz With 1,000-Year-Old Ethiopian Tradition

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

8 Highlights From "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon"
Paul Simon with Take 6

Photo: Getty Images for the Recording Academy

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8 Highlights From "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon"

Paul Simon's GRAMMYs bash included moments of vulnerability, generation-straddling duets and plenty of other surprises. Stream it on demand on Paramount+ and read on for eight highlights.

GRAMMYs/Dec 22, 2022 - 03:51 pm

Many tribute shows for legacy artists end in a plume of confetti and a feel-good singalong. But not Paul Simon's.

At the end of the songbook-spanning "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Tribute To Paul Simon," the only person on the darkened stage was the man of the hour. Sure, the audience had been baby-driven through the Simon and Garfunkel years, into the solo wilderness, through Graceland, and so forth. But all these roads led to darkness.

Because Simon then played the song that he wrote alone, in a bathroom, after JFK was shot.

It doesn't matter that Simon always ends gigs with "The Sound of Silence." After this commensurately cuddly and incisive tribute show, it was bracing to watch him render his entire career an ouroboros. 

That "The Sound of Silence" felt like such a fitting cap to a night of jubilation speaks to Simon's multitudes. The Jonas Brothers coolly gliding through "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," juxtaposed with the ache of Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood's "The Boxer," rubbing up against Dave Matthews getting goofy and kinetic with "You Can Call Me Al," and so on and so forth.

The intoxicating jumble of emotions onstage at "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Tribute To Paul Simon" did justice to his songbook's emotional landscape — sometimes smooth, other times turbulent, defined by distance and longing as much as intimacy and fraternity.

Here were eight highlights from the telecast on Dec. 21 — which you can watch on demand on Paramount+ now.

Read More: Watch Jonas Brothers, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Shaggy & More Discuss The Legacy And Impact Of Paul Simon Backstage At "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"

Woody Harrelson's Lovably Bumbling Speech

After Brad Paisley's rollicking opening with "Kodachrome," the momentum cheekily ground to a halt as Harrelson dove into a rambling, weirdly moving monologue.

"The songs of Paul Simon really are like old friends," the cowboy-hatted "The Hunger Games" star remarked, interpolating one of his song titles and crooning the opening verse.

Harrelson went on to recount a melancholic story from college, where the spiritually unmoored future star clung to Simon songs like a liferaft. We can all relate, Woody.

Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood's Pitch-Perfect "The Boxer"

Brooks has always been one of the most humble megastars in the business, praising his wife Trisha Yearwood — and his forebears — a country mile more than his own. (Speaking to GRAMMY.com, he described being "married to somebody 10 times more talented than you.")

The crack ensemble could have made "The Boxer" into a spectacle and gotten away with it, but Brooks wisely demurred.

Instead, the pair stripped down the proceedings to guitar and two voices; Brooks provided an aching counterpoint to Yearwood.

Billy Porter's Heart-Rending "Loves Me Like A Rock"

The "Pose" star blew the roof off of Joni Mitchell's MusiCares Person Of The Year gala in 2022 with "Both Sides Now," so it was clear he would bring napalm for a Simon party. 

Given the gospel-ish intro, one would think he was about to destroy the universe with "Bridge Over Troubled Water." 

Instead, he picked a song of tremendous personal significance, "Loves Me Like a Rock," and dedicated it to his mother. The universe: destroyed anyway.

Stevie Wonder & Ledisi's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

The question remained: who would get dibs on the still-astonishing "Bridge Over Troubled Water"? A song of that magnitude is not to be treated lightly.

So the producers gave it to generational genius Wonder, who'd bridged numberless troubled waters with socially conscious masterpieces like Songs in the Key of Life.

But he wouldn't do it alone: R&B great Ledisi brought the vocal pyrotechnics, imbuing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with the grandiosity it needed to take off.

Jimmy Cliff & Shaggy Brought Jamaican Vibes With "Mother & Child Reunion"

Simon embraced the sounds of South Africa with his 1986 blockbuster Graceland, yet his island connection is criminally underdiscussed; since the '60s, Jamaican artists have enthusiastically covered his songs.

For instance, it's impossible to imagine a "Mother and Child Reunion" not recorded in Kingston, pulsing with the energy of Simon's surroundings.

Enter genre luminaries Jimmy Cliff and Shaggy, who flipped the tribute into a bona fide reggae party.

Take 6 Dug Deep With "Homeless"

Leave it to the Recording Academy to avoid superficiality in these events: Mitchell's aforementioned MusiCares tribute included beyond-deep cuts like "Urge for Going" and "If." 

Most remember "Homeless" as Ladysmith Black Mambazo unaccompanied vocal cooldown after bangers like "You Can Call Me Al"; eight-time GRAMMY-winning vocal group Take 6 did a radiant, affectionate rendition.

When Simon took the stage at the end of the night, he was visibly blown away. Touchingly, he shouted out his late guitarist, Joseph Shabalala, who founded Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

"Imagine a guy born in Ladysmith, South Africa, [who] writes a song in Zulu and it's sung here by an American group, singing his words in his language," Simon remarked. "It would have brought tears to his eyes."

Angélique Kidjo & Dave Matthews' Love Letter To Africa

Graceland was Simon's commercial zenith, so it was only appropriate that it be the energetic apogee of this tribute show.

Doubly so, that this section be helmed by two African artists: Angélique Kidjo, hailing from Benin, and Dave Matthews, born in Johannesburg.

"Under African Skies," which Simon originally sang with Linda Ronstadt is a natural choice — not only simply as a regional ode, but due to its still-evocative melody and poeticism.

"This is the story of how we begin to remember/ This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein" drew new power from Kidjo's lungs. 

Afterward, Matthews — a quintessential ham — threw his whole body into Simon's wonderful, strange hit, "You Can Call Me Al."

The Master Himself Took The Stage

With his still-gleaming tenor and still-undersung acoustic guitar mastery, Simon brought the night home with "Graceland," a Rhiannon Giddens-assisted "American Tune" and "The Sound of Silence."

At 81, Simon remains a magnetic performer; even though this is something of a stock sequence for when he plays brief one-off sets, it's simply a pleasure to watch the master work.

Then, the sobering conclusion: "Hello darkness, my old friend," Simon sang, stark and weary. With the world's usual litany of darknesses raging outside, he remains the best shepherd through nightmares we've got.

And as the audience beheld Simon, they seemed to silently say: Talk with us again.

15 Essential Tracks By Paul Simon: In A Burst Of Glory, Sound Becomes A Song

Watch Jonas Brothers, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Shaggy & More Discuss The Legacy And Impact Of Paul Simon Backstage At "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"
Paul Simon performing at "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Watch Jonas Brothers, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Shaggy & More Discuss The Legacy And Impact Of Paul Simon Backstage At "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"

Performers at the star-studded tribute from the Jonas Brothers to Brad Paisley to Angélique Kidjo explain why Simon deserves the highest praise in the echelon of American singer/songwriters.

GRAMMYs/Dec 20, 2022 - 05:53 pm

Paul Simon may have won 16 GRAMMYs throughout his illustrious career, but he's getting another honor from the Recording Academy — something much bigger than a golden gramophone.

On Dec. 21, "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon," a two-hour special illuminating the 16-time GRAMMY winner's songbook, will air on the CBS Television Network from 9-11:00 p.m. PT/ET.

The concert features Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Eric Church, Rhiannon Giddens, Susanna Hoffs, Jonas Brothers, Angélique Kidjo, Ledisi, Little Big Town, Dave Matthews, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Sting, Take 6, Irma Thomas, Shaggy and Jimmy Cliff, Trombone Shorty and Stevie Wonder.

Additionally, Sofia Carson, Herbie Hancock, Woody Harrelson, Dustin Hoffman, Elton John, Folake Olowofoyeku, and Oprah Winfrey also make special appearances.

Below, watch exclusive clips where many of these artists express what Simon, a leading light of singing and songwriting, means to them.

The Jonas Brothers

Brad Paisley

Billy Porter

Shaggy

Trombone Shorty

Angélique Kidjo

Ledisi

Folake Olowofoyeku