GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Angélique Kidjo

GRAMMY-winning artist discusses five GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have affected her life and career
  • Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images
    Angélique Kidjo
January 24, 2013 -- 4:17 pm PST
By Steve Hochman /

(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various GRAMMY winners who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)

"Music is the magic, powerful tool of peace," says Angélique Kidjo.

That's not just a platitude. The Benin-born artist, whose Djin Djin won a GRAMMY for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2007, serves as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and is committed to utilizing her position to further peace and promote education, particularly through her Batonga Foundation, which supports higher education for girls in Africa.

Through these perspectives, Kidjo sees the power of music on a micro-local level and how a fairly simple act can have huge global impact. A sense of this worldly awareness runs through her music and informs her life, which she is chronicling in a memoir scheduled for publication via HarperCollins this summer.

"Pussy Riot is in jail," says Kidjo. "Why are leaders afraid of music? The [musicians] have the power to touch the [people]. [The leaders] don't have that power. So when you are an artist, you have to serve entertainment. But you have to have truth to it, [you] have to be able to sing your songs for years to come."

Kidjo's values are a product of her upbringing in the West African town of Cotonou, Benin. There she was exposed to the local tribal music that reaches back through generations. At the same time, Kidjo was transformed by artists whose music spanned the globe and reached well beyond borders and cultures.

But Kidjo's first profound impression of music's transformative power was as local as it gets, in her family home, a scene that informs her first selection of five GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that shaped her sense of music and her own musical identity.

Columbia (1970)
Rock (Album)
Inducted 1999

"Here you have the song 'Samba Pa Ti.' I did a cover on my album ÕŸÖ, dedicated to my late father and mother. It's not only that Carlos Santana was my brother's hero, but for me [he was] the one guitar player other than Jimi Hendrix who [brought] the guitar closer to me as an instrument. 'Samba Pa Ti' was the rare moment of tenderness and love my parents shared. In Africa people don't share feelings, don't hold hands and such, [it's] not part of the culture. But my dad would come home from work and if that album was on the turntable he reached out to my mother and said, 'Come on, this is our song.' My mom was always in the kitchen, [saying], 'You think the food will cook itself?' My father would say, 'Come on, let it burn. I want to dance!'

"For me, as a romantic girl, it was about love. [This song] brings all the memories back. You think your parent will live forever and it reminds you of the fragility of life. It's what you live with and helps you heal, the good memory. And one moment is my father doing that: 'Come and dance. Come and dance.'"

Amazing Grace
Aretha Franklin With James Cleveland & The Southern California Comm. Choir
Atlantic (1972)
Gospel (Album)
Inducted 1999

"In writing a memoir about my life I talk about that album. My brother listened to every kind of music. And album after album all [I would] see on the cover is men's faces, or white ladies. When Aretha's album arrived, [I said,] 'What? You can be black and a woman and do the same work the men do?' The whole album turned my life up. [It was] a possibility for me to sing and be seen on an album cover. To sit down and listen to her sing religiously, from that moment on, I said I wanted to have that reaction someday. I [wanted] to be the one where people say, 'Wow! This is something unique.'"

"(Sittin On) The Dock Of The Bay"
Otis Redding
Volt (1968)
R&B (Single)
Inducted 1998

"'Dock Of The Bay,' I absolutely fell in love with that song. But the first song of Otis' that I ever listened to was 'I've Got Dreams To Remember,' which I covered on my album ÕŸÖ. [It] reminds me of looking at my parents [saying], 'Is she going to ever shut up?' My mother with cotton in her ears, [and] I'm on the couch singing, 'I've got dweams!' My mother [said], 'I don't understand a thing about it, but you are driving us crazy!' I was 8 or 9, just a pain in the neck. [I] always wanted my point to be heard, wanted to be the one to tell the stories. When you grow up with brothers you have that competitive thing. You have to speak up."

"I Got You (I Feel Good)"
James Brown
King (1965)
R&B (Single)
Inducted 2013

"Then James Brown came in and the world went south! My brother's band had a guy called Marcel, we called him 'The Party Man.' He sang mostly salsa. Then James Brown came and he did 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag,' 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World' and 'I Feel Good.' And I wanted to sing like him too. James Brown made my life. [But I] grew up and realized I can't be James Brown. He's the one who invented funk. Without him you don't have Michael Jackson [and] you don't have Prince."

Songs In The Key Of Life
Stevie Wonder
Tamla (1976)
Pop (Album)
Inducted 2002

"Every song on it is a hit. And when you hear it, you relate to it, like you were there when he was writing it. 'I Wish,' 'Joy Inside My Tears' — that was a favorite song of my husband's and he said those words are exactly how he felt when we met. [It] means a lot to me. I did 'I Wish' when I started my band in 1989. Stevie Wonder showed you have to be very creative, come up with ideas [and] not be trapped in one single thing — [to] have a whole album. And the whole album is amazing. You have to listen to one song after another."

(GRAMMY winner Angélique Kidjo was most recently nominated for Best Contemporary World Music Album for ÕŸÖ. Her latest album, 2012's Spirit Rising, is a live set featuring guest spots by Branford Marsalis, Josh Groban and Dianne Reeves, among others.)

(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)

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