September 24 2018

Angelique Kidjo Is Not Kidding Around

New York-Standard Sounds
Thirteen albums, three Grammys and countless industry-wide awards later, Angelique Kidjo has been making waves in a new way, by giving back. Dubbed Africa’s premier Diva by Time Magazine, Kidjo has collaborated with countless musicians from Bono and Alicia Keys to Peter Gabriel and Philip Glass. Suffice to say her reach and music has touched millions, and she’s also been using her profound influence in founding The Batonga Foundation, which creates platforms and infrastructures so that women and girls in the hardest to reach places can thrive.

Kidjo sat down with our very own Annie O, the notorious New York music maven at the helm of The Standard’s Annie O Music Series, to discuss The Batonga Foundation and their upcoming fundraiser.

To be part of this incredible mission and attend the fundraiser, find tickets here.

The Standard: When did you start your foundation, Batonga, and what is its principal mission?

Angelique Kidjo: Growing up in Benin, I know how difficult it can be to grow up as a girl and I’ve seen the difficulties faced by women. There are countless obstacles that girls and women face throughout their lives: child marriage, genital mutilation, dropping out of school, unplanned and teen pregnancy. I co-founded the Batonga Foundation with Mary Louise Cohen and John Phillips in 2006 because I wanted to change that.

Batonga’s Mission is to equip the hardest-to-reach girls and women with the knowledge and skills they need to be agents of change in their own lives and communities.

We aim to break the cycle of poverty and prevent outcomes that keep girls and women in poverty. We are giving young adolescent girls the social capital, financial literacy, and life skills they need to bridge the perilous gap between at-risk child and stable, healthy and productive young adult.

“We envision a safer, healthier and more equitable world in which all girls and women can thrive."

Where did the name Batonga come from?
In the middle school of Gbégamé, there were three girls—Yolande, Mathilde, and myself. We managed to get bicycles and went everywhere in town. For years, we were inseparable in school and out, they called us the three musketeers. Being a girl and going to school all the way through our senior year was unusual at the time, and the boys were constantly teasing us for it. We had to band together. 

When we grew tired of hearing the boys utter their stupidities, I asked my dad, “What are we going to do to make them stop bothering us?” He answered me using the philosophical tone he always enjoyed, “Be creative and use your brain. That is your ultimate weapon.” I said to the girls, “Let’s invent a word the boys won’t be able to understand.” That’s when I made up the word batonga, which to us meant “Give me a break. I’ll do what I want. I can be who I want to be!”

What are some highlights of The Batonga Foundation so far?
When Batonga first began, we focused on providing holistic support for vulnerable girls to attend secondary school and higher education. We realized that while we were doing good for some girls, we knew we could do better. There are girls in communities across Benin, and across the globe who have limited or no access to their communities’ resources and services. These are the girls we want to be sure to reach because in reaching these girls, we can truly disrupt cycles of poverty.

Since launching our new strategy in 2006, Batonga has been able to equip over 1,600 of the hardest-to-reach young women and girls with critical cognitive and social assets, delivered through Girls Clubs. At the end of the first year of our pilot program we found that: 97% of those girls reported that their future prospects have improved; 99% reported increased access to peer networks and social safety; and 100% of girls felt that they had been connected with the training and support they needed for sustainable income-generating activities.

The Standard
The Standard

Who are the girls most at risk of staying in and perpetuating the cycle of poverty?
They’re the girls who dropped out of school before 18 or are behind grade for age. They are the girls who live with one or fewer parents. They’re married or have had children before 18. And the younger a girl in one of these categories is, the higher her risk is for appeared outcomes.

Often, development programs fail to reach these girls because they are hard to find and difficult to engage. Their days are often long, filled with household chores and work outside the home, leaving no time for school or for the training programs that may be available in their communities. These girls are often not counted and invisible, but they are there, full of extraordinary, untapped potential. But unless they are specifically recruited, they are unlikely to ever have access to the kinds of programs and resources they need.

You are a committed philanthropist and a champion of women’s, girls’, and children’s rights in the world. How would you define your activism and what matters to you the most?
I see Africa as a land of hope and talent and I see its youth, particularly its young women, as a powerful investment for the future.

What impacts do you think can be made through the power of music?
When I see that pressure from musicians helped released Nelson Mandela from jail, I’m optimistic about the power of music. The success of World Music has shown to the West that emotion does not have a frontier. When you hear the voice of Cesaria Evora, you can’t help but be touched. Music is at the core of showing our common humanity.

You have released this year the iconic Talking Heads album Remain In Light, produced by Jeff Bhasker, with a cover by Kerry James Marshall. Tell us how this idea came events.
“Once In A Lifetime” was one of the first songs I discovered when I arrived in Paris after my exile from the dictatorship of Benin. From the get-go, it reminded me of the music of my country. People told me it was rock n’ roll and had nothing to do with Africa but lately, I have discovered Brian Eno and Talking Heads were inspired by the music of Fela Kuti to create their masterpiece and they encouraged the world to listen to African Music. I was touched by that story and decided to listen to the whole album and I loved it so much that I decided to bring it back to my continent!

What material will you be performing at your upcoming Summer Stage show on Sept 27?
I will be singing the entire Remain In Light album and also a few of my classic songs. In fact, they work quite well together.

You have a special connection with The Standard! You have performed at The Standard, East Village and High Line, what memories do you have from playing there?
I have appeared in quite a few events at the Penthouse of The Standard, East Village and I think this space is very inspiring with a view all over New York. At night it has a magical view that adds to the music you are playing. I haven’t played in a club for so many years so when I did a little concert at the High Line, it felt so good to be performing in an intimate space and I got everyone to dance and sing with me!

What advice would you give for younger listeners who don’t believe their voice will matter?
The advice I always give to young people is: don’t try to go far to help others. Look at your own community and start there. So many organizations are working in Africa but some of the same issues are present in the US too!

Lastly, what can you tell us about the Batonga benefit on Sept 25th?
The Batonga Foundation will be hosting an event in New York City from 7-9pm to raise funds to improve the lives of young women in Benin. This will be a very fun event filled with plenty of food, drinks, acoustic performances, and dancing. Last year, we hosted a similar event and were able to raise over $150,000! These funds allowed our program to expand greatly. We are hoping to raise even more funds at the event this year because next month, we are planning to double in size by expanding our reach to nearly 2,000 new girls. We won’t stop until every girl in every village is counted and knows that she counts.

INTERVIEW BY
Annie O
Photographer
Sofia and Mauro