Poynter Fellow Angélique Kidjo on her music and activism

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“Music is a weapon of peace.” That is one of the messages that Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and performer Angélique Kidjo shared with a standing-room-only audience at a talk on campus on Jan. 28.

Kidjo was invited to speak at an Ezra Stiles master’s tea as a guest of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism. Earlier in the day, she accepted the International Festival of Arts & Ideas’ fifth annual Visionary Leadership Award at a luncheon held in her honor.

One of 10 children, Kidjo spoke about growing up in Africa, explaining that her parents felt that freedom of speech in their home was paramount. “My father was my compass and inspiration,” she said. “We had the freedom to ask questions and talk about everything.”

Kidjo told the audience that when she was young her father taught her that violence was not a solution to any problem — that, in fact, it was only a dead end. “My father said that anger is only good if you transform it into the power of change. Your brain is your ultimate weapon” said Kidjo. “That is true more than ever today.”

After a political coup in her homeland of Benin, Kidjo realized that she would never succeed as a musician in her country so she decided to move to Paris. “It was a musical career or jail,” said Kidjo. “I was not going to sing for any political party that turned my house into chaos and where the freedom of speech was taken away from us. Every visitor who came to our house was a potential spy,” she said. “Our life was turned upside down.”

In a question-and-answer session following the talk, an audience member asked Kidjo how her dual passions for social justice and music were interconnected.

“What I learned through the music of my ancestors is that if you have the gift of singing, you are a storyteller de facto. You are the one to tell the story of your society and of your time. You must speak for people who would otherwise be anonymous.”

Kidjo, who has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002, co-founded the Batonga Foundation, an organization that supports both secondary school and higher education for girls in Africa.

“The goal of my art is to empower to see that each one of us can transform the world,” Kidjo said. “I cannot witness injustice and stay silent, so I use my music as a weapon of peace.”

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Bess Connolly Martell: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324