I had no clue what to expect from Benin. I knew very little about the country itself as well as about Angélique Kidjo. It is also always interesting to begin reading a biography, since it can be anything from shameless self promotion to a tale about a family to a history of a nation. Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, written in collaboration with Rachel Wenrick, took me by surprise and then some…
The book is beautifully written and filled with Kidjo’s African spirit. It takes us back to the days when she was a child growing up in a vocal and lively, welcoming family in Cotonou. Music is a significant and powerful part of Beninese culture. The country has had to deal with hard times and contradictions. Benin had a massive part in the slave trade to the Americas, and nowadays the people on both sides of the trade live together in the same communities. There is also a clear division between north and south. Poverty is everywhere, and education cannot be taken for granted.
Angélique was already a famous singer in Benin when the country became part of the communist world. To be able to sing, and let her voice be heard through music, she escaped to France where her brother already lived. As it seems to be even today, the western country of France had been made to look like the perfect place to be, where people are friendly and opportunities are endless. It’s what the refugees are being told when they pay large sums of money to be transported to Europe today. Angélique had a hard time finding her place in France, as well as finding a way to support herself and be accepted. Luckily for her she made some great connections, and her voice carried her further.
It’s an exquisite written book filled with many thought provoking stories. I was afraid it would only be about how she performed here and there, and whom she met at different functions, but it turned out to be so much more. She never, not even for a second, lost her Beninese identity. It is, and always has been, such a big part of her. Once she made many people familiar with African rhythms, and gained a name for herself, she started giving back.
The stories about Benin and Angélique’s encounters in Africa after she moved away from there touched me the most. I also enjoyed reading about the origins of voodoo, or vodun, as well as how African Americans’ attitudes towards Africa are changing. A rapper asked Angélique how it’s possible that she is from Africa because she’s educated and eloquent. Slavery has been justified to many people with African roots because ‘it has saved people with African roots from being savages with bones in their noses’. This has actually been taught to children in schools. I’ve never thought about it this way, and neither had Angélique. I guess we were both taken by surprise.
After finishing the book I felt such a respect for Angélique Kidjo. She has worked hard to get where she is now. She believed in herself and once she was able to give back, she did. Music is the strong force inside her, and it has given her more power than she knows. It is stronger than just her voice, stronger than her religion and beliefs. I am a bit jealous because someone like me will never truly understand Africa in a way she can. I was not born with rhythm in my blood, the tropical sun on my skin, and the African spirit in the air, but when I read the book I caught some of it!