Angelique Kidjo's energy is infectious. Just attend one of her shows—like her recent breathtaking performance at the Hong Kong World Cultures Festival on November 3—and you'll understand what we mean.
But this soulful starlet uses her voice for more than just singing. For years, she has been using her incredible influence to speak out on the issue of child marriage in Africa—currently, 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18—and to help impoverished communities understand why education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.
Tell us about the song you released this year as part of UNICEF's Zero Tolerance campaign…
We started working the "Say No To Child Marriage" song in early 2016 with UNICEF. We sat down to think about what we can do to help the cause and to spread the message. We came up with the idea that we should write a song with Beninese artists both male and female.
The child marriage issue is not just a women’s issue; the father is the one who makes the deal to marry off their daughter(s). It’s a complex problem.
How do you believe your music can help bring awareness and change to the issue of child marriage?
Most of the time in Africa we have campaigns coming from the western world. However, most of the time the message is misguided and people in Africa don’t feel like it’s something that speaks to them. We knew we had to find a way, through our campaign and through the song, to engage everyone in this discussion, which is why we sang the song in five different languages so that people in different villages couldn't say they that they don’t know what we’re talking about.
We went to other artists to ask them to get involved and they said “yes, this is our issue too, these are our kids and our sisters. We can’t stay quiet about it.”
We are artists and we are doing what we can to help, but we need the government’s help too. We can’t do it all on our own because we don’t have the power. We just come with the demands of the people. One thing I’m happy about is that the government of my country is now on top of this. A law has been passed, and police are on board in the villages we’ve been working on.
Many girls are forced to give up school at a young age, often to help support the family. How would ending this cycle of poverty empower women and ultimately their communities?
One of the reasons for child marriage is poverty and a lack of education. If you educate people you start reducing poverty. We have to break that cycle by educating the parents to start seeing their children as human being, to see them as their future, to empower their children. That’s what education will do. We need education, advocacy, and we need the government to give us what we need to empower people. We cannot eradicate poverty if we are not educated and if people’s rights are not respected.
How has your campaign changed the attitudes of men in affected communities?
The mentality is deeply ingrained but things are changing. The song has had a great impact. I see little boys at schools singing it, so I go and ask them, “do you know what the message is?” and they say yes.
I tell them, "you are the next generation. We are teaching you to do the right thing as a man so that you can look in the mirror and say 'I’ve been part of this revolution.'" It’s better to start earlier than later.
I don’t hate men. I have great men in my life and we cannot generalize that all men are bad. It’s dangerous to go that route because if we go in that direction, that means that we're denying the rights of our fathers and brothers.
What do you love about being a woman?
It’s a blessing. I grew up in a family of 10 children including seven boys, and a father that always said “your sex does not define who you are. The brain is not masculine or feminine. Use it to the best of your ability, that’s all I ask.”
For me, being a woman is a responsibility that I have towards every human being on this planet, to be fair in my judgment and to give the benefit of the doubt to everybody.
Find out more about Angelique Kidjo's role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, visit unicef.org
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