You may not have heard of her yet, but it shouldn't be much longer before Angelique Kidjo is a household name.
The Benin native is making her mark on music thanks to her latest album, Djin Djin, that's full of guest stars -- friends if you ask Kidjo about them. "We've known each other for quite a while now, and our music in different ways is the same thing," she says by phone from Manhattan. "That's why it's easy for them to come to my world. You can't choose people who don't understand what you're trying to do."
That list of friends includes Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis, Joss Stone, Peter Gabriel, Carlos Santana, Ziggy Marley and Josh Groban, with whom she is currently the supporting act for. The two are on their second leg of the tour and Kidjo is happy that Groban's fans are giving her a chance. "Most of the time when you start playing in an arena, it's empty, but that's not the case with Josh's audience," she says. "I think the word of mouth works and people come in early to see me. The public is really willing to discover something new."
While the tour does incorporate songs from her previous albums, Kidjo said she's focusing on Djin Djin. The album not only incorporates rhythms from her native country, but also a variety of languages -- those of Benin, Nigeria and Togo, as well as English and French. "The song brings me to the language," she says of how the choice is made. "Sometimes, a weird language comes to me and I think, 'What is that?' If I don't speak the language, I'll ask somebody to translate what I want to say in that song."
She doesn't worry too much about the language, though, knowing that the meaning is understood through the music. "As far as I'm concerned, and from what people have been telling from different parts of the world, even if they don't understand the words, they like the music and they get the message," Kidjo says. "Music is a universal language and it has nothing to do with your nationality, the color of your skin, the shape of your nose, whatever. Wherever you go, you can understand music without understanding the language of the people."
One song's meaning meant a lot to Kidjo, which is why she decided to put her own spin on it and give it more of a tribal feeling -- The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." "I liked the lyrics and also because rock and roll has its roots in the blues and the blues were brought to America by the slaves," she says. "For me, doing the arrangement I did was just bringing it back to where it comes from."
The fact Kidjo has incorporated many genres into her music and found new ways of self-expression is the fuel to her musical fire, but also one that frustrates those who try to label her. Kidjo says she doesn't want to worry about any labels, instead choosing to follow wherever inspiration leads.
When that inspiration hits, she follows her heart and "if people like it, it's even better." When people ask what her inspiration is, she wishes she had an answer for them. "Inspiration is from the unknown," she says. "If we know it, we'll have no magic in music anymore."
While her world travels have brought her to many places and sparked her involvement with groups like Unicef, Kidjo tries to keep her music positive. While she hopes her music will entertain and educate people, she knows that you can't give people a solution, only information and inspiration. "Use music to empower yourself any time that you feel the path is blocked and you can't do it," she says. "If you don't put it in an upbeat tempo, how do you give people the strength to get up and fight without weapons? The hardest thing to do is to use your heart and willingness to change things."
With Djin Djin being released just more than one month ago, Kidjo says she's still enjoying the new album and touring in support of it. While she hasn't started thinking of her next songs, the ideas are already getting started without her. "I am absolutely not writing, but my head is bubbling," she says. "I like that. I like when it starts bubbling until it happens. That's the magic."