Aug 13 2010

Praise girls: Kidjo and the cult of African poverty

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 3:40 PM

The singer Angelique Kidjo presents a rather pedestrian portrait of her life growing up in Benin, and then — as she insists — her life in “exile” as a performer in Europe and the U.S. The whole notion of Kidjo as an exile is worth examining. Her native Benin never posed an explicit political threat to her, but rather economic and artistic limits. The Marxists who took power in Benin thought the extreme Westernization of the countries Paris-centric elite deserved condemnation. Kidjo’s life outside of Benin suggested that the Marxists were not wrong about everything. Her hybridized and highly Americanized form of pop music retains her African roots, but mainly in the manner of her attire, hair-style and stage presence. Musically, she is product as well as a victim of the “world music” market. Drained of her specific West African background, Kidjo’s “sound” is as generic as her political comprehension. Writing as both she and her independent Benin reach 50 years old, Kidjo rather casually sums up the entire sub-Saharan with a sweeping (contestable) generalization: “After 50 years of independence,” she writes in The New York Times, “my country is stuck in what the Nigerian writer Chimamande Adichie calls the “single story” of the continent: poverty.”

The equation of African-ness with impoverishment offends me, morally, empirically and aesthetically. The canard that “all Africans are poor” is designed chiefly to appeal to white Europeans and Americans who are most comfortable comprehending the African experience as a variant of impoverishment. But as I have written often on this site and, most recently, in The Christian Science Monitor and the Milken Review, the real story of Africa today is the coevolution of wealth and poverty. That some Africans are poor is without dispute. That a surprising number of Africans are well-off is often ignored. That wealthy Africans, at home and abroad, have an obligation to assist poor Africans is the one thing that virtually remains unspoken about the African condition, and the attitude of non-Africans to this crucial region. That elites arose in Africa, despite wide gaps between rich and poor, is widely accepted by scholars, and well-known by elite families themselves, of which Kidjo most certainly hails. Her relative enriched and enriching experience as a youth in Benin she proudly displays: “Although I was already making a living as a teenager with my singing career, my parents insisted that I dedicate myself to school because we lived in such a great educational and cultural environment. By the 10th grade, I was already studying philosophy, and debating the merits of Rousseau and Camus with my friends.” And yet her exit from Benin and her current relationship with her nurturing maternal society draws a blank. Writes Kidjo: “As a singer, the only thing I could do was to praise the revolution and sing at political gatherings. I felt I could no longer express myself and one day in 1983, without telling anyone, I escaped the country. I realized on that day that the dream of a proud independent Africa had been broken. Since that day, even though I’ve lived and worked in exile, I’ve drawn almost all of my inspiration from the incredible richness of my culture.” Her gratitude prompts her to ask readers to donate to charities working to assist the worthy cause of girl education in Benin and Africa generally. “Invest in girls education,” Kidjo says, is the most important single step that Africans can take to assist Africa. Investing in girls is terrific, but should not be done without an awareness that there are two classes of girls in Africa: rich ones and poor ones. These two types of girls begin with different advantages — and require different types of assistance. Ignoring wealth in Africa, and making a cult of impoverishment, helps neither of these very important girls.

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