Last time I was in Burden, Jeff Skilling was lecturing us about integrity and morality. Angelique Kidjo, performing for the HBS Africa Business Conference last Friday, isn’t like that. She’s short, she’s got a shaven head – dyed peroxide blonde – and she cuts straight to it. “Love is what matters. Love your friends. Love your family-if you want to make the world a better place. I call my Mom every week, wherever I am. It’s kind of expensive (she lives in Benin) but it helps make me who I am”. And then, with a quizzical sideways look and the sweep of a dismissive hand at the empty space in front of the stage, she demands, “And why the hell is no one dancing here? Come on, Harvard – what has happened to you guys?” and launches into another song from her blistering repertoire.
Kidjo, a singer from Benin now living in Paris, has shot to international fame in the last few years, having been discovered by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records and producer of Bob Marley. She is renowned for her stunning, bouncy, playful voice, and the way her music uniquely fuses the rhythms of reggae, samba, salsa, gospel and makossa. It was a rare pleasure to see such talent on display, as the Africa Business Conference could not have begun more strikingly.
Kidjo drew on her diverse musical influences, dedicating her songs to a range of performers as diverse as Miriam Makeba, Dave Matthews and Fela Kuti. Though she included songs like ‘Agolo’ (Please), probably her biggest hit, many selections were pulled from her as yet unnamed album, which is greatly influenced by recent trips to Bahia, Brazil, and her work with local Brazilian musicians.
Kidjo delighted the crowd with a claim she has made before, that just as all people on the earth come from Africa, so does all music: rock and roll, blues, jazz, even the roots of rhythm itself. Drawing on many traditions, yet possessing an electrifying energy of her own, Kidjo herself seems to embody a spirit both uniquely African and yet happily syncretic. When she commands people to dance, they do. HBS students, conference attendees and local residents quickly filled the space in front of the stage, alternately swaying and leaping as Kidjo ran, jumped, and danced back and forth across the wide stage. While none of the professors in attendance were seen dancing, several were observed gently grooving in their seats.
The highlight of the evening came when Kidjo summoned the audience onto the stage with her – like a flood they poured up onto Burden’s stage, with many of the renowned HBS party people leading from the front. A testament to Kidjo’s universal appeal, a wide audience of HBS students enjoyed themselves onstage including Imran Amed (OD) from Kenya, Renata Dionello (OB) from Brazil, Sormeh Dowlatshahi (OF) from Iran, and Katie Cousins (OA) from Scarsdale, NY. Kidjo particularly enjoyed the attentions of a year old baby, a six-year-old girl, and of Mugo Fields (OI), whose extravagantly cheeky dancing almost matched that of Kidjo. Surrounded by over a hundred young jivers, Kidjo was clearly in her element, delighted by the effect of her music and the force of her passion on those around her.
Attempting to end her hour and a half set, Kidjo realized the audience wouldn’t stand for it, as the masses burst into a chorus of “we want more, we want more, we want more!” Those in attendance were not disappointed as Kidjo returned for two more numbers, working the crowd into another excited frenzy. She finally departed, but people couldn’t get the swing out of their system – and headed to Cambridge’s famous reggae nightclub, the Western Front, to groove till 2am. While this left a few bleary-eyed attendees at the first keynote speaker at 9am the next morning, it confirmed the stunning start to the Africa Business Conference at the hands of a very talented and extremely good-natured woman.