Angélique Kidjo, ‘Africa’s first diva’, makes her musical theater debut in ‘Yemandja’

a person dressed in a silver dress sings on stage

Angélique Kidjo, 2021-22 Cal Performances Artist-in-Residence, stars Yemanja, a musical theater production that explores, through magical realism, the horrors of the slave trade in 19th century Dahomey, then a West African kingdom that is now Benin. (Photo by Douglas Mason)

Born into a family of artists in Ouidah, a town on the West African coast of Benin, Angélique Kidjo first heard the “slave” world when she was 9 years old – and wanted to know more.

Now, more than five decades later, four-time Grammy winner Kidjo is exploring the theme in Yemanja, a new musical theater production co-commissioned by UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances that tells stories of the horrors and injustices of the slave trade in 19th century Dahomey, then a West African kingdom that is now Benin.

On Saturday, April 23, Cal Performances will present Yemanja at its Bay Area debut at Zellerbach Hall on campus as part of Illuminations: Place and Displacement, a one-season series that explores the effects of migration and gentrification on individuals and communities through performances, public programs and academic gatherings.

Kidjo, called “Africa’s first diva” by Time magazine, creates and performs music deeply inspired by the West African traditions of his childhood in Benin with elements of R&B, funk and jazz and other international influences. Time named Kidjo one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2021; The British Broadcasting Corporation included her in his list of the continent’s 50 most iconic figures; and The Guardian The newspaper listed her as one of the 100 most inspiring women in the world in 2011.

2021-22 Cal Performances resident artist Kidjo stars in the lead role of Yemanja and is supported by a live band and nine singers and dancers. Artists play mortals and gods, kings and villains, whose stories of love, betrayal, honor and revenge illuminate what can happen when people are robbed of their culture.

people stand on stage singing

Kidjo is a four-time Grammy winner and has been nominated Time The magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021. (Photo by Douglas Mason)

The production was conceived by Kidjo with her husband, Jean Hebrail, and their daughter, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, who wrote from Yemanja libretto.

“I’ve been thinking about it for so long,” Kidjo said. “And what Naïma wrote is exactly what was deeply rooted in my soul. He’s humiliating and scary and joyful. We don’t realize how we impact our children, how they absorb everything we say, until it’s revealed.”

Kidjo said he hopes the performance and story of Yemanjain honor of the Yoruba deity of water, fertility and love, will take the audience on a spiritual journey.

“We don’t want people to be seated during the show,” she said in a recent interview. “We want them to feel the music. We want them to feel everything we say, but then listen and see how it affects their life – what memory it triggers, how they participate in that conversation.”

As Cal Performances’ first season-long artist-in-residence, Kidjo has worked closely with students, faculty, and campus partners through collaborations and public programs on issues close to her heart.

She has participated in two panel discussions, “Music, Diaspora and the World”, co-sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Social Science Matrix, and “Place and Displacement: Bias in Our Algorithms and Society”, presented in collaboration with the Division of Computing, Data Science and Society. Both discussions are available to stream on Cal Performances’ beyond the stage section.

At upcoming student events, Kidjo will visit a class, Listening for Blackness, taught by Professor Victoria Grubbs in the Department of African American Studies; conduct a dance masterclass on the traditional African and Latin American rituals that characterize Yemanja; and participate in a discussion about lightings theme of place and displacement.

Yemanja has 90 minutes without a break on Saturday, April 23 at 8pm at Zellerbach Hall. Tickets range from $36 to $88 and are available at half price for UC Berkeley students. To learn more about Yemanja and to purchase tickets, visit the Cal Performances website.

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