Growing up in the port city of Cotonou in the impoverished West African state of Benin, songstress Angélique Kidjo puts the fact that she was lucky enough to get an education down to a pact she made with her father.
“The deal I had with my father was; you want to sing, you go to school,” says Kidjo, 55, who has won three Grammys in a career spanning three decades.
“[He said], ‘You’ve got to do good in school otherwise there’s no singing.’ My mum and dad believed that the best tool, weapon and wealth they could give all of us [children] was school.”
But the singer—who was named Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience for 2016—knows that many young people in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly girls, never even get the chance at an education.
Kidjo, African activists win human rights award
Benin-born Kidjo and groups Y’en a marre from Senegal, le Balai Citoyen from Burkina Faso and Lutte pour le Changement (LUCHA) from the Democratic Republic of Congo have shown “exceptional courage,” Amnesty said.
“(They) have all proved themselves to be bold advocates for human rights, using their talents to inspire others,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary general, said in a statement.
Kidjo fled her homeland in the 1980s after being pressured to perform for the country’s repressive regime.
In a 30-year career spawning 12 albums, she has been a prominent campaigner for freedom of expression and against female genital mutilation.
Y’en a marre (Fed Up) is a group of Senegalese rappers and journalists who joined forces in 2011 to encourage young people to register to vote in the country’s election and exercise their right to freedom of expression.
Y’en a marre has remained active since the election, hosting meetings and urging the new government to implement promised changes such as land reform, a key issue affecting Senegal’s rural poor.
Le Balai Citoyen (The Citizen’s Broom) is a political grassroots movement committed to peaceful protest.
It was founded in 2013 by two musicians, reggae artist Sams’K Le Jah and rapper Smockey (Serge Bambara).
Le Balai Citoyen has voiced concerns about a range of issues from corruption and land grabs to power cuts and it has mobilised people to claim their rights and fight impunity.
Lucha is another community-based youth movement committed to peaceful protest. It was created in Goma, eastern DRC, in 2012.
Its activism focuses on social issues, human rights and the protection of civilians from armed groups.
Lucha advocates for social justice and democratic governance through non-partisan and non-violent actions.
Kidjo and her fellow awardees were be honoured at a ceremony in Dakar, Senegal, on May 28 2016.
Kidjo the activist
About 30 million of the region’s children were not in school in 2012, according to the United Nations educational body UNESCO and that figure accounts for more than half of out-of-school children across the world.
For girls, the situation is worse. An estimated 9.3 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa will never set foot in a classroom, while in 13 countries in the region fewer than 90 girls are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys.
According to Kidjo, African women and girls face a new threat to their opportunity to earn an education, violent extremism.
The growth of militant groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—which has recently conducted attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast—has brought progress in female education to a dramatic halt.
More than one million children in northeast Nigeria and surrounding countries affected by Boko Haram—which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in 2015—have been forced out of school and girls have been used as suicide bombers and taken as wives for militant fighters.
“We have a new element, the terrorists that are stopping girls from going to school. We are not as organised as those terrorists, ISIS and everybody else. They have a purpose, and they are ready to die for it. What is our purpose that we are ready to die for?” says Kidjo.
As the winner of Amnesty’s most prestigious human rights award, Kidjo joined an exclusive and impressive club.
Previous recipients include South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar politician who was held under house arrest for almost 15 years for attempting to introduce democracy to her troubled country.
A UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador since 2002, Kidjo has been described as the “undisputed queen of African music.”
She has released 12 albums so far and received several Grammys in the World Music category, including in 2015 for her album Eve, which was dedicated to the women of Africa.
Kidjo, who recently branched out into acting with a role in a Nollywood movie, has always combined her singing with humanitarian activism.
In 2008, she founded the Batonga Foundation to push for gender parity in secondary and higher education in Africa.
While performing on stage in Zimbabwe in 2006, Kidjo criticised President Robert Mugabe, saying: “I can’t understand someone who is burning his own country and abducting his own people. If you live by violence, you die by violence.”
Agents from Mugabe’s secret service were at the concert, and the audience reportedly had to step in to stop them from pulling Kidjo off the stage before she fled.
Even with the obvious risks, Kidjo says she will keep speaking out against dictatorial African leaders and feels a particular empathy with Lucha, which has seen dozens of its members arrested for opposing DRC President Joseph Kabila.
“[They] are in jail because they want to speak up and want democracy. They want peace, they want to settle, they want their country to get out of this constant violence,” she says. “Just speaking up against that put them in jail and no one is talking about it.”
On the back of her award, Kidjo said she won’t slow down with either her music or her humanitarian work.
In fact, she says, the two work together to help spread her message against dictators and those who want to deprive African girls of their rights.
“Both complement each other, one cannot exist without the other,” says Kidjo. “You cannot do advocacy without entertaining too.” —Newsweek.com/ Reuters.com