Born into a family of artists in Ouidah, a city on the coast of Benin in West Africa, Angélique Kidjo first heard of the “slave” world when she was 9 years old and wanted to know more.
Now, more than five decades later, Kidjo, a four-time Grammy winner, is exploring the subject in Yemandja, 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 premiere 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 people and communities through performances, public programs and academic encounters.
Kidjo, called “Africa’s leading diva” by Weather magazine, he 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. Weather named Kidjo one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2021; the British Broadcasting Corporation included her in his list of the 50 most iconic figures on the continent; Y The guardian The newspaper listed her as one of the 100 most inspiring women in the world in 2011.
Cal Performances 2021-22 artist-in-residence, Kidjo stars in the title role of Yemanja and is backed by a live band and nine singers and dancers. Artists portray mortals and gods, kings and villains, whose stories of love, betrayal, honor and revenge illuminate what can happen when people are stripped of their culture.
The production was conceived by Kidjo with her husband, Jean Hebrail, and their daughter, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, who wrote by yemandja libretto.
“I’ve been thinking about this for so long,” Kidjo said. “And what Naïma has written is exactly what was deeply embedded in my soul. He is humiliating, terrifying and joyous. We don’t realize how we’ve impacted our children, how they absorb everything we say, until it comes out.”
Kidjo said he hopes the performance and the story of YemanjaNamed after the Yoruba deity of water, fertility and love, it will take the audience on a spiritual journey.
“We don’t want people to sit through the show,” he 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 impacts their lives, what memories they trigger, how they participate in this conversation.
As Cal Performances’ first season-long artist-in-residence, Kidjo has been working closely with students, faculty, and campus partners through collaborations and public programs on topics she cares deeply about.
He has already 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; lead a dance master class on the traditional African and Latin American rituals that characterize Yemanja; and participate in a discussion about the Lights theme of place and displacement.
Yemanja runs for 90 minutes without interruption on Saturday, April 23 at 8 pm in 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.