Angélique Kidjo first heard Talking Heads shortly after she fled the communist regime in her native Benin for Paris in 1983. Listening to Western popular music was like an act of treason in her home country, she says, so she remembers feeling like a kid in a candy store when discovering music in France – “You want to eat all of the candy at once,” she tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. But of all the music she was digesting, one record was unique: Talking Heads’ 1980 offering, Remain in Light.
“I remember vividly every time the music came in, I said, ‘There’s something African to it,'” Kidjo says, amazement still in her voice. “Some of my peers [at jazz school] said, ‘Aw, come on. Shut up. This is not African. It’s too sophisticated for you.’ I’m like, ‘OK, whatever you say.'” She laughs. “‘It might be rock & roll, but there’s something African to it.’ I’m a very rhythmic person. Music is part of my heartbeat and every part of my body. This had an African touch to it.”
The Grammy-winning Kidjo has now recorded her own interpretation of Remain in Light, which she has been performing live at various concerts over the past year. The album, due out June 8th on Kravenworks Records, is a perfect counterpart to Talking Heads’ record. “I tried to keep the spirit of it, but yet bring it back to Africa,” she says. It contains a greater emphasis on rhythm and horns than the original, as well as instrumentation by members of her band, Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, bassist Pino Palladino, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, erstwhile Paul Simon bassist Abe Laboriel, Sr., Blood Orange and others. And of course, it features Kidjo’s inimitable reedy, powerful vocals, as well as new vocals in African languages that respond to Byrne’s lyrics.
The first taste of Kidjo’s album is the dusky video for opening cut “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On).” The clip was directed by the album’s producer, Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Mark Ronson), and was based on the album-cover concept that artist Kerry James Marshall concocted. (“It’s like I’m a drug dealer, but instead of drugs, I deal light,” she says.) The music is jittery and dense in a new way that separates it from its source material, as the singer huffs her breath and commands, “Take a look at these hands.” Meanwhile, the backup vocalists sing “Don’t play with fire” in the Beninese language Fon.
“When I started working on this, people would tell me, ‘How are you going to sing Remain in Light? It’s all nonsense,'” Kidjo says. “I’d say, ‘Even if [David Byrne] isn’t singing literally, I can hear the melody of the song. And I paid attention closely to the words and said, ‘No one’s going to tell me again that these words are absurd. They’re profound.'”
So when Byrne sang, “Fire cannot hurt a man/Not the government man” in “Born Under Punches,” she ran with the metaphor. “When we play with fire, in human life it’s corruption,” she says. “So it’s about corruption in society and how we don’t invest in social development. And don’t get me wrong, everybody is corrupted. It’s not only the African leaders, but corruption is eating up our system and it’s the fire that is step-by-step burning down the house we built.”
Kidjo has hidden these messages all over her version of Remain in Light. On album closer “The Overload,” which is understated here, the background vocals sing “Don’t forget the legacy of our ancestors” in Benin and Nigeria’s Yoruba language as a comment on how technology has taken away people’s decision-making ability, where our ancestors “taught us responsibility” and that “the most important value we have is humanity.”
Elsewhere, she addresses the negative perception of Africa in the media on “Crosseyed and Painless,” the mistreatment of Mother Earth on “The Great Curve,” the aftereffects of slavery on “Listening Wind” and people’s basic right to live on “Once in a Lifetime.” She drew inspiration from an elderly Beninese woman who disapproves of young African girls bleaching their skin on “Seen and Not Seen” and the experience of seeing a friend digging holes as a way of coming to terms with mortality on “Houses in Motion.”
“When I started writing my own lyrics,” she says, “I was like, ‘This album has something to do with this time we’re living in, where so many people are afraid and in disarray. The album comes from the Reagan era, but here we are again not knowing where the future lies for us.’ I believe in dialogue and the fact that we can disagree but still keep our common sense.”
Kidjo met Bhasker, her partner in delivering her message, at a charity event three or four years ago and they quickly realized they shared a similar energy. But they didn’t decide to work together until the singer worked out demos of each Remain in Light song with her husband, Jean Hébrail, and sent them to him. Bhasker was, at first, tentative about the project. “I was like, ‘Eh, diving into a world-music thing,’ I wasn’t quite sure,” he says. “I didn’t want to set myself up for failure.” But after he agreed to work on “Once in a Lifetime” provisionally, he decided it reminded him of why he makes music. “Talking Heads were a big influence on me,” he says. “‘Once in a Lifetime’ was one of the first music videos I ever saw when I was five years old.”
They began discussing how the original album was like a conversation between African and North American music and independently came up with the common goal of, as Bhasker puts it, “taking [the record] back to Africa.” Remain in Light has occasionally come up in conversations about cultural appropriation over the years, but Kidjo says it isn’t her intention to address that. “We are all from one human family,” she says. “If you know our history on this Earth, you would never talk like that. We are all mixed. The light inside of you, you don’t know it until it comes out and you won’t even be thinking about it. For me, music is there for us to tap into, as long as you respect who did it before and share. Acknowledgement has always been part of the problem of cultural appropriation, so if you take something from someone, just acknowledge it. And [the Talking Heads] were open about how Fela [Kuti] inspired them.”
Once they had an idea in mind, they began developing the songs. “How do you reinvent ‘Once in a Lifetime’?” Bhasker asks. “It’s like a dream you had that you can’t describe.” To figure it out, they stripped the songs down to just the vocal and percussion and built them back up, a process they’d later explore on every song on the album. Kidjo then began performing the album live, including a gig at Carnegie Hall where Byrne joined her for “Once in a Lifetime.” “My husband brought me to him in the middle of the concert, and I asked him, ‘Do you want to come onstage and sing with me?’ and he goes, ‘Yes,'” she says. “It was not prepared at all.” Kidjo laughs. (Prior to working on the project, she sought out Byrne’s blessing and her manager reached out to the other Heads. The band’s guitarist, Jerry Harrison, joined her at a Houston show in December.) She also performed it live at Lincoln Center and Bonnaroo.
In the studio, Bhasker attempted some techniques like Eno, who produced the original Remain in Light, such as adding a track of horns to “Once in a Lifetime” that had been recorded years earlier in an effort to disorient the artists. He also knew went to hold back, such as when Tony Allen recorded his parts in Paris, a session he produced via Skype. “This man is, like, 70 years old, smoking a spliff in the studio, just murdering it,” Bhasker says. “Once he got ahold of the groove of something like ‘Houses in Motion,’ it was like vintage Tony Allen.”
Ultimately, they made what he felt was a different kind of statement than the original album. “The Talking Heads album has this kind of uncomfortable tension,” he says. “Angélique’s version sounds so celebratory and happy, but all those chants are actually bringing up very painful topics.”
Now that the album is finished, Kidjo is looking forward to performing it again on the road. Among her upcoming solo shows with the Brittany Symphony and a tribute to salsa music in France this summer, she’ll be playing a handful of Remain in Light shows throughout the year.
In the meantime, Kidjo and Bhasker are ready for the world to hear what they’ve been working on. “We’re kind of in this Black Panther moment with the way everything is unfolding in the world,” Bhasker says. “And with things like Donald Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ comments, this album needs to drop, like, right now.”
“For me, my music is bringing my message to people, telling them what I see and what I experience,” she says. “Once you get that message, what you do with it is your choice. But let’s at least have the conversation. Let’s start transforming our world, our surroundings. We have to start at home with our neighbors and our countries and then we can go somewhere else. That’s how I see it.”