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Drexel Professor Co-Writes Memoir of Grammy Award-Winning World Music Artist Angélique Kidjo

World music vocalist Angelique Kidjo

January 28, 2014

Hailed as “the undisputed queen of African music” (Daily Telegraph) and “Africa’s premier diva” (TIME), Angélique Kidjo is a Grammy Award-winning artist with a mission to unite different cultures through music, while raising global respect for her native continent.

In her debut memoir, “SPIRIT RISING: My Life, My Music,” which was released by HarperCollins on Jan. 7, Kidjo shares the inspiring story of her journey from a little-known city in Benin, on the west coast of Africa, to international superstardom. The autobiography was co-written with Rachel Wenrick, an associate teaching professor of English in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“The only thing bigger than Angélique Kidjo’s voice is her heart,” said former President Bill Clinton, whom Kidjo performed for at the Clinton Foundation Annual Gala in 2010 and at the Clinton Global Initiative. “In this evocative memoir, Kidjo chronicles an inspiring life of music and activism, and raises a passionate call for freedom, dignity and the rights of people everywhere.”

Kidjo will also release an album of all-new material, EVE, out on Jan. 28 on Savoy/429 Records. Produced by Patrick Dillett (David Byrne, Fatboy Slim), EVE, named after her mother, is a joyous musical ode to the pride, beauty and strength of African women and their worldwide socio-cultural influence. Kidjo will perform at the Prince Music Theater on Feb. 18.

Growing up in a loving, bustling home—shared with seven brothers, two sisters and assorted relatives, friends and always-welcome strangers—Kidjo’s life was defined by music. At age six, she was thrust into the spotlight as a last-minute stand-in singer in a folktale for the theater company her mother ran. By nine, she had moved on to singing with her brothers’ band at a local discotheque. Music was her passion; yet within her community, women who sang for money were deemed immoral—or, as her junior high classmates taunted, whores. She wondered, could an African singer, especially a female one, ever be taken seriously? At 12, Kidjo discovered an album that opened her mind to possibilities: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace.

Angélique Kidjo co-wrote her memoir with Drexel professor Rachel Wenrick As a child, Kidjo heard the word “slave” for the first time; as a teenager, she heard the word “apartheid.” Even in her teens while she developed a successful career as a singer and songwriter—one inspired by Aretha Franklin and the equally talented Miriam Makeba—these words tormented her. The injustices of the world had ignited a fire inside her.

Kidjo’s fame was sealed when she was approached to play for the Beninese government. But so was her fate. Refusing to serve as a mouthpiece for what had become an oppressive, Communist dictatorship, the young Kidjo secretly left Benin for a new life in France, the country of freedom and the arts. That’s when her real awakening to hardship and bigotry began.

In Kidjo’s vibrant and courageously honest voice, “SPIRIT RISING” recounts:                                               

  • The culture shock of her arrival in Paris in 1983, where, while braving brutal cold and gnawing hunger, she struggled to defy negative stereotypes of Africans and prove her talent and dedication to her craft while studying at the prestigious jazz school, Le CIM.
  • How she met Jean, the French jazz bassist who would become her husband, frequent collaborator and greatest fan; got discovered by a record label; and received a stunning, career-propelling invitation to open for Miriam Makeba at the legendary Olympia.
  • Her road to international recognition as a Billboard chart-topping artist; her performances and friendships with diverse artists—Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews, Peter Gabriel, and Josh Groban, among others; and her commitment to uniting descendants of the African diaspora to affirm and showcase the rich cultural gifts of her native continent.
  • The long-awaited birth of her daughter, Naïma; her taboo-breaking travels across Africa as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, including holding male leaders accountable for ending the cruel ritual of female genital mutilation; and her ongoing activism for the education of African girls through her foundation, Batonga.         


Throughout “SPIRIT RISING,” Kidjo shares lyrics from her celebrated songs, including her anthem, “Afirika,” and intimate family photos, as well as snapshots capturing career milestones. In addition, each chapter opens with images of the fabrics of Vlisco, a textile designer known for shaping the fashion landscape of West and Central Africa. Like songs, each fabric has a unique story to tell. Since 1846, Vlisco has made authentic Dutch Wax fabrics through a production process derived from Batique techniques. Beyond their ceremonial significance, fabrics hold the key to economic independence for many women in Africa—including Kidjo’s late paternal grandmother, who built a fabric business as a widow.

The book also includes five recipes to make traditional African dishes, including ones for yassa chicken, moyo with fish, and a crab curry. Through her hardships and struggles all the way up to the life she lives today, these are the meals that have sustained her.

Angélique Kidjo has been recognized as one of Africa’s “50 most iconic figures” (BBC) and one of the world’s “100 most inspiring women” (The Guardian). Among the many honors she’s received was her June 2013 appointment as vice president of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers. She now makes her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her family. In 2014, she will follow up the release of her memoir with the release of a new album of original songs, distributed by Savoy Records, and a world tour.

Rachel Wenrick is a writer and associate teaching professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at Drexel University. She studied English and writing at Ithaca College and earned a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University School of Arts. In addition to teaching university-level writing courses and working with a diversity of students as they pursue prestigious national and international fellowships, Wenrick has worked extensively with fine and liberal arts majors in a range of academic settings. She has also taught international students ascending to elite prep schools and inner-city teenagers working to build the literary skills necessary for gaining admittance into college and maintaining successful academic careers.