Batonga is a word invented by a young West African girl to counter taunts from boys who believed that girls didn’t belong in the classroom. Baton implied that she would conduct her own life. She turned Batonga into a song and then a Foundation. And became the Queen of African music and a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

Who was that girl?

Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounisinou Kandjo Manta Kidjo – but just let us call her Angélique Kidjo. Born in Benin on Africa’s Atlantic coast next to Nigeria in 1960, she was one of nine siblings born to a banjo-playing father and dance choreographer and theatre director mother. She started dancing with her mother’s troupe at age six, by which time some of her brothers had formed their own band. She formed her own band while still in her teens. It taught her the strength of music as a means of communication. 

In 1980, her independent, musical activity was restricted by a new regime who wanted her to play political anthems. In 1983 she fled to Paris to study as a human rights lawyer, her other passion, but decided that was not for her. She would use music to reach out to poor people. She joined a jazz school run by Jean Hebrail whom she married four years later. 

After reading the rest of this article you may wish to return to this link to a brilliant 25-minute interview she gave to Al Jazeerah that gives an intelligent insight to her motivation to become the champion of women’s and children’s rights that she is today.

Angélique’s musical career develops

By 1989 she had formed a new band that combined African music with American slave and gospel songs, Caribbean and Latin music, jazz, reggae and hip hop with dance as an integral part. She started to attract the attention of international musicians. Her reputation soared and she was always on the road, touring across the globe. Her songs Batonga, Malalaika and her rendition of Bob Marley’s Redemption were international hits throughout the 90s.

By 2002 she had become a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and performed in Oslo at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert for President Jimmy Carter. Her concerts then developed a more political nature: 2003 Cape Town for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, 2004 “We Are The Future” Concert in Rome with Oprah Winfrey and Andrea Bocelli, 2005 Ethiopia “Africa Unite” concert for Bob Marley’s 60th birthday and the Eden Project, Cornwall with Angelina Jolie.

Her passion for women’s and children’s rights finds a voice

In 2006 she performed in Zimbabwe and, famously, criticised the governance of Robert Mugabe. The dictator dared not touch Africa’s premier diva. That year she formed the Batonga Foundation to empower the education of adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa. It has since provided girls in five African countries with 5 000 academic years of education through scholarships, supplied access to wells and latrines for students and over 200 000 girls’ shoes for their walk to school.

Angélique’s role in championing African women’s and children’s rights to education and health is undisputed. Her music has built a bridge between the West and Africa, stressing the importance of black American children’s links back to their African origins. Her song ‘Africa’ has subsequently been performed in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and at the UN General Assembly in New York.

In 2009 Angélique joined the campaign for African women’s rights started by the International Federation of Human Rights that is independent of any government, religion or political party. The following year she was appointed by the African Union as a Peace Ambassador. In 2014 she met Michelle Obama to discuss international girls’ education. In 2020 the BBC added her name to the list of most inspiring and influential women in the world and, in 2021, she sang at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

Batonga is still relevant today

Since I joined the Royal Navy at 15, a year before Angélique was born, I have been pleased to witness the advance of gender equality. Women now command our largest training establishment, our most modern destroyers and naval air squadrons. Yet recent broken promises of the Taliban in Afghanistan on girls’ education and attempts to ban abortion in America and take away the basic human rights of women to control their own bodies shows the frailty of advances that have been achieved since the distant days of the suffragettes. Women around the world must continue to take up the baton and fight for the right to conduct their own lives.