Interview

Angélique Kidjo & Ibrahim Maalouf Connect Timeless Messages in ‘Queen of Sheba’

The iconic collaborators discuss their Best Global Music-nominated album ahead of the Grammy Awards and reveal lessons from their long years of music-making.

Almost a decade ago, Angélique Kidjo was present at a New York concert hosted by Ibrahim Maalouf. She’d gone there as a fan but left a prospective collaborator, after they mutually agreed to explore ideas. Emerging from countries with distinct storytelling traditions—the Republic of Benin and Lebanon respectively—a strong narrative was the gold standard they held themselves to. “I wanted to find out what was the link between Africa and the Middle East,” Angélique revealed in a recent conversation with OkayAfrica. “So we said we’ll meet again when we find the idea. I did some research and I came up with the riddles of Queen of Sheba to King Solomon and Ibrahim said, ‘oh yeah, that’s a great idea’.

From that initial premise, and during a recording process that would take the next seven years, the duo’s Queen of Sheba was finally released in 2022. As expected of an alliance between two virtuosos, the album is a product of love and intentionality. While the lyrical direction was provided by Angélique, its robust interpretation of a symphony orchestra was the idea of Ibrahim, whose richly layered trumpeting has recreated the conventions of Jazz. “We wanted to make it sound timeless,” says Ibrahim, explaining the album’s fusion of different instrumentation. “It could be made anytime [and not] belong to any specific period of time. I started like this conceptually, and then Angélique sent me the lyrics. I asked her to send recordings of her reading them and I started composing the music based on the way she was saying them.”

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Op-Ed
(Photo by Joseph Okpako/WireImage)

The Grammys Have Yet to Figure Out Their Place In the Global Music Conversation

The awards continue to center the Western-gaze when it comes to African and "global" music.

It was around 9 pm, Nigerian time when the winners of the 64th annual Grammy music awards for Best Global Music Album and Best Global Music Performance were announced. The competition for both categories was fierce, featuring both established and semi-established artists from across the globe including Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti Angélique Kidjo, Wizkid and Tems who were all nominated in both categories. Queer-Pakistani artist Arooj Aftab went home with Best Global Music Performance while the Beninese legend Angélique Kidjo took home Best Global Music Album, a category which she has won five times now.

When the first category’s winner was announced, it felt unspoken that surely, the next winner would be Wizkid. The afrobeats artist has had an incredible past two years. From topping Billboards charts to selling out the O2 arena in minutes—and doing that three times! His single "Essence" featuring rising talent Tems, was 2021’s unofficial summer hit and got an extended collaboration from Justin Bieber, a move that boosted the song’s rising popularity even further. Without a doubt, Wizkid’s work played a vital role in exploding the afrobeats genre on the global music scene, setting the tone for the sound, giving local talent increased international exposure, and setting the stage for a global ecosystem where afrobeats, like reggae, rock and other genres that once sat on the fringe, was adapted as a global genre.

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