more than a singer

Before Angelique Kidjo, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, arrived in Charleston for her Spoleto Festival concert tonight, she was delivering shoes.

Best known as the pre-eminent African diva, the Benin-born Kidjo has been an advocate of social causes as well as an artist throughout her career, performing on the international stage for Nobel Peace Prize winners, boosting HIV/AIDS awareness, serving on panels for African unity and using her music as a way to communicate across cultures.

“Music is a healer, a unifier,” she said in a 2007 Time magazine article. “I’m not scared by any genre, any musical background that is different from mine, because I know it’s the same language.”

Kidjo signed her first major recording contract in 1991, eight years after leaving Benin for Paris. She has released nine studio records and one live album; one of those, the 2007 Grammy-winning “DjinDjin,” included collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Carlos Santana and other guests on a broad Afropop mix of jazz, zouk, gospel, rumba and pop.

Her popularity has been steadily growing since she was an 8-year-old girl singing for her mother’s women’s-rights group. That activist impulse reached a global level in 2002 when she became a Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF. The position involves supporting various education-related initiatives in countries throughout Africa as well as in Haiti and Mexico.

“She is as comfortable on the global stage with world celebrities as she is in the village with the poorest of the poor,” said Sarah Crowe, spokesperson for UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “She attacks life, nettles and all. She cares passionately about children, about Africa, about diseases that kill when they can be cured, about wrongs that can be put right.”

Kidjo founded the Batonga Foundation in 2006 to develop educational opportunities for girls throughout Africa. Stephanie Cate, the foundation’s executive director, said the organization addresses girls’ needs through individual assistance and by working with NGOs in different countries to remove transportation-, sanitation- and health-related barriers to education.

An example of this is providing those much-needed shoes for kids with long walks to school.

“She brings so much credibility to our cause, and people really listen to her and respect her,” said Cate, who has joined Kidjo to deliver shoes in Benin. “And the girls look up to her as a role model. This is not something where she does it maybe as some celebrities do, just as a publicity measure. This is where her heart is.”

Growing up, Kidjo lived in an area that saw very few girls going to school. Despite pressure from her extended family, her parents kept her in the classroom, where she studied music. Teased by boys while she went to school, Kidjo made up the word “batonga” as a mantra.

It was a way for Kidjo to dismiss what they were saying and continue to follow her dreams, according to Cate. Kidjo had the Batonga logo created as a butterfly to illustrate the metamorphosis that she hopes to cultivate through the foundation’s programs.

“What I want to give to those little girls is to empower them, for them to see themselves as human beings with rights,” Kidjo said in a 2009 video interview on CNN. “I want them to be able to dream, to think of themselves better than being just a daughter of a father and a mother, and a wife-to-be. I want them to think that if I achieve what I’ve achieved, being born and raised in Africa, all of them can.”

She stayed in school and eventually moved to Paris and then to New York, where she now lives. She has always credited her success to her education.

“We need people to be educated,” Kidjo told NPR this year. “That’s the key for everything.”

Joseph DiDomizio is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.