Yemandja & The Birth of a Musical: One Family’s History with Slavery Through Art

Angélique Kidjo, Photo: courtesy of THE OFFICE performing arts + film (left); Naima Hibrail Kidjo, Photo: Paul Smith (right)

Love. Betrayal. Honor. Free will. Slavery. These are complex themes on their own, but an original musical developed by a mother-daughter creative team combines all these elements, taking the audience on a three-dimensional journey of body, voice, and heart. The vision of Grammy-award winning singer, songwriter, activist, and actor, Angélique Kidjo, and her daughter, actor, writer, multinational performer Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, Yemandja: A Story of Africa, blurs the boundaries of real life and art and uses culture-inspired storytelling to bridge gaps in human understanding and forgiveness.

The story begins with a traditional Yoruban baptism, where a child is welcomed into the family and a ceremony reveals if there is an ancestor or deity who wants to be a guiding spirit to this child on earth. Yemandja, the goddess of water, fertility, and love, breaks through the veil and becomes the guide for this timeless yet timely story of the Kidjo family who resists slavery in the West African country that is now Benin.

“Imagine you’re in a time when the wall between the real world and metaphysical world of deities is thin… and the slave trade was in full spring. What does that tragic moment represent?” said Hebrail Kidjo. “We wanted to bring culture and history together to offer different perspectives while telling the emotionally complex story of slavery through the eyes of our family.”

With more than ten years in the making, Yemandja: A Story of Africa provides a nuanced yet full and human portrayal of this period. To provide balance, the Kidjos sprinkled the storyline with the magic of deities and infused powerful lyrics with West African music as a vehicle to carry the audience through a palate of emotions.

“There is something magical about two generations honoring our family’s legacy and our people’s traditions in an authentic way,” said Kidjo. “Collaborating on this story and infusing our culture into the costume design, sound, and lighting was a rewarding process.”

Both mother and daughter hope that Yemandja: A Story of Africa can serve as a springboard for conversation, forgiveness, and healing. “How do you carry all of those who have fought against slavery, and at the same time, let people know that forgiveness is possible, that our differences can bring us together? There is so much more interconnectedness in the world than we realize” added Hebrail Kidjo.

YSC will host “A Conversation with Angelique Kidjo and Naima Hebrail Kidjo: The Making of a Musical” and will later present Yemandja: A Story of Africa in performance. Subscribe for updates.

Adapted from an Interview with Angélique Kidjo and Naïma Hebrail Kidjo by Broad Stage Artistic & Executive Director, Rob Bailis.