Youssou N’Dour, a Creative in Politics

updated April 7, 2012

He is the son of a car mechanic who began by hustling pirated CDs in car parks of Senegal and went on to become one of the most influential recording artists in the world.

Youssou N'Dour (Photo by Diena/Brengola/WireImage)

Now Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese musician once described by Rolling Stone magazine as the most famous living African singer, is putting his music career on hold so he can enter politics ahead of presidential elections in his native Senegal next February.

Best known globally for his songs drawing on Senegal’s traditional mbalax music, N’Dour is also feted at home as an entrepreneur. His announcement came on the back of the launch of Fekke Maci Boolé – which means “I Am Involved” in the local Wolof dialect – a social consciousness movement he says will “disturb” the country’s entrenched political elites. It is not clear if N’Dour plans to challenge Abdoulaye Wade, the 85-year-old president who has been in power since 2000, but his declaration has stung politicians.

N’Dour has repeatedly said Wade – whose age is sometimes disputed – should not stand for re-election after winning two free and fair polls. This will reignite old tensions with Wade, who has tried to shut down N’dour’s television channel TFM (Television Futurs Medias) and newspaper L’Observateur in the past.

N’Dour is widely respected in Senegal for having stayed in his country, despite winning international acclaim and wealth thanks to hits such as “Seven Seconds” with Neneh Cherry.

The Senegalese singer has strongly criticised the profligate spending of the Wade leadership in a country where formal employment is rare and average income per head is $3 a day. One example of such spending is Africa’s long-overdue answer to the Eiffel tower or Statue of Liberty – a £17m  Monument of the African Renaissance, a 49- metre bronze statue on a hilltop overlooking the Atlantic in Dakar.

The statue shows a muscular man in a heroic posture, outstretched arms wrapped around his wife and child. Nearly 50 North Korean workers (see our post A Bittersweet Taste of Soft Power: North Korea’s flirting with tourism to learn about other North Korean creative projects in Africa) were brought in to build it, because of their expertise with bronze art, and some Senegalese have complained of its communist-era design. It has also drawn criticism from Muslims, who make up 94% of Senegal’s population, because of Islamic prohibitions on representations of the human form.

Alassane Cisse, a Senegalese delegate at the world summit on arts and culture in Johannesburg, South Africa, said, “All cities need signatures, but in Dakar we have had only monuments which existed during colonisation. Africa needs its own great monuments like the Eiffel tower and the Statue of Liberty. This symbol of African renaissance will motivate people to rehabilitate and work with Africa.”

He added that the site has exhibition, multimedia and conference rooms, as well as a top-floor viewing platform giving a bird’s eye view of Dakar. “It will be a cultural place. Around the monument there will be a theatre and shops. Many tourists will visit there, so the economic effects will benefit the population.”

But the president has sparked anger by maintaining that he is entitled to 35% of any tourist revenues it generates, because he owns the “intellectual rights”.

Youssou N’Dour is not the first person to use celebrity status as a catalyst for political popularity. George Weah, the ex-World Footballer of the Year, ran as vice-president on a ticket with Winston Tubman for the Congress of Democratic Change Party in Liberia. Despite being unsuccessful against Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the last two presidential elections, Weah remains popular with the Liberian people and his fame alone draws support to his party.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqCpjFMvz-k]

One of the 40 most powerful celebrities on the continent together with N’Dour, Chelsea and Ivory Coast footballer Didier Drogba was one of 11 members appointed to the Ivorian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created to investigate the deaths of 3,000 and the displacement of 500,000 Ivorians in the wake of the November 2010 elections.

Further afield, the boxer Manny Pacquaio recently won office as a congressman for the Sarangani Province in the Philippines. He aims to run for governor of the province in 2013, then senator in 2016, and president in 2022.

Perhaps the most famous US singer to achieve success in politics was Sonny Bono, former partner of Cher, who left a career as a singer and record producer to become Mayor of Palm Springs and then a Congressman in California’s 44th District from 1994-98.

Notably, celebrity success does not necessarily translate to being top of the pops in the electoral stakes. In Weah’s case some of the electorate mistrusted his ability to perform as a politician, citing his inexperience as justification for why they would not vote for him. In another example, singer-songwriter Wyclef Jean was disqualified from running in 2010 Haitian presidential elections, having not lived in Haiti for 5 years prior to his electoral campaign.

Women walk past rubbish heaps and unfinished homes in a neighborhood at the base of the nearly-completed 50-meter-high (328-foot-high) bronze statue dubbed the Monument of the African Renaissance in Dakar, Senegal (Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

According to Think Africa Press, while N’dour has not expressly endorsed any political party/candidate, nor suggested under which side of the political spectrum he will fall, his music suggests he is an individual who champions freedom, Pan-Africanism and modernisation.

The haunting tones of N’Dour in “Seven seconds” repeats the word “changer” (“to change”), echoing his political diatribes about stagnant Senegalese politics . Following a recent visit to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, N’dour argued that the current focus on Libya by Western powers detracted from the necessities of “the real Africa”. His 2002 album Nothing’s In Vain is a non-traditional mix of themes echoing freedom and Pan-Africanism.

N’dour has now been a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and a talisman for humanitarian and human rights issues for more than 20 years. He headlined the Amnesty International “Human Rights Now!” Tour in 1988.

Senegal’s constitutional council rejected Ndour’s presidential candidacy on the grounds that he had failed to provide enough valid signatures to back his application.

When Macky Sall emerged as the most likely candidate to beat Wade, and 12 failed candidates threw their weight behind him, Ndour too hit the campaign trail for the opposition candidate. Sall won the election on March 25 with a crushing 66 percent of the vote, and when he entered the presidential palace as the nation’s new leader on Monday Ndour was there as they watched Wade leave power. Wade surprised the world by conceding defeat just hours after the polls closed and calling his former protege to congratulate him, a move that won him plaudits from around the globe.

The new president’s dream team is much smaller than the 40-odd ministers who served in Wade’s government. And Youssou Ndour was appointed Senegal’s culture minister.

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