Mark Hudson recalls his meetings with Youssou N’Dour, the musician planning to lead Senegal.
Imagine Bono standing for President. Or Christy Moore having a crack at Enda Kenny's job job. What if Bob Geldof had attempted to extend his Live Aid campaigns into a stab at real, drab, everyday politics? None of these propositions could have ended in anything but tragicomic farce. A retired film star may have become president of America, but even there the real-life politics of economics, health and defence, and the sexy, fantastical and inherently silly world of pop have remained very separate.
Now imagine an ill-educated African singer, a man whose greatest claim to fame is a tuneful ditty sung close to 20 years ago with Neneh Cherry, standing for president in his native Senegal, an arid land with vast social and political problems. It should be laughable, but it isn’t. Because, as an African musician, Youssou N’Dour has been forced into a statesman-like role almost from the moment he first performed professionally at the age of 13.
Traditional African approaches to music, led by hereditary praise singers and professional moralists, lead people to expect social and political messages from pop. But, more than that, the nature of African society forces musicians to think like politicians simply as a matter of self-preservation.
Many think of Fela Kuti, the ganja-raddled band leader who antagonised successive Nigerian political regimes before dying of Aids, as the ultimate African politico-musical figure, but it is the shrewd and pragmatic N’Dour who has most effectively embraced the inherently political role of the African musician.
Born the son of a car mechanic in 1959 in a working-class suburb of the Senegalese capital Dakar, N’Dour was hailed as an extraordinary figure from his first public appearances. With his unearthly high-pitched wail and spookily deep knowledge of traditional musical language and phrasing, “le petit prince de Dakar” seemed a figure beyond the norm – a position he has accepted matter-of-factly.
When I interviewed him at his house in Dakar in 1995, he told me quite calmly that he is favoured by God. From a Western perspective, it sounds absurd; from a Senegalese point of view, it is simply stating the obvious. Even then, at the age of 35, he was not only Senegal’s most popular musician, but, having earned a platinum disc for 7 Seconds, he had taken on a position of influence second only to that of the president and the leaders of the country’s Islamic brotherhoods. How could he not be favoured by God?
Senegal has maintained stability (it is the only West African country not to have had a military coup) through the careful balance of ethnic, religious and economic forces, and a deeply ingrained collective aspiration towards social harmony.
It is a situation reflected in the country’s music scene. From early in his career, N’Dour proved adept at poaching his rivals’ backing musicians and has been widely criticised for exploiting other musicians. Yet he would never say anything disrespectful about another musician, or certainly not in public.
In Senegal, as elsewhere in Africa, the cult of the “big man” is prevalent – the traditional chief, businessman or military figure who exerts power through social heft. Any musician with aspirations has to become a kind of godfather, with his interest group around him: his extended family, co-religionists, people reliant on him or owing him in one way or another. N’Dour’s social network, needless to say, is the most extensive in Senegal, his business interests wide-ranging; he is a member of the country’s most powerful religious brotherhood, but has sung for the leaders of other groups in a spirit of magnanimity, and generally avoided becoming indebted to anyone.
His international career has shown a similar skill in reconciling conflicting interests. Courted by A-list rock stars of the Gabriel-Sting stamp, he has made atrocious fusion albums in pursuit of mainstream Western popularity, yet has always countered with a gesture – a concert or album – that will keep the hypercritical world-music cognoscenti on side. “If a Western musician praises your work, it means more than if an African did that,” he told me in 2004. “Maybe that’s not right, but it’s the reality.”
As long ago as 1995, the slogan “Youssou President” was current among Senegalese youth. But N’Dour, while privately opposed to the pro-French political establishment that had held power since independence in 1960, preferred to exert a social and moral influence rather than an overtly political one. In 2000, he supported Abdoulaye Wade, the veteran opposition leader who finally toppled the ruling Parti Socialiste.
Yet Wade’s megalomania and apparent nepotism – building a preposterous monument to the “African Renaissance”, promoting his son and attempting to extend his own term in office – soon outstripped the complacent corruption of the previous administration.
Throwing the weight of his own media corporation, including TV and radio stations and a newspaper, against Wade, and finally agreeing to stand as president, N’Dour is at once fulfilling his “patriotic duty” and making actual a situation that has long existed. He has been the most influential person in Senegal for almost two decades, and could have been elected president 10 years ago. His support goes way beyond anything to do with music.
N’Dour can appear naive and wily, idealistic and ruthless, charismatic and profoundly ordinary all at once. But it is difficult to imagine that he won’t be elected leader of his country.