Youssou N’Dour talked with Ed Stocker
In an age when the mass media prefer to focus on Africa’s wars and famines, Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour is a beacon of positive energy. No African artist has done as much to raise awareness of the continent’s problems and bring about change; the list of humanitarian agencies and social projects bearing his name is exhaustive. And yet for many in the West at least, he’s still only remembered for ‘7 Seconds’, a 1994 chart-topping duet with American singer Neneh Cherry.
At home in Dakar, N’Dour’s beaming, boyish face looms over the congested traffic from billboards dotted around the capital. When he returns from his many international shows, he’s welcomed back as a hero and saviour. His music has come to define the sound of Senegal, fusing traditional West African music and storytelling with Western pop. Lyrics tackle everything from love and religion to emigration, sanitation and cultural pride. He’s hailed as a spokesman for Africa and, according to Time magazine, one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
‘I am proud to be an ambassador for Africa,’ the singer says. ‘It happened quite naturally through my travels and meetings. For many years I’ve been absorbing my continent’s problems and I’m delighted that through my music, my voice has been heard and listened to.’
N’Dour has long promoted reputable causes through his tours. In 1985 he organized a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela, later bringing out an album in the South African leader’s name. He played a lead role in the 1988 fundraising concerts organized by Amnesty International – Human Rights Now! – touring the world with performers including Peter Gabriel and Sting. More recently he played at the ‘Make Poverty History’ Live 8 concerts in London, Cornwall and Paris. The touring provides a chance to reconnect with the African diaspora: ‘I love seeing my Senegalese brothers and Africans at my shows, whether in New York, Stockholm or Australia. They create a great atmosphere and really take part.’
His social work has focused on helping young people in particular. In April 1991 Youssou N’Dour was named an Ambassador of Goodwill by UNICEF and, among many initiatives, played a benefit concert in Dakar in 1994. In 2001 he launched the charity’s Global Movement for Children and the ‘Say Yes For Children’ campaign in front of 40,000 people in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou.
On top of his work with UNICEF, N’Dour recently formed his own foundation and Youth Network for Development. It has focused on issues ranging from malaria to children’s rights. One project, La Bourse d’Étude Adama Diop, has created a support fund for young girls from poor backgrounds to help get them into further education. Started in the 2003/2004 school year, the aim is to provide girls with three years’ education after they’ve completed their baccalauréat, part-funded directly by N’Dour. He also launched Joko Inc in 2000, a company aiming to help young Senegalese people connect with the outside world through the internet, opening a series of Yoko internet clubs the following year. ‘As I always say,’ the singer asserts, ‘I am above all an artist, but one who takes high and strong positions.’
N’Dour has done much to democratize the Senegalese airways through his recording studio and record label, Jololi, founded in 1997. It’s an attempt to give autonomy and self-determination back to African musicians, shifting some of the power away from the American and European record labels that continue to dominate African music. ‘When I created Jololi, the goal was to distribute African music from Senegal,’ he says, ‘because local groups don’t all have the chance to go and sign abroad. I have a studio, they record their albums there and Jololi produces, distributes and promotes these albums. I don’t personally take charge but I’m proud of [our] catalogue of artists.’
But it’s on celluloid, not CD, that N’Dour’s most recent projects have focused. Last year he made his acting début, playing freed slave Olaudah Equiano in Amazing Grace, a film charting the lead-up to the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807. His sombre role in the film is a far cry from the energetic, animated N’Dour that we see in Return to Gorée, his latest project – a documentary. Initially premiéred at the London Film Festival, the film shows the singer travelling from the former Senegalese transit island of Gorée – and back – along the old transatlantic slave routes, collaborating with American and European musicians and demonstrating how modern music, in particular jazz, is undeniably linked to African slaves and their descendants. While it would have been easy to focus on the painful realities of the trade, N’Dour explains this would have been missing the point: ‘Despite the historical horrors, the strength of this film rests with the natural and spiritual aspect of what we all experienced through this adventure. We are positive artists – we tell a story, we don’t comment on it.’
But there have been occasions when the Grammy award winner has been prepared to make more political statements. In 2003 he cancelled a tour of the US in protest at the Iraq war, saying it would send out the wrong signals and be ‘inappropriate’ to visit. More recently he got involved in a Spanish campaign aimed at dissuading young Africans from making the perilous journey to Europe in makeshift wooden boats; his detractors accused him of being a puppet of European governments’ attempts to stamp out economic migration. Does N’Dour see himself as a politicized musician in the vein of Bono or Bob Geldolf? ‘I am an artist and a human being,’ he replies. ‘Today everything is political – all our acts and all our words – but I don’t belong to any political party.’
Nonetheless, Dakar’s rumour mill abounds with suggestions that N’Dour intends to enter politics. Last year, the singer confirmed an interest in the capital’s mayoral position and, having recently moved into the media world, the means are clearly there. ‘Music has a great power,’ he says, ‘but I don’t look to find solutions in the place of politicians. I ask politicians questions and I demand a response.’ And when N’Dour asks, people pay attention.