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Senegal's soul king sets sights on the presidency

Grammy-winner Youssou N'Dour says it is his 'patriotic duty' to challenge incumbent

Youssou N'Dour, the Senegalese singer whose rich, soulful voice – "a voice so extraordinary that it seems to have the entire history of Africa locked inside it," Rolling Stone magazine famously said – carried him to international stardom, is now flexing his political voice with a bid to run for president of Senegal.

Announcing the decision on the Dakar television station he owns, the 52-year-old N'Dour told viewers it is his "supreme patriotic duty" and "the best gift I can give." He will take on incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, who is standing for a controversial third term, and about 20 other candidates in the vote on 26 February.

Although most famous for his musical collaborations with the likes of Neneh Cherry, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, the Grammy Award-winning N'Dour is a prominent social activist in Senegal. He has worked as a UN goodwill ambassador and fronted anti-malaria campaigns, as well as launching the political party Fekke ma ci bolle – "If I am a witness, I must take action" in his native Wolof – and a media empire.

N'Dour rose to fame in the 1970s, playing his first international concert at the age of 14 in the Gambia – much to the distress of his parents, who feared he had run away from home. International renown came later, following a close friendship with Peter Gabriel; N'Dour and Gabriel's 1989 music video for "Shakin' the Tree" depicts the singers dancing around the trunk of a baobab tree and belting out lyrics from traditional Senegalese fishing canoes.

Since then, N'Dour's brand of mbalax – a blend of Cuban-inspired lyrics and fast, erratic drumbeats – has addressed social issues such as race, unemployment and religion. His most recent release, "Leep Mo Lendem" ("all is dark"), addressed the prolonged power cuts and flooding that swept through Dakar in 2009. That summer, President Wade, who is now running for a third term based on a constitutional loophole, came under fire for failing to return from holiday in France to address the crisis.

Unlike Wade, who was a lawyer and professor before becoming president in 2000, N'Dour is widely regarded as a man of the people in Senegal – a fact that could either be his calling card or his Achilles' heel in February's vote. "I'm not highly educated," the singer said upon announcing his plans to stand as president. "But travel can teach, just like books can," he said.

N'Dour plans to run on a platform of boosting the economy, curbing youth unemployment and creating wider access to education. "Food for all, that's what I stand for," he said. "Infrastructure will also be improved in each regional capital, and not just in areas where key voters live."

In recent years, the newspaper and radio station owned by N'Dour have been critical of President Wade's increasingly arthritic grip on Senegal. The two men were reportedly close until a dispute in 2005. In 2010, Wade refused to grant N'Dour a licence to launch a television station, eventually relenting on the grounds that all content be "strictly cultural".

Dakar taxi driver Mbaye Ndiaye said N'Dour's appeal lies in his ties to home. "President Wade's most famous project is an enormous, expensive bronze statue," he said, referring to the controversial multimillion-pound sculpture masterminded by Wade that now dominates Dakar's skyline. It depicts a scantily clad African family pointing to the West.

"Youssou N'Dour is famous for his soul... for making the world sing," Mr Ndiaye said.