Youssou N'Dour: Senegal's Saviour?

The king of African music has put his career on hold to enter politics. His motivation? To save his country from an octogenarian President who refuses to relinquish his grip on power, he tells Daniel Howden

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The Independent Online

As one of Africa's more beloved musicians and Senegal's most famous son, the man clambering on top of the car was accustomed to crowds.

If the cheering faces were familiar, not so the armoured police loading teargas into grenade launchers only a rock's throw away. And someone whose stage presence has been described variously as serene and evanescent started to look uncomfortable.

Youssou N'Dour was having trouble striking a pose. With no microphone in front of him he seemed unsure what to do with his hands, eventually opting to fold his arms and glare down the street at the police.

For several minutes, while everyone waited, he said nothing. This rawness and uncertainty in the midst of a stand-off between protesters and police earlier this week captured something of the troubles that the world music icon has had in making the transition to politics.

A singer, actor and businessman whose success beyond his West African homeland has helped to define Senegal, N'Dour's bid for the presidency was ruled out on a technicality last month. Excluded from the election he has tried to use his popularity to boost opposition efforts to stop this weekend's polls from going ahead.

Struck from the ballot, he was barred this week from entering Dakar's Place De L'Independence, which opposition supporters have been battling to reach for days in the hope they can turn it into the outpost for an African Spring.

So far it hasn't worked and when the 52-year-old came down from his car on Tuesday to join the push against the police line he was barraged with teargas along with everyone else, and forced into a bruised retreat after being hit by a projectile. The risks involved in leaving the stage for the stump in a ruthless political season in Senegal have left some observers wondering whether N'Dour's new career will be over before the last votes are cast tomorrow.

The acclaimed singer insists this is not the case. "It was not an easy decision for me between music and politics. I am in politics and I won't just stay for the short term," he said. He describes his music career as "on hold" rather than over. "My music is very important but it's not more important than Senegal and Senegal is in a dark situation," he explained.

Sitting behind a giant red mosaic table decorated with musical notes in the boardroom at his TFM radio station, he speaks of his "mission" to topple Abdoulaye Wade, accusing Senegal's octogenarian president of leading the country down the "road to chaos".

The office is decorated with the trophies of a career that stretches back into the 1980s. Recent gongs like the Grammy he won in 2005 for best world music album, Egypt, sit alongside souvenirs from an Amnesty International tour he shared with Bono and Bruce Springsteen, among others. In the stairwell outside, gold and platinum discs from his worldwide cross-over hit "Seven Seconds", recorded with Neneh Cherry, and So, which he made with Peter Gabriel, are reminders of a career in which he has successfully mixed local dance music with hip-hop, pop and jazz.

The Dakar boy with roots on his maternal side in the "griot" tradition of West African singer-storytellers has shared a stage or a studio with generations of Western stars from Lou Reed and Paul Simon to Wyclef Jean and Dido.

Until recently this fame was available on tap to Senegal's leaders as they looked to promote a poor but peaceful country to a foreign audience who might not otherwise have noticed it beyond a shock win over France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup.

Yet, a deep enmity with the current president, who is being accused of destabilising the region's oldest democracy in his determination to stay in power, has ended that relationship. Mr Wade who claims to be 85, although most of the residents of sand-blown Dakar think he is older than 90, has ignored both the promises he made – and the term limits that he wrote into the constitution – and decided to run for a third time.

A leader who has played the elder statesman on the African political scene, jetting around the continent as a mediator and calling on Colonel Gaddafi to step down during the Libyan conflict, has proved to have a tin ear at home. He will be the oldest man to run for elected office and has dismissed the anger surrounding his candidacy as "the wind that shakes the leaves but never becomes a hurricane".

The singer who challenged him says that he would not have been barred from running on a technicality if he hadn't been a threat to the Wade regime. His short-lived challenge has at least "unmasked" the aged head of state, he insists. "I know I play an important role in the image of Senegal and this has shown the true face of Wade to the rest of the world," he said.

The star's presence has turned what would have been a low-key African poll into something of a show. On the streets of Dakar in the past week, journalists have often outnumbered the protesters.

N'Dour's HQ in an affluent suburb of the capital belongs to another of his identities – media mogul. With earnings that amount to half of Senegal's entire music industry, he has bought himself a radio and television station and is the owner of one of the leading newspapers.

And while all this would suggest a shrewd operator, his move into politics has not been so sure-footed. One of N'Dour's closest aides admitted having "no idea" about what was coming when the singer abruptly announced he would stand for president.

The day before his confrontation with the police he was still planning to fly to Paris and only cancelled at the last minute to attend the protest. When he did eventually join opposition leaders in an attempt to rally in the city's Independence Square, he arrived late and not even his guitarist Jimi Mbaye knew what he was planning. The most recognisable face in Senegal was lost in a convoy led by former prime minister Idrissa Seck, who, like many presidential candidates, is tainted by his proximity to Mr Wade.

N'Dour has refused to call for a boycott or to endorse any of the other candidates running, leaving the president to openly mock the divided opposition and boast that he will win outright in the first round by taking over half the vote.

These missteps have been enjoyed by some of Senegal's educated elite, who remain suspicious of a low-born singer. In private, even some of his fellow musicians have cast doubt on his credentials, with one asking whether "Britain would better off with David Bowie replacing David Cameron".

Abdoulaye Niang, a sociology professor from Senegal's Gaston Berger University, disagrees with the star's detractors. Recently he was interviewing students for a new intake in cultural studies and asked them to define success. Almost without fail they talked about Youssou N'Dour. "He is their model for success," said the academic. "He may be even more important after this [move into politics] than before."

Despite questions over whether he will stay the course, the singer's legendary nightclub, Thiossane, on the fringe of the Grand Dakar slums, will be staying shut for the time being, according to its owner. "What is a politician?" he asks. "Here they are rubbish and we are reaching the end of that cycle."

He questions whether the people still have faith in elites who have grown rich while failing to improve the lot of the majority. "I have given them hope that even an average Senegalese has the right to become president," he claims.

There are those, even in his entourage, who fret that the singer's bruising foray on to the political scene might diminish his standing at home – but there's little sign of it so far. With the questions over, the star power is too much for a Senegalese translator who approaches him with a mobile phone and an imploring smile. Switching to his native Wolof, Senegal's finest voice tells the interpreter's mother that "Yes, this is Youssou N'Dour". Judging by the delighted noises coming from the phone, she's happy to hear it.