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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

£45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Marketing Manager

£36000 - £38000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

Accounts Assistant, Hammersmith

£25000 per annum: Charter Selection: Exciting sports company with a strong bra...

Financial Accountant-IFRS-Gloucester-£300/day

£250 - £295 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountant - IFRS - Glouc...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil