Catching up with legendary musician Youssou N’Dour
What you need to know:
- He is one of Africa’s most successful artistes with a distinctive tenor that has won him fans across the world. The Senegalese musician is also a notable politician, activist and wealthy businessman. During a recent visit to Kenya, he spoke with Nation Lifestyle about music, politics, globalisation and his passion for the youth.
Listening to the hit song 7 Seconds by Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour is often a blissful experience to many, with the enchanting beats and harmonised vocals undergirded by one of the world’s most distinctive tenors.
This duet with Swedish singer Neneh Cherry, recorded in 1994, was among songs that were significant in entrenching the Senegalese artiste’s position as a global star.
Described as the “King of African pop”, “African artiste of the century” or “the most famous singer alive” by various international music critics, Youssou N’Dour — Senegal’s former minister for Tourism, Culture and Leisure and now a special advisor to president Macky Sall — has for more than four decades been recognised in top music awards.
With a long list of achievements and hits, one peak recognition of his musical prowess was perhaps clinching the Grammy Award in 2005 for the best contemporary “world music” album dubbed Egypt.
Seven years earlier, there was the song La Cour des Grands (Do You Mind If I Play) with Belgian singer-songwriter Axelle Red that was the official anthem of the 1998 Fifa World Cup in France.
So, when the 63-year-old’s plane touched down recently at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi for his third visit to the country, this time to perform at the Mo Ibrahim Governance Weekend, the anticipation among his fans was palpable. This is a flagship event of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation held every year in different African countries and brings together politicians, business people, civil society, international partners among others to debate important issues affecting the continent.
When Lifestyle later caught up with the artiste — who has also made a name for himself as a politician, businessman and activist — at a hotel in Nairobi’s Upper Hill, he was in a cheery mood. During the interview, he preferred speaking in French through a translator.
“This is my third time here. Kenya is one of the countries artistes like us would like to experience and live in. It is very special. Coming with Mo Ibrahim Foundation to champion the youth agenda is really important. I have been doing this for a while — empowering the young people who now make up the largest population of Africa — to take on leadership and governance,” he says.
“A few months ago, I recorded a song with Sauti Sol. There was great connection and I’m really excited about the project because it is part of the activism I am currently engaged in,” Youssou N’Dour told Lifestyle, adding that the song is yet to be released.
Sauti Sol is a popular award-winning Kenyan band that has previously worked with other top African artistes.
His last visit to Kenya was in 2011 when he visited famine-stricken communities and the Dadaab refugee camp as a Unicef goodwill ambassador.
Youssou N’dour, who is also planning to work with Kenya’s Sol Generation signee Nviiri the Storyteller, has already collaborated with Nigeria’s Burna Boy — one of Africa’s most talked about international artiste.
“I heard Burna Boy was looking for me. It was quite a surprise. He tweeted it and it was actually my son who saw it and informed me. That’s how I ended up recording the intro to his song Level Up,” he said.
But Youssou N’Dour says he views the role of fame and artistes differently.
“Africa should focus on raising awareness on development goals using the influence of young famous artistes such as Sauti Sol, Burna Boy, among others. We must rely on the cultural sector, on events such as the concerts because they add value. Imagine using well-known artistes as ambassadors who work and cooperate with those in the grassroots. Imagine the number of people they could reach with their messages,” he said.
Recounting his rise to stardom in the 1980s and 1990s — having started music as a teenager in the 1970s — Youssou N’Dour says he was quite an inconspicuous figure, far from the strong political opinions and eccentricities of other big names of the same era like Nigerian Fela Kuti. Youssou N’Dour had little interest in politics at the time, focusing on his music career.
He credits his rise to global fame to the era where the so-called “world music” category (folk music from developing countries, sometimes infusing Western music) was sought after in the West. It is a reference that has over the years fallen out of favour and Youssou N’Dour thinks it’s actually a misnomer.
“Africa has never been late; it’s just a perception. We are the source of music. Everything you see being done on the world stage has been inspired by something from Africa. Look at what Fela Kuti did. I remember in the 1980s when international pop artistes were more willing and open to doing collaborations with African singers. Our musicians had great connections with a lot of great artistes, the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sting, Paul Simon, among others. When I played with (American legendary singer) Paul Simon, the music was very good and the western Press gave it the name ‘world music’ yet Africans had been doing great music before,” he said, expressing his strong views about the ‘othering’ of African music as something exotic or alien.
The term “world music” has over the years faded but some in the West still revive it to refer to Afro beat.
“When we embarked on this journey with the likes of Papa Wemba (Democratic Republic of Congo), Salif Keita (Mali), Baaba Maal (Senegal) we made it clear that the collaborations were between pop and African music and not just music from developing countries — music was already our origin,” he says.
Youssou N’Dour was already a widely celebrated innovator in Senegal by the time the global audience first heard his soaring multi-octave voice on veteran English singer Peter Gabriel 1986 hit, In Your Eyes.
Together with his long-time band Super Etoile de Dakar, Youssou N’Dour had been a key figure in the multicultural “mbalax” musical style of the late 1970s and 1980s. He gives immense credit to the reigning Western pop stars of the time for plunging him into the international stage through collaborations and tours.
At the turn of the decade in the 1990s, Youssou N’Dour had achieved the status of a music icon similar to Fela Kuti or Alpha Blondy.
His “mbalax” music was now commercially successful not only in Senegal and Europe but also in North America, becoming a proud symbol of success in his native land.
In 2004, the Rolling Stone magazine described him as “perhaps the most famous singer alive” in Senegal and much of Africa.
Youssou N’Dour remains a major player in his country. He runs a media empire Television Futurs Medias (TFM) launched in 2010 which includes radio and television stations.
“I do have a media house which happens to be the number one in Senegal dealing in TV and radio but I am not involved in its operations. I have people who have proved to be good that I have entrusted with running the organisation,” he said.
I asked him if he is the richest musician in Africa as it has been widely reported by several African websites placing his net worth at more than $145 million (Sh19.8 billion). His answer was rather evasive.
“It all started with music then you end up making some money that you invest. Some people end up buying property and I am not saying I don’t have those as well. But what I decided to do is focus on investments that create employment for the youth. And this is why I started my media house where we have so many youths working,” he said.
Reflecting on his short time as a minister of Tourism and Culture between 2012 and 2013 and a politician, Youssou N’Dour says it was not as easy as he initially thought.
“The truth is that when you are on the outside you see things not working as they should and you tend to think as soon as you walk in you will just press a button and everything will suddenly change. But that’s not the case. It takes time. But what I am proud of is the fact that people look at me as an icon and understand that you don’t necessarily need to be prepared to be a politician. Since I left,quite a majority of young people are joining politics to try and bring change. It’s something I once said in the beginning that I will come in and once I leave, there will be others after me, and this is something I am most proud of,” he said.
Having taken a distance from politics during his early musical career, in January 2012 Youssou N’Dour decided to run for presidency to unseat the then president Abdoulaye Wade while still recording albums and touring West Africa.
He was, however, disqualified over the legitimacy of the signatures he had collected to endorse his campaign. He then backed the opposition candidate Macky Sall, who won the election in March of that year.
The artiste was then appointed minister of Culture and Tourism and later his portfolio was modified to Minister of Tourism and Leisure.
He was, however, removed in a Cabinet reshuffle in September 2013 and instead appointed Special Adviser to President Sall with the rank of minister and tasked to promote the country abroad.
Will he be running for the presidency again?
“Right now, that is not my priority. This is not something I am thinking about right now. I am rather focusing on working on my two new albums (35th and 36th) as I continue to champion the youth and better governance in Africa,” he told Lifestyle.