The news that Youssou N’Dour, perhaps Africa’s most famous musician, is running for president of Senegal is not entirely unexpected—he had announced plans to “enter the political arena” last November. Canny observers might have spotted the telltale signs in a 2007 Guardian interview, when N’Dour claimed that “I don’t want to be a politician.” The political situation in Senegal has, admittedly, changed since then, as President Abdoulaye Wade unsuccessfully tried to enact reforms that would have greatly boosted his chances of winning a third term.
N’Dour is the latest in a long line of musicians seeking office. Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, twice tried to run for president of Nigeria and was disqualified each time. Senegal remains a democracy despite Wade’s efforts, so N’Dour should fare better. He will also avoid the fate of his onetime collaborator Wyclef Jean, who failed to meet the residency requirement for Haiti’s 2010 presidential election, as he has been based in Dakar throughout his career. In recent years, he has built a media empire there, as proprietor of a TV channel, radio station and L’Observateur, one of Senegal’s most popular newspapers. If that sounds reminiscent of the great Italian cruise-ship crooner Silvio Berlusconi, the comparison ends there—N’Dour is a practising Muslim, so Senegal’s presidential palace shouldn’t be hosting bunga bunga parties any time soon.
For the moment, N’Dour’s “artistic engagements” have been put on hold. If he wins, it may mark the end of a musical career that began at circumcision ceremonies forty years ago. In the 1970s he helped popularise mbala, an updating of traditional Njuup music, but his recordings date from the mid-1980s. An early album was titled Nelson Mandela, and in 1985 he organised a concert for his release.
As “world music” came into fashion in the 1980s, N’Dour emerged as one of its international stars, scoring a hit with his Peter Gabriel collaboration, “Shaking the Tree.” He has also worked with Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Paul Simon, among others.
Although N’Dour’s later releases have not been his most commercially successful, his recent work is seen to be among his best. On his 2004 album Egypt, he retreated from his poppy material and embraced traditional sounds, paying tribute to Senegalese Sufism and the music of west Africa and the Arab world.
If he wins the election, it seems likely that even as Senegal’s president N’Dour will always be best known for his world-conquering duet with Neneh Cherry, “7 Seconds.”