Is Youssou N’dour qualified to be President?

Al Jazeera English’s “The Stream” have been focusing a lot on African news themes lately: first South Africa’s ANC’s 100th anniversary; then yesteryday they dedicated the half hour program to #OccupyNigeria. The producers invited journalist Omoyele Sowore of SaharaReporters, Afrobeat musician Sean Kuti (who have been prominent in marches), and Gbenga Sesan from the group Enough is Enough Nigeria. Lively discussion ensued as, among others, Nigerian and international media’s role in the events also come under scrutiny. Later today (2.30pm Eastern Standard Time) they’re continuing the focus on African themes when Senegalese singer Youssou N’dour’s run for president gets an airing. Word is N’dour will be on the program. It will be interesting to see how they tackle N’dour’s candidacy, reported thus far in breathless tones in Western media.

The truth is, most serious analysts don’t give N’dour a chance and in some quarters his candidacy is viewed as a publicity stunt. N’dour, who has a large fan base outside Senegal because of his pop sound, has no electoral organization in place; he enters a a crowded opposition field; and the incumbent (Abdoulaye Wade) is an experienced campaigner who has built an impeccable electoral machinery. As historian Mamadou Diouf told The New York Times: “Because of his [musical] success, [N’dour] is the most popular artist in the whole history of Senegal. But it’s going to be hard for him to advance even to the runoff because he doesn’t have political experience or an organization.” N’dour will also have to shake the perception that he is an opportunist and that he is just a pop star. Until recently N’dour was an ally of Wade and some critics associated his business success–he owns a range of broadcast and print media in the country–to that association. (Btw, in one of the strangest pieces I have read recently in the Financial Times, Robert Novak’s son in law Christopher Caldwell in his regular column went after N’dour for this very reason. Caldwell basically endorsed Wade.)

One other decisive factor is N’dour’s shaky relationship to traditional Sufi religious authorities who have some sway in electoral politics. (Wade is very deferential to them.) In the past N’dour has riled them. In the most famous case, in 2004 N’dour recorded an album, “Egypt,” of Sufi Islamic praise music with the Egyptian national orchestra. The album won him a Grammy (it’s beautiful music; I play it in the car sometimes on occasional trips out of state), but it was controversial in Senegal. With the album, N’dour sought to counter negative perceptions of Islam in the West in the wake of 9/11. Sufi adherents did not feel their very relaxed brand of Islam had anything to do with fundamentalist versions of the religion and that N’dour was dragging them into a rhetoral war they did not want to be part of. (The album controversy forms the heart of the 2008 documentary “I Bring What I Love” — including objections by some Senegalese that the filmmakers not film holy sites and religious rituals.) For a while, record stores were discouraged from selling it and radio DJs did not want to play any of the songs on the album. I wonder if N’dour has lived that down. More recently, N’dour has flirted with the extraparliamentary opposition to Wade which is led by a new generation of Senegalese music stars, mostly rappers who have taken his place in popular culture at home who don’t necessarily see him as a political leader. In 2009, for example, N’dour recorded a song to condemn the government’s handling of the electricity crisis, but he is not considered a central part of the rappers’ struggle. (Some of them are the focus of the 2008 documentary “Democracy in Dakar”; the other is the rapper Awadi.)

The program should make for interesting viewing.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is the Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country. He is on faculty of The New School in New York.


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