Youssou N’Dour Tries to Go from Music Superstar to President in Senegal

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World music fans know him as a giant, 30-somethings will instantly recognize his voice from the 1994 worldwide smash “7 seconds” and followers of West African politics will, as of this week, know him as a candidate for President in Senegal’s February 26 election. But to  see how big Youssou N’Dour really is, you need to hang out with him in his native Dakar, Senegal’s capital. Two and a half years ago, TIME sent its then Dakar correspondent, Joost van Egmond, to do just that as the superstar toured the city as part of a campaign to cut malaria. When Youssou N’Dour holds a ‘caravane’, wrote Joost, “things get hectic.”

(READ: Youssou N’Dour on Senegal.)

He goes on:

Children and adults chase his 4-wheel drive through the poorer suburbs of Dakar. Running alongside the motorcade is Abdelaziz, a sunglasses seller. He knows all about what he calls “the Youssou campaign.” “It’s good that Youssou organizes this,” he pants, his plastic glasses on a board over his shoulder. “The fight against malaria is very important. We all have to be more aware of the disease.”

Later Joost noted N’Dour was only too aware of his fame and influence. In Senegal, he was not only the country’s most famous singer

but also a media baron. Among his empire is a newspaper, and a radio and television station. Talking of N’Dour’s long involvement in social work, Boubacar N’Dour, Youssou’s brother and manager, says: “We probably achieve more in a week than others do in decades. This has always been about more than being a singer.” The singer himself adds: “We are conscious of our influence and we want to use it to do good things. I have a big responsibility and that can be hard, but I’m ready for it.”

Even back then, N’Dour was continually assailed by petitioners asking when he would run for President.

Boubacar doesn’t deny his brother is popular enough to be President. But he says blithely: “He doesn’t need it. He probably already has all the tools to do what he wants.” As for N’Dour himself, his persistent reply is that he’s happy to stay a musician. That doesn’t mean staying out of politics. “People need an alternative to politicians to help improve their situation,” says N’Dour. “We don’t have a specific program, but if we see a problem, we’ll try to tackle it.”

As N’Dour made clear as he announced his candidacy for President on his own TV channel on Monday, he views as a real problem attempts by the elderly incumbent, 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, to stay in power. Under Senegal’s constitution, Wade is not allowed to serve a third term. Wade argues, however, that he should be allowed to stay on as President as the constitution did not exist in its current form when he was first elected. When Wade tried to change the electoral rules in his favor last June, riots swept Dakar in which 100 people were injured. The violence was the culmination of years of frustration, said N’Dour during his announcement on Monday. “For a long time, men and women have demonstrated their optimism, dreaming of a new Senegal. They have, in various ways, called for my candidacy in the February presidential race. I listened. I heard.”

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