Q&A with Youssou N’dour: Why the Musician Wants to Be President

Africa’s most famous living singer, Youssou N’Dour, announced Jan. 2 he would run for the presidency of his native Senegal at elections on February 26. He spoke to TIME’s African bureau chief Alex Perry from his hometown, Dakar, a few days later.

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Aliou Mbaye / Landov

Singer Youssou Ndour, leader of the movement 'Fekke Ma Ci Boole', during the 23 June Movement (M23) rally called 'Congress of the People' at the Obelisk Square on December 23, 2011 in Dakar, Senegal.

Why are you running?

Youssou N’Dour: Firstly, I am a citizen of this country and I see the situation here deteriorating. Rights and civil liberties are being degraded. I cannot sit back and watch them diminish further. Secondly, more than a million people have, directly or indirectly, called for my candidacy. And thirdly, I do not have confidence in the way elections are conducted in this country. My joining the race will shed some light on it, bring some attention, some transparency.

What’s your vision for Senegal?

After my Presidency, this is the Senegal you will see: a moderate state, not a huge, encumbering state; where children are going to school; where AIDS and malaria programs are effective; where the country is clean and managed in an environmentally friendly way, just as well as Rwanda; more democracy, good governance; free, fair and transparent elections, safeguarded by an independent electoral commission; and robust institutions, which I think are the key to democracy.

Presumably it helps being a superstar when you’re running for office?

It helps. But it also brings a challenge. I have to change people’s perceptions of me from a superstar, as you put it, to someone with a credible story and with something meaningful to say. I have to convince the voters that I am sincere and have something significant to offer.

You used to say you had enough influence to be able to effect the social changes you wanted without joining politics. You’ve run numerous successful health and poverty alleviation initiatives. What changed your mind?

One reason is, as I’ve mentioned, how badly things have deteriorated in this country. It’s almost beyond belief. The President [Abdoulaye Wade] is 85 or 87 – maybe older, who knows? – and he is battling the Constitution so that he can stay in power. He does not have the right to stand again! And I cannot just sit and watch it happen. I have to stand up and fight.

Perhaps a second reason is these things take time. They say that in politics you do not fall pregnant overnight. Things take a while to grow and blossom.

Last year Senegal saw the rise of the “J’en ai marre” (“I’ve had enough”) movement led by two Senegalese rappers against President Wade’s attempts to hold onto power. You’ve always been outspoken. What’s the connection between music and politics in Senegal, and Africa?

Music in Africa often contains messages. Music in Senegal, and Africa, is never music for music’s sake or solely for entertainment. It’s always a vehicle for social connections, discussions and ideas. Hip-hop might be a little more crude but we’re saying the same thing. And we have to use every means at our disposal to talk about the things that are not right with our country.

Are you trying to stage a kind of peaceful, musical African Spring?

I respect music, I do. I love it. But we are talking about the country and that’s more important. The nation of Senegal is far more important than all of us [musicians] put together. This is about patriotic civil duty. More than that, what we are doing here is a model or a new Africa, one where power is returned to the people.

The situation in Senegal is different to the Arab Spring.  For one thing, the West has been indifferent to what is going on here. The President is at war with his own country’s constitution and we are just not hearing from them, none of them has said anything – maybe because we have no oil or diamonds.

But you might be able to draw parallels in the future if the Constitutional Court decision [on whether President Wade can stand a third time] is not approved by the people. Then it would only be their right to express their disapproval.

You have a newspaper, a radio station and a TV channel – you’re a media baron. What assurances do Senegalese have that you’re not going to abuse your resources to further your political career?

I can assure you that I have never used my media companies for propaganda, and I will never do so. If I am elected, I will step down from my companies and leave their management to someone else and they will be completely independent, and always will be. And look, I was popular in Senegal even before I had a media empire.

How qualified are you to be President?

I am capable of running this country, of growing this country. I have the skills. I will surround myself with the best experts and the best Senegalese professionals there are.

But I will also govern in a different way. I can speak French or English, yes, but I speak the language of the people. I can talk to the people in a way that they can understand me. And that’s what’s missing in Senegal, that’s what needs to happen: power needs to come back to the people, we need to engage the people in conversation, to give them a say in their own lives and I am the guy to do that.

You said you hoped what you are doing in Senegal would be an example of a new Africa.

I don’t want to see that two-tier Senegal, that two-tier Africa, when you have those at the top and those at the bottom, people who are hungry, people who do not have enough to eat. I want to reduce these lavish lifestyles [enjoyed by the government elite]. There is no reason why Senegal should have 54 ministries. Fifty-four! We have to reduce the cost of the state and with the savings we can achieve full education for all. That’s the new Africa. Efficient, cost-effective, and where you pursue the priorities the people have set.

Is this the end of your music?

I’ve contributed a lot to Senegalese music. I’ve written more than 500 songs, which amounts to about 60% of all Senegalese music. But for the time being, my music is on hold. Senegal and its future are far more important. They’re my priority.

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