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How Will N'Dour Use His Celebrity Now?

Posted: 02/15/2012 9:09 am

Youssou N'Dour's thwarted bid for the presidency of Senegal deserves attention in and outside Africa. By any standards N'Dour is a major hybrid musical/activist celebrity very different from the stereotypical image of the dominant "Big Man" in African politics.

Not only is N'Dour a 2005 Grammy winner for "Contemporary World Music" but he was the only Black African star to play at the 2005 Live 8 in Hyde Park. Indeed he combined his London appearance with two other events on the same day, traveling by helicopter and plane to the Eden "Africa calling" project in Cornwell and then to another Live 8 concert in Versailles. In 2007 he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential personalities in the world.

N'Dour hybridity is reinforced by his strong mix of commitment to local and global activities. Despite living and working overseas, family, artistic, and business ties with Senegal remain close and deep including the ownership of the TFM (Television Futurs Medias) radio and television station where he announced his candidacy.

At the same time N'Dour views himself as a de facto ambassador for the entire continent of Africa, with an obligation and need to represent it on the global stage. His interests have a strong functional tenor notably his role in the campaign to stop the flow of toxic wastes from north to south.

There is also a degree of hybridity in N'Dour's organizational role. Akin to many other well-known entertainers he was embedded in the UN system as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador (he recently stepped down). However, he also has close ties to a number of NGOs -- above all, ONE. I was at the media centre at the 2007 Heiligendamm G8 when N'Dour appeared with Bono and Bob Geldof carrying material from ONE to lobby George W. Bush on development and HIV/AIDS on the first day of the summit.

The big question is whether or not N'Dour can now stretch this sense of hybridity to allow him to capitalize on his identity as someone who is outside of the political elite of Senegal (with a modest background related to a mechanic father and griot, or praise singer, mother) but who has networked with the most powerful African personalities. Among other activities N'Dour played at the famous concert for Nelson Mandela's 46664 charity in Cape Town in 2003.

The decision by Senegal's constitutional court to rule N'Dour ineligible to run in next month's election stymies the opportunity for him to utilize his extraordinary personality to cut through the hard-edged and entrenched terrain of Senegalese politics. Yet it is not the first sign of a clash between his desire to promote change and the constraints imposed by the institutional status quo.

After all in the past N'Dour has raised the scope of his goals higher than was possible. At the African Union summit in 2007, N'Dour voiced support for the idea of a United States of Africa, and indicated that he would run for the united continent's first president. "Apart from all demagogy, I solemnly announce my candidacy for leading the future African government. I'm aware of the enormous stakes connected to this issue, and I have the required capacities."

This unrealized higher ambition can be interpreted in two very different ways. One interpretation is that in the same way that his campaign for leadership of a united Africa faded away, N'Dour will concede that the enormity of the task of unseating Senegal's longstanding leader, Abdoulaye Wade -- over 11 years in office -- is simply too great and withdraw from the race, calling on his supporters (as the U.S. ambassador to Senegal has suggested) to respect the decision of the court. Such an approach can be justified by the fact that there are 13 other candidates cleared to contest the February 26 election along with the incumbent.

An alternative view is that N'Dour will use the constitutional court's result (saying that many of the signatures listed as his supporters for the election could not be verified) to continue to galvanize the groundswell of discontent built over recent years has been galvanized by the marked deterioration of the situation in Senegal.

What is clear is that N'Dour does not possess the baggage that many other celebrities in the global South are associated with. Unlike George Weah in his 2005 presidential bid in Liberia, there was no charge that N'Dour had taken out foreign (French) citizenship thus losing his Senegalese citizenship and making him ineligible to run. Indeed there is no air of opportunism in N'Dour's efforts. Instead of rushing into a presidential campaign shortly after a long spell overseas, N'Dour was an authentic candidate with a strong and sustained track record of service.

Unlike Wyclef Jean in Haiti -- who was ruled ineligible on residency grounds in the 2010 Haitian election -- N'Dour's disconnect to the elite frees him from any image that he is a proxy candidate for an establishment family. And unlike Wyclef -- with his NGO Yele Haiti -- N'Dour's commercial and musical endeavours are free of any whiff of irregularities.

Together with this lack of negatives, N'Dour has the combination of positive traits that make him an extremely attractive candidate for the presidency of Senegal. A major theme in his music and life is the vision of straddling the Anglophone-Francophone, North/South, and religious divides, with tolerance being a central theme of his Egypt album released amid all the emotion of an inter-civilization clash in the post-9/11 environment. Yet, he has made choices on principle that have cut into his material benefits including a cancellation of a major tour to the U.S. in protest of the Iraq War.

Many of N'Dour's concerts over the years have ended with the cry of "Youssou pour le president." Up to now however he has resisted the temptations of national office, preferring to stay free on the outside of power to do, say, and sing what he wants. By curtailing his embrace of the political process in Senegal through electoral means, N'Dour's hybrid or straddling characteristics face an onerous albeit compelling test: stepping back from the political stage or engaging in peaceful protests along with opposition groups, civil society organizations, and disaffected youths in activities analogous to the Arab Spring.