Senegalese Mega-Star Youssou N’Dour (extra credit blog post)
For my blog entry on world popular music, I decided to focus on Youssou N’Dour. Although he is virtually unknown in the states, he is somewhat of a mega star in Africa. I first learned about him two semesters ago, when I took an African music class, during the segment in which the class learned about modern genres of African music. N’Dour is a pioneer in the creation of a genre of African pop music known as mbalax. In addition to this, his music is not only catchy and fun, but it usually focuses on the political. He uses his star status as a platform to discuss many of the issues affecting Senegal, his native country, as well as the African continent as a whole.
Youssou N’Dour was born in Dakar, Senegal. His mother was a griot, or oral historian. In African culture, the position of griot is a traditional one, which must be passed on from generation to generation. However, although N ‘Dour had association with this through his mother’s lineage, he was not raised in the griot tradition. His parents were actually quite liberal, especially for the typical standards of Senegalese culture. N’Dour’s mother was of Wolof heritage, and his father was born of Serer heritage—both of these are two of the ethnic groups commonly found in Senegal. His parents allowed him the freedom to explore both cultures, which aided in him becoming well versed on the diversity of culture and music not only of Senegal but soon, on an international level as well. N’Dour learned to sing from his mother, and was already performing by the age of 12. At the age of 19, he joined the Star Band de Dakar. The Star band was a large group of musicians, formed in 1960. Its purpose was to celebrate the independence of Senegal. Various musicians have entered and left the group throughout the years, although N ‘Dour undoubtedly became the most famous member to ever have joined the ranks of the group. Two years after joining the Star Band, N’Dour took on the leadership role of the group and renamed them the Super E’toile de Dakar. It was under the direction of working with this new group that N’Dour pioneered the sound of mbalax—a mixture of western pop music, fused with other dance genres such as jazz or Latin, and blended with traditional African sounds of Senegal. This genre would eventually become the national dance music of both Senegal and Gambia.
Over the coming decades, N’Dour’s star status continued to rise. In the 1980’s, he became to receive international attention from musicians in the states, recording track and performing with heavy hitters of rock and pop such as Paul Sime and Peter Gabriel. He also accompanied Springsteen, Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Sting as a headliner on the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour. However, his presence on that tour was only a portion of N’Dour’s social activism. In the 80’s, N’Dour was also very socially and politically active, writing songs in relation to current political events such as the murder of activists Steven Biko and organizing a concert in 1985 to support the release of Nelson Mandela. N’Dour’s love of music has made him a touring beast, as he has spent much of his musical career which now spans over 40 years, touring, writing music, and releasing CD’s. In 2005, he won his first Grammy award for his album Egypt, in the category of Best Contemporary World Music.
N’Dour has also been active in film. He is the subject of the films Return to Gorée (2007) and Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love (2008). He also played the role of Olaudah Equiano in the 2006 film Amazing Grace. Equiano was a prominent figure in British history; he was a freed African slave who pioneered the movement in Britain to end the British slave trade.
As if he does not wear enough hats already, N’Dour is also an active politician and has been active in politics for some time. In 2000, he was nominated as the Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency of the United Nations. In 2012, N’Dour announced his bid to run for President of Senegal, but his run was unsuccessful. However, he was later appointed to the position of Minister of Culture and Tourism of Senegal. He remained in that post from April of 2012 until September of 2013. After expanding his portfolio into the fields of acting and politics, N’Dour finally made a return to music after a several year long hiatus in 2013, with the release of his 34th studio album entitled Afrika Rekk.
Youssou N’Dour is indeed a cultural icon, not only in Senegal, but throughout Africa. He has achieved such an iconic status through years of hard work and dedication to things which he is passionate about. His music career has spanned many decades and he has brought not only amazing dance music to the people but created an entire genre of dance music over the course of his career. Additionally, he is also a social activist and politician. He has used his celebrity status to bring awareness to many social and political issues which have plagued the people of Senegal and Africa for decades. He has been passionate about these issues so much so that they have caused him to run for president. Although he was not successful in his presidential run, he remained active in the political field for some time, until his musical roots called him back. I always find it interesting how some make it big as international stars and how others do not do so well in that respect. N’Dour has accomplished so much, but has still not achieved the mega-star status in the West as he has in Africa. However, mega-star or not, his celeb status does not take away from everything he has contributed to society on so many levels, ranging from his amazing ,musical contributions to his social awareness and activism, and much more.
The song I chose is a song I actually really enjoy. I first discovered it upon listening to some of N ‘Dour’s music for the class in which I learned about him. This song is called Toxiques and it carries a very political message centered around the toxic waste that came from Western nations and would often be dumped in areas of African land in water in the late 80’s and 90’s. This song is also an example of mbalax music.