Youssou N’Dour’s Protest Song, TIME by Alex Perry

Youssou NDour on the cover of time! Must blog it. Article by Alex Perry. Reported by Aurelie Fontaine / Dakar. Photo: Marco Grob. Looking forward to comments both pro & con. How do you feel about Youssou’s role in politics? In your opinion is the article well reported? Does it reflect the sentiment of Senegal from a Senegalese point of view?

There’s a tang of tear gas as Youssou N’Dour pops up through the sunroof of his car.

Africa’s most famous living musician is on the edge of Independence Square in downtown Dakar, Senegal, surrounded by 50 journalists and 100 supporters and, beyond them, a line of 100 riot police fingering plastic bullets and a water cannon mounted on an armored truck.

Behind N’Dour the police truck is revving its engine, pushing forward into the crowd. N’Dour looks worried, glancing back over his shoulder. But he’s also angry. “This is the problem in Senegal,” shouts the 52-year-old, indicating the police. “They are afraid of real change. But they don’t have the right to stop us. These police are our police. We will be back. We will pursue this fight to the end. We will continue.” And with that, his minders hustle him away.

N’Dour is finding there are ups and downs to running for President in his native Senegal. As someone who is to African music what Michael Jackson was to pop, he draws the crowds. On the other hand, his high profile also attracted the attention of Senegal’s ruling regime, which barred his candidacy on Jan. 27, just 25 days after he announced it, while simultaneously allowing the 85-year-old incumbent, President Abdoulaye Wade, to run for a third term. Thwarted, N’Dour must now content himself with being one leader among many — and a political novice at that — in a fractious, disorganized opposition protest movement that aims to unseat Wade in an election on Feb. 26. So far at least five demonstrators have been killed in clashes with security forces. Asked to describe his new life, N’Dour replies: “Confused.”

But not crushed. N’Dour is naturally quiet and reflective, but his younger brother Bouba says in politics N’Dour is discovering a “much more aggressive” sense of purpose. N’Dour tells TIME he is now set on building a national political movement ahead of legislative elections in June and an eventual second run at the presidency. The key to his appeal is his reputation for integrity; he is the musician who never forgot his roots, the self-made millionaire who distributes mosquito nets in Dakar’s backstreets, the global star who stayed home. His friend and frequent collaborator, New Orleans jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, says the move into politics makes sense “because of his sincerity. Politics is the art of insincerity. But every now and then a person can sweep in.” N’Dour says circumstances, and the sky-high stakes, simply give him no choice. “We’re building a new Africa,” he says. “We want a continent where power is returned to the people and we don’t have these tyrants. This is the start of the biggest political fight in Senegal’s history. But we also hope the spirit of our struggle will inspire other African countries that need change to create a continent founded on legality and democracy.”

(MORE: Can Senegal, and Youssou N’Dour, Turn the Tide on Africa’s Big Men?)

It sounds momentous, something like an African Spring. Coupled with Africa’s surging business prospects — the International Monetary Fund says seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies in the next decade will be African — such a continental sweeping away of Africa’s remaining Big Men might even herald the arrival of an African renaissance. Equally, the spark may fail to take and Senegal could hurtle toward violent insurrection and repression. Leonardo Villalón, professor of African politics and a Senegal specialist at the University of Florida, says: “Anything could happen. Whatever does, the implications, for Senegal, and the region, are enormous.”

Local HeroYoussou N’Dour was born in october 1959 in the neighborhood of Medina in Senegal’s dusty, seaside capital, Dakar. Dakar is both a city of skyscrapers and a place where goats still wander sandy streets. Medina is rough and tough, a place for hustling and street smarts. N’Dour’s father was a carpenter and his mother an illiterate housewife. But his mother’s side belonged to a caste of musical storytellers — griots — and as a boy N’Dour spent much of his time at his grandmother’s house, surrounded by musicians. At 11, he quit school; by 12, he was singing with a theater group; at 13, he recorded his first song. By his late 20s, he was lead singer of Dakar Super Etoile (Dakar Superstar), a UNICEF ambassador, signed to Virgin Records and on regular tours of Europe and the U.S., where he was quickly crowned the new king of world music. Marsalis remembers hearing N’Dour play in the late 1980s when the pair performed on an Amnesty International tour with Sting, U2, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel. “Youssou was the wild card,” says Marsalis, who was in Sting’s band. “I see these Africans. And they’re up there nailing it, killing it. I was completely wowed. He’s a master musician.”

N’Dour’s global fame grew through collaborations with artists like Marsalis, particularly a 1993 duet with Neneh Cherry, “7 Seconds.” But while other successful African artists left for Paris or New York City, N’Dour stayed in Senegal. True to his Medina roots, he became a canny businessman, opening a nightclub and later a radio station, a newspaper and a TV station.

MORE: Senegal’s Revolutionary Rappers Fight the Power

As N’Dour’s star rose in entertainment and business, his ascent was matched in politics by a liberal-democrat opposition leader called Abdoulaye Wade. Senegal was a one-party state ruled, for its first 40 years of independence, by just two Presidents, and Wade demanded reform. Wade and N’Dour became friends and had an informal alliance. Wade would rail about the need for freedom and democracy (and, as if to prove his point, the regime jailed him for three months in prison in 1994 for sedition). Following the griot tradition of social commentary by singing about poverty, education and democracy, N’Dour provided the sound track. Wade was swept to power on a tide of youthful resentment in elections in 2000. And for his first few years in office, the new President delivered reform, dismantling the old networks of corruption, cutting the powers of the executive, unveiling a new liberal constitution, investing in infrastructure, health and education.

Even before he took power, however, some questioned whether Wade was sincere. Concerns grew with each passing year of his rule, as he began to undo many of his initial reforms. “He shrunk the National Assembly, he eliminated the Senate, he undid the patronage machine only to rebuild it all in a few years,” says Villalón. “It was all aimed at staying in power.” After promising to serve only one term, Wade stood again, and won, in 2007. By then, he had made his son Karim a presidential adviser and many concluded that their then 80-year-old President was planning a dynastic succession. The regime, meanwhile, was amassing a fortune — used to purchase bulletproof Hummers and build luxury apartments — through corruption, especially money laundering via real estate deals. In 2010, according to a diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador to Senegal, Marcia Bernicat, listed 49 cases of alleged corruption that had been referred by Senegal’s financial-investigation unit to the state prosecutor, none of which had resulted in a trial.

(MORE: From Malawi to Senegal, Signs of a Sub-Saharan ‘Arab Spring’)

There was also no doubting Wade’s increasing self-regard. He dismissed opponents as hopeless, claiming only he was capable of running the country. One project in particular became a focus for popular anger: a 50-m-high bronze statue built on a headland in Dakar that portrays, in Stalinist style, a muscled Senegalese hero gripping his woman with one arm and with the other hoisting a baby who is pointing out to sea, where the child has apparently spotted a bright future appearing on the horizon. “No one here can believe we’re dealing with the same Wade,” says Wade’s former Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio.

A Step Too FarFor the past half-century, senegalese have regarded their country as an island of stability and sophistication on the tip of a turbulent continent. So in 2009, when Wade announced his intention to stand for another five-year term, in defiance of a constitution that limits Presidents to two, he sparked a tide of righteous fury that swept Senegal, reaching far beyond the political arena and making new activists of thousands, particularly the young. Pro-democracy and civil-society groups sprang up. Scores of new anti-Wade newspapers detailed the regime’s excesses. Anti-Wade graffiti appeared across Dakar. Much of the anger coalesced around a rap duo, Kilifeu and Thiat, from the Dakar group Keur Gui, and their journalist friend, Fadel Barro. The trio named their movement after Keur Gui’s fuming denunciation of the state of their nation, Y’en a Marre, whose closest English translation would be an incensed version of “I’m Fed Up.”

Rather than seeking change at the ballot box by backing a particular candidate or party, Y’en a Marre campaigns for a raised political consciousness, arguing that Senegalese will get the leaders they want if they first prove they deserve them. Africa’s Big Men only exist by the complicity of Small People, they say. In Senegal, that’s reinforced by an indigenous strand of Sufi Islam, originally conceived as a spiritual response to centuries of violent colonialism and slavery that encourages passivity, acceptance and detachment. What’s required, says Y’en a Marre, is a change in mind-set, a reinvigorated spirit of civic responsibility: demanding political rights and fighting corruption, yes, but also turning up to meetings on time, being a good neighbor and not littering. “We call it NTS: New Type of Senegalese,” says Kilifeu, at the tiny, bare-walled apartment he shares with Thiat in Dakar’s backstreets that has become Y’en a Marre’s headquarters. “You can know a country by its President. When a President is bad, it’s because the people are bad. We have to take back responsibility for our own destiny. It’s what Kennedy said: ‘Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.'”

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

One citizen who heeded the call was N’Dour. After all, as a self-made man from Medina who ran health campaigns and did not shy from highlighting leadership failings in Africa, he was an early NTS prototype. Last year N’Dour put his 40-year music career on hold and founded his own civil-society movement as an ally to Y’en a Marre under the banner Fekke Ma Ci Bole, which means “I Am a Witness and I Must Act.” Says N’Dour: “This is about patriotic civil duty. I am a citizen of this country and I see the situation here deteriorating. Rights and civil liberties are being degraded. It’s almost beyond belief. We need to engage the people in conversation, give them a say in their own lives, and I am one guy who can do that. I respect music, I do, I love it, but we are talking about the country. I cannot just sit and watch it happen. I have to stand up and fight.”

Ripe for ResistanceThe opposition has had some success. When last June Wade tried to change Senegal’s constitution to allow him to win re-election if he scored just 25% of the vote in the first of two rounds of voting — a measure that seemed tailored to allow the election of an unpopular President like himself — Y’en a Marre held mass demonstrations in Dakar that quickly deteriorated into running battles with the police and forced Wade to back down. But the movement has had failures too. On Jan. 27 came the Constitutional Council ruling — by five presidential appointees who it is alleged had recently received new cars and a 250% pay rise — that N’Dour’s candidacy was illegitimate but Wade’s was legal, as the two-term limit did not exist during his first term and therefore did not apply to him. More disappointment seems likely. Opposition activists and Western diplomats in Dakar claim Wade is trying to manipulate the vote. Both say they have evidence that hundreds of thousands of voter-identity cards have not been distributed in opposition areas and that it seems that Wade’s party is preparing to stuff ballot boxes with votes from fictitious supporters. Wade has made no comment on these allegations and declined to give TIME an interview, although his spokesman denied that he was trying to fix the election.

On the other hand, if cheating does take place, it will likely provoke a strong popular reaction. “It’s very, very dangerous at the moment,” says Paul Melly, a West Africa specialist at the London think tank Chatham House. “If Wade wins and people think the result was achieved unfairly, all bets are off.”

The big, continental question is whether this resistance will spread south of the Sahara, the way the Arab Spring swept the north of the continent. The dynamic of a poor, resentful and youthful majority pitted against an elderly, powerful and moneyed elite is hardly unique to Senegal, and Senegal’s historic reputation as one of Africa’s more progressive nations ensures that its struggle will be closely watched, not least by those who want, or fear, the same in their own country. “Africa is a young place, and the really vibrant political force is the urban youth: frustrated, relatively underemployed, with fairly realistic pessimism about their life prospects,” says Villalón. “Anyone who can capture the promise of change for the youth can really mobilize on that.” That’s certainly the opposition’s ambition. “It’s the fight of a new African generation,” says Y’en a Marre’s Barro. Adds Gadio: “This could be the spark that tells the world that Africa is trying to face down its dictators, that the old Africa is dying and a new one is coming to life.”

Two months into his new career, N’Dour is not yet the political figure to lead that resurrection. But his presence is already key, particularly because of the attention he attracts to Senegal’s struggle. N’Dour has drawn scores of foreign journalists to Senegal to cover what, as an election in a small West African country of 12 million, would normally elicit little interest. High-profile friends are also adding their weight. The U.N. special envoy for malaria, Ray Chambers, who has worked with N’Dour, tells TIME that N’Dour would make “a great and noncorruptible” leader. N’Dour’s former label manager, Richard Branson, who has experience of African governance through Virgin Airlines, describes N’Dour’s entry into African politics as a “breath of fresh air.” Branson continues: “The most important thing in Africa is to have [a leader] who is 100% honest. And Youssou is completely transparent.”

At his offices in Dakar, his back to a cabinet of awards, including a Grammy, N’Dour tells TIME: “This is the beginning of a change in Africa’s mentality, something to make a new Senegal and a new Africa. It’s a long struggle. It will not be easy. But I am sure all these injustices will eventually be swept away. This is my commitment, and we will continue to fight.” As long as he does, Africa, and the world, will be watching.

Cover story, March 5, 2012, Europe edition, by Alex Perry
— with reporting by Aurelie Fontaine / Dakar

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