Youssou N’Dour is one of the most famous musicians on the planet. “A singer with a voice so extraordinary,” Rolling Stone has said, “that the history of Africa seems locked inside it.”
Born in 1959 in Dakar, Senegal, N’Dour absorbed many musical and cultural influences, including American jazz, rock, and soul. But the driving force behind his life’s work remains firmly situated within his birthright as a griot—a descendant of a long line of oral historians cherished for their ancient tradition of telling their people’s history through song.
Griots, his grandmother would tell him, “are the keepers of our stories,” he says in I Bring What I Love, a new documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. It was his grandmother who taught him early on that music “is not just a way to have fun and celebrate life.” Music, she would say, is “a sacred vehicle for portraying, shaping, and even changing society.”
Growing up in Medina, one of Dakar’s poorest neighborhoods, N’Dour defied all odds to make a career in music. “My father had a big radio,” N’Dour tells me, “and we would sit together and listen to Umm Kulthum sing live every week from Cairo.” The Egyptian singer’s intoxicating voice poured from the speaker, inspiring him for years to come. “I was very surprised when I began to understand the songs of Umm Kulthum. She sang about love.”
When Kulthum passed away in 1975, N’Dour was fifteen. Her funeral marked one of the largest public gatherings in the history of the Middle East. N’Dour saw what he already sensed: that one person could have the ability to bring together a volatile region—divided politically and culturally—by harnessing the power of music.
He attended school but quickly fell in with the music scene. Unable to tell his father that he was pursuing music, he decided to flee Dakar. “It was a paradox because when I was young, my father loved music, but he didn’t want me to be a musician,” he says in the film. “My parents, like all parents, wanted me to go to school.”
So, along with Mbyae Dieye Faye, a childhood friend and percussionist, he set out for Gambia. Upon reaching Gambia, the duo happened upon a music club and made an arrangement to clean its dressing rooms in exchange for a place to sleep. Before they knew it, they were meeting and performing with some of the most popular musicians of the day. “It was the chance of a lifetime,” he says in the film.
N’Dour’s adventure in Gambia came to a halt when his father sent the police after him and he was swept back to Senegal. Determined to return to Gambia, he sold his shoes and scraped up enough money to purchase the boat fare. After subsequent run-ins with the authorities and having the dismay of his parents weighing on him, N’Dour decided he would have to make his future in music come true back home in Dakar.
To N’Dour and Faye, it wasn’t enough to excel at the popular music of the day. They wanted to transform music, to create something new. So in 1979 they emerged with a new band, Etoile de Dakar, and unleashed a form of music called mblax that took Senegal by storm.
N’Dour was twenty years old, and within six months the band earned enough money to purchase new instruments and to pay his father back for borrowing his car. But that was just the beginning. The band became instantly popular in Europe and then skyrocketed to international acclaim.
In September of 1988, N’Dour began performing with Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Sting, and other megastars on Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now!” benefit tour. It was during this tour, he tells me, that he “experienced how lyrics have power and can change things.” Yet N’Dour had also been working on social issues for some time. For example, three years earlier, in 1985, he had organized a concert that demanded the release of Nelson Mandela.
Then in 1989, N’Dour released an album called The Lion, which included a track, “Shaking The Tree,” featuring Peter Gabriel. The song’s lyrics declare a new era where women are now free to make their own choices. The song endows its listeners with the responsibility to break their preconceived notions of women. It hit #9 on the U.S. modern rock chart.
N’Dour’s following album, Set, came out only one year later, in 1990. Conveying themes ranging from run-ins with love to battling the brutal realities of toxic dumping in underdeveloped nations, the album is mind-blowing. And what makes the songs even more compelling is the fact that many are sung in N’Dour’s native language, Wolof.
The song that sticks out the most is the album’s title track. “Have a clear mind,” he sings, “Be pure in your heart/Be sure in your actions.” The Senegalese heard this song and took it literally to mean that they need to clean up their acts—starting with the garbage that was piling up in the streets. Set, N’Dour says, “speaks about cleaning and purifying the spirit, but the Senegalese applied it also [to] their streets, houses, walls. It was [an] incredible, very deep moment for me.”
By the late ’90s, N’Dour had toured the world and had released nearly a dozen albums. He had opened a recording studio and music venue, started his own record label, came to own Senegal’s largest newspaper and a radio station, was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and dedicated much of his time working tirelessly to end malaria. N’Dour is also involved in Project Joko, an initiative to open Internet cafes throughout Africa; the Stock Exchange of Visions Project; and Darfur relief.
But all of his work, in one way or another, could be said to tie back to listening to that big radio with his father when he was a boy.
“Umm Kulthum was something that we could all share—throughout the Muslim world, despite our differences, her music brought people together,” he says. “Although I haven’t done anything close to what Umm did in music, I’m trying to be part of that musical tradition. For me, through Umm, Egypt became more than a country, it is a concept of meeting, of sharing what we have in common.”
By 2000, it was that concept that N’Dour became compelled to further explore in a new album.
He decided to launch a new recording project, called Egypt, which would be his most personal and intimate project to date. The songs would honor Sufi Muslim saints who were at the heart of post-independence, post-colonial life in Senegal—saints and their stories, which had always remained at the center of his own life. He wanted to use the project to bring people together to understand a more tolerant view of Islam. “The Egypt album was my homage to Umm’s legacy, as well as my way of celebrating the Sufi guides of Senegal,” he tells me. The album was completed in 2001. But then, a few months before it was to be released, the United States was attacked. N’Dour decided he had to delay the release of the album indefinitely.
N’Dour was scheduled to embark on a highly anticipated, thirty-eight concert spring tour throughout North America in 2003. But only months before the tour began, the United States began its Shock and Awe campaign. “I cancelled my tour in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” he tells me. The tour was set to be the most extensive series of performances in North America in his entire career. N’Dour believed that the responsibility for disarming Iraq should have rested with the United Nations.
The prospect of losing big-ticket venues and a large source of revenue did not deflate N’Dour’s mood. “It was impossible,” he says, “to go party in a country which just declared war on another country.”
Finally in 2004, N’Dour released Egypt. N’Dour originally thought he would face criticism from Western audiences, but the West fell in love with the album. What he did not expect was that the project would wind up being heavily criticized as blasphemous and widely rejected throughout Senegal. People thought he had disrespected the Sufi saints.
But when it won a Grammy, people in his country began to accept the album.
“The Grammy certainly changed things,” he tells me. “People were proud that a Senegalese artist had brought back a Grammy to the country.”
Last fall, I had the chance to catch N’Dour’s live performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained that the concert was the kick-off event for a week-long citywide festival. “Muslim Voices” would be the largest celebration of Islamic cultures to ever take place in the United States, Bloomberg said.
Before you knew it, the entire audience of New Yorkers was dancing and clapping to a song chanting “Allah, Allah.” I stood up from my own seat, clumsily swaying and clapping off rhythm to the music and kept looking around amazed at what an incredible melting pot New York can be.
But more than that, I was amazed that a single man from Senegal had the ability to bridge cultural, political, and religious divides.
“I want to demonstrate that Africa is more than the continent of disease and war,” he tells me. “I’d like people to understand my life’s work better—my music, and especially what Islam means to me. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, and if audiences retain this from the film, I will be very happy.”