Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour announced on Jan. 2 that he’d be running for the presidency of his native country in elections on Feb. 26. Known as Africa’s most famous living singer, N’Dour is hoping that he can turn his popularity into votes.
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Best known among international audiences for his 1994 song “Seven Seconds” with Neneh Cherry, N’Dour won a Grammy in 2005 for the album Egypt. He performs a style of traditional music known as mbalax.
Now at age 52, N’Dour, who has never held elected office before, hopes to defeat presidential incumbent Abdoulaye Wade.
This summer, Senegalese protestors took to the streets to rally against Wade’s efforts to implement constitutional changes that would have helped ensure him a third term. As a result, Wade, 85, has backed down from seeking those changes, but is still running in the election.
N’Dour told TIME magazine his reasons for throwing his hat in the ring and what he hopes to do if he’s elected.
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.
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Entering the race just a few weeks before elections, it’s hard to gauge N’Dour’s chances as he joins an already crowded field of more than a dozen candidates. Some critics argue that N’Dour should have thrown his support behind another opposition candidate to oust Wade who has come under fire for years of accusations of corruption, nepotism and attacks against personal freedoms.
However, where he may be lacking in political and academic credentials, N’Dour has been politically active. He’s worked on Amnesty International events with other pop stars like Sting and Bruce Springsteen and as an U.N. goodwill ambassador, supporting anti-malaria campaigns and awareness about the crisis in the Darfur.
N’Dour told the New York Times:
“It’s true that I haven’t pursued higher education,” but “I have proved my competence, commitment, rigor and efficiency time and time again,” he said. “I have studied at the school of the world. Travel teaches as much as books.”
In fact, N’Dour’s far from the only pop star to seek office. With varying degrees of success from Wyclef Jean to Ruben Blades, singers have eyed the political arena.
Now it’s N’Dour’s turn. What do you think of his chances?