Monday, January 23, 2012

From Pop to Politics


The tall lean figure robed in flowing garb crisscrosses the stage reciting poetic lines to the wild excitement of the London crowd. Although the words are in a tongue they can’t tell, the artiste is doing his thing in Serer and French, the multitudes’ euphoric ecstasy is triggered by the musicality of his powerful vocals embellished with the acoustic beats of West African drums.

Welcome to the world of Youssou N’Duor, the man’s whose high standing in the global music scene is underlined by the numerous awards he has bagged in a career stretching across three decades, including a Grammy for his 2005 religious album Egypt besides being a subject of two movies. As an astute performer and entrepreneur, the currency of power in Youssou’s kingdom stretches beyond music to media and humanitarian interests.

And now the ambitious Senegalese maestro has trained his guns a league higher by declaring his candidature for the country’s presidency. Many critics have been quick to say that the 52 year-old super star is biting more than his musical teeth can chew, but Youssou has vowed to take the political bull by its balls.

“For a very long time, many Senegalese of different backgrounds have called for my candidacy for the presidency next February,” N’duor said during his official declaration in his private radio and television stations. “I’ve listened, I have heard and I am responding favourably to their request. I am a candidate. It’s a supreme patriotic duty, the best I can give of myself. I am the current alternative to the current leadership in place in the country”.

However the popular musician, percussionist and occasional actor has his work clearly cut for he is joining a crowded field of more than 20 candidates, all seeking to unseat incumbent President and former N’Duor confidant Abdoulaye Wade whose quest for a controversial third term have triggered a huge political storm.

With the African political landscape is littered with numerous celebrities who thought they could convert their stardom into votes but, despite their larger than life image, were humbled at the ballot box, will the Unicef Goodwill Ambassador be able to translate his glamour and glitz into a blocking vote big enough to floor a sitting head of state entrenched in power for a decade?

“It’s good enough that he makes good music,” 26 year-old Abdou Nguom told a local newspaper. “Politics is made of treason and low blows. I am sure that real politicians will not help him”.

The same sentiments are echoed by Ivorian reggae legend Alpha Blonde who cautions N’Duor not expect the passionate reception he receives while performing upstage but to gear up for hard reality of backstabbing and blatant betrayal that characterizes competitive politics.

“Everyone has his own personal experience, but to jump onto the political landscape from music is dangerous,” Blondy was quoted in the Ivorian media warning his colleague. “I personally don’t believe that being an excellent musician can make one an excellent politician…I really do not know who encouraged him or maybe he was inspired by Michel Martelly in Haiti, but I don’t know”.

Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly is a popular singer who won the Haitian presidency last year to join a handful of individuals across the globe who have made a successful leap from “pop to politics”. Wycleff Jean, a famous star who partnered with N’Dour to churn hit like How Come and Canibus, was banned from participating in those elections because of citizenship illegalities.

“If he (Youssou) has decided to become a citizen of the village of politicians, he should learn the laws of the game whereby all blows are allowed and especially undercuts, bloody coup d’├ętats…he has to remember that especially,” Blondy, whose political escapades has landed him in trouble with authorities numerous times, advised. “He (Youssou) could be an inspired musician, but could he become an inspired politician?”

Others have pointed out that Ndour risks losing the credibility of his high circulating anti-government newspaper, radio and television stations all of which will be perceived as part of his campaign’s mouthpieces.

However, there are those who think that this pop star, once described by the Rolling Stone as “a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it”, is the right man to rock and row the Senegalese political bought in the right direction since the masses are yearning for a break from the traditional political class.

“Although I do not really know how the next elections will go since ones votes is his own secret, I believe Youssou N’Dour has what it takes to steer Senegal in the right direction,” explains Bakary Coulibaly, a journalist who works in Dakar. “He has merit in any case, he has good track record but we will see”.

Some political commentators are also banking on the musicians appeal and humanitarian work in his country to get him the numbers he need to ascend to power.
“Youssou N’Dour is more than a famous musician, he’s an institution in Senegal, one of the most revered celebrities in the country,” Carlos Oya of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London told the BBC News Magazine. “Apart from his music, he’s been actively promoting art and music for the grassroots, engaging lots of different people especially youth, to take a more active role in society”.

Whether the Grammy-winning music icon fails in his presidential bid or not he will not be the first, and probably not the last, celebrity to vie for high political office.

Although he was not a musician, Liberian soccer legend George Tawlon Oppong Weah commanded a fanatical following in his homeland. The 46 year-old earned his place in the hall of fame during his playing days when he traversed through Europe like a colossus, playing for major clubs like AC Milan, Monaco and Chelsea besides attaining a feat that no other African footballer has marched by winning the FIFA World Player of the Year Award in 1995.

Apart from football, Weah has also initiated numerous projects in Liberia meant to uplift the welfare of impoverished youths. He released Lively Up Africa, a music video featuring several African soccer stars whose proceeds went to the welfare of children both in Liberia and other countries. He is also the founder and president of Junior Professionals whose numerous players, recruited from all over Liberia, has gone on to play for the national team Lone Star.

Therefore, when he declared his interest in the presidency many assumed it was a foregone conclusion given that no other Liberian could match his popularity at the time. But this turned out different as Weah found himself on the receiving end during the 2005 presidential campaigns.

Opponents dismissed him as a “babe-in-the-woods” with no political experience or relevant academic credentials compared to the highly learned Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who had previously held powerful positions at the, Citi Bank, World Bank and the United Nations.

Despite Weah’s display of an athletic mien and a flashy celebrity image, Liberians still opted for the frail-looking but Harvard-educated grandmother Sirleaf.
The former goal-scoring machine garnered 40.6 percent of the vote against Sirleaf’s 59.4 percent in the run-off. Weah’s supporters poured in the streets of Monrovia alleging that the elections were rigged but a verdict of “peaceful, transparent and fair” by the African Union (AU) handed the Executive Mansion in Monrovia to Ma Ellen.

Six years later footballer changed tact and handed the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) presidential ticket to Harvard-educated lawyer Winston Tubman and attained a degree in business administration at DeVry University in Miami. But all these efforts and the huge crowds of euphoric supporters that CDC attracted in political rallies failed to deliver the prize as Weah and his team lost to President Johnson-Sirleaf, again.

Another hugely popular West African musical great whose dismal performance in the political arena might demoralize Yossou N’Duor and his supporters is Nigerian Fela Akunilapo Kuti. Raised in a highly politicized home-his mother was an anti-colonial activist while his father was a trade unionist-and hitting the peak of his career at a time when Nigeria was under the tight grip of brutal military regimes, Kuti was famous as much for his music as he was for his eccentric political views and stunts.

“Imagine Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person and you get a sense of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti,” the Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper, once described the maverick artiste.

Long before declaring his presidential candidature in the 1979 general elections, the musician had earlier on formed the Kalakuta Republic, a comound comprising a recording studio and a home to many members of his The Africa 70s band. The firebrand artiste, whose middle name Anikulapo means “he who carries death in his pouch”, declared the autonomy of Kalakuta Republic from Nigeria which provoked the military regime into sending a thousand soldiers against the renegade homestead.

Fela was severely beaten, the Kalakuta was razed down, his studio equipment destroyed or confiscated and his elderly mother tossed from a high window to her doom. Kuti and his gang dramatically carried then old lady’s casket to the then head of state Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence while chanting the lines of his composition Coffin for Head of State.

But even after spending his entire career singing and fighting against the injustices of the state against the people and commanding a fanatical musical following at home and across the continent, Nigerians were apparently never convinced that Fela Kuti was a presidential material. The poor fellow succumbed to unknown ailment in 1997, after which his well known brother and former minister of health Olikoye Ransome-Kuti stunned the nation by claiming that Kuti died of AIDS.

The only African story of a successful leap from the entertainment world to the peak of political power is that of Madagascan disc jokey-turned-president Andry Nirina Rajoelina. Although the 36 year-old socialite shot to international fame after being declared the head of state by the country’s military in 2009, he was by then a well established politician in his homeland.

Like Yossou N’Duor, Rajoelina owns a popular station in the capital called Viva Radio whose broadcasts, alongside his stint as a popular city DJ, were instrumental in endearing the young rubble-rouser to the masses. Unlike many of his peers in the entertainment industry across the continent, Rajoelina managed to convert his popularity and fame to votes by winning the Antananarivo mayoral race by an overwhelming 63 percent in 2007.

Using his vantage position as mayor Rajoelina spent the next twelve months establishing networks with the military and inciting the disillusioned masses against the government of President Marc Ravalomanana, which culminated in street unrests and the eventual crowning of the stylish media mogul by the country’s top generals. Elections are expected to be held sometimes this year and speculations are that Rajoelina will be a candidate.

Tabu Ley Rochereau, whose popular hits like Muzina, Maze and Sorozo rocked millions of fans across the world, is another African artiste whose high flying credentials on stage was not enough to carry him across the turbulence of politics. After being appointed a cabinet minister by President Laurent Kabila in 1997 and later nominated to parliament, the king of Rhumba could not win elected office during the 2006 Congo elections despite being backed by the ruling party.

Like Tabu Ley, Tshala Muana was also nominated to parliament by Kabila but never went past Movement for Congolese Women and campaigning for Joseph Kabila in the just concluded general elections. Like many of her pears, her political incursions are yet to emerge from the shadow of her musical achievements.

“The reason why many of these musicians and other famous individuals fail to win political office is because people realize that most of them are not out to help the masses but to consolidate their celebrity status,” explains Bacary Coulibaly. “But some have good intentions and I hope that Youssou is one of them”.

With the country's general elections a short two months away, Africa is watching keenly to see whether Youssou N’Duor will have the necessary wit and grit to outfox veteran politicians and triumph where many of his musical peers have failed.

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