Youssou N’Dour claimed that his recently aborted bid to become President of Senegal was motivated by “a supreme patriotic duty.” It was a strange about face from the man who told The Guardian newspaper back in 2007 that, “I don’t want to be a politician. In politics, sometimes you have to lie or make a promise you cannot keep. I can’t square that with my artistic feeling.”
When the Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca got the call to become her country’s new minister of culture in July 2011, she said that she felt it was her duty to accept. “I always had an anxious desire to work for Peru,” she told the Peruvian daily, El Comercio.
Wyclef Jean of the Fugees claimed that his failed attempt to become president of Haiti in 2011 was motivated by the devastating earthquake of January 2010. “The quake drove home to me that Haiti can’t wait another 10 years for us to bring it into the 21st century,” he told the BBC.
It’s easy to understand the kind of musician who fronts causes, rocks the vote and hoists his or her political beliefs up the proverbial flag pole — like Bono, Bruce Springsteen or Billy Bragg — while remaining a musician first and foremost. But to swap creating music for the committee room and parliament floor, now that’s just plain weird.
The art of politics is also the art of graceful duplicity, of saying one thing and meaning another, of keeping friends close but enemies closer. It’s also the mundane reality of drilling down into minute details of political issues.
It’s difficult to imagine N’Dour poring over the interim report of the Casamance Livestock Breeding Association. It’s also difficult to imagine him declaring he’s had “frank and constructive talks” with some dictator he would instinctively prefer to mince up in rhyme or song.
That said, N’Dour’s presidential credentials are probably better than his critics made them out to be. He’s a successful businessman, a media mogul who claims to have thousands in his employ. He’s been a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and has toured the world under the banners of Amnesty International.
There’s a case for saying that all famous African musicians are political animals at heart. Most African music concerns itself with collective responsibility rather than individual feeling. Like those of other African greats, N’Dour’s songbook is full of exhortations to clean up the streets, get rid of corruption, use a condom, respect your mother and father, be honest, be wise, be prudent. In other words, African artists often sing like politicians speak. But unlike the words of politicians, we believe that they always mean what they sing.
If you take a look at the careers of other musicians-turned-politicians it’s tempting to think that N’Dour might one day have cause to thank the corrupt judges who forbade his candidacy on the grounds that he didn’t have the right number of signatures on his petition to run for president.
One-time singer and compas star, Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly is another example. He’s definitely coming to end of his honeymoon period as president of Haiti. And how long will the caring, sensitive and soft-spoken Baca survive in the political bear pit of Lima?
Gilberto Gil was something of an exception to the rule. He managed to leave office in 2008 after five successful years as Brazil’s minister of culture. But he owed a large part of his popularity to former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, one of the most consistently popular heads of state the world has ever known.
As for the rest, perhaps they truly believe there is some kind of honor in the fight to make the world a better place, however dirty and compromised that fight might be in the end. Or perhaps, being musicians, they fail to truly comprehend just how dirty and compromised the political fight may be.
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