Interview: Youssou N’Dour

The Senegalese singer and actor uses star power to combat deadly malaria in Africa.

Youssou N’Dour interview
More than 80 per cent of malaria fatalities are in Africa, international organisations say 

Youssou N’Dour has used his status as a singer, percussionist and actor to fight for many causes over the years.

He has performed to free Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, when the elder statesman had been jailed for 27 years under the Apartheid government.

He has also participated in the Live Aid concerts to end poverty and has been a Unicef ambassador.

As an actor he has highlighted black history by playing the role of Oliudah Equina, the African writer whose experiences as a slave prompted him to become involved in the British abolition movement once he had been set free.

Now he has turned his focus to combating Malaria, a disease which annually kills one million people, more than 80 per cent of whom are in Africa. According to Nothing But Nets, a grassroots global organisation partnered with the UN to combat malaria, some 500 million people a year are affected by the disease.

N’Dour has just released a single – “Fight Malaria” – and has launched a campaign with the charity Malaria no More called Surround sound Senegal. He has used his star status to urge every family in Senegal and Africa to sleep under a mosquito net.

Al Jazeera’s Kathleen McCaul caught up with him before a concert in London to talk about his new work with Malaria no More, Africa, Islam and his music. 

Al Jazeera: You have fought for many causes over the years – why are you now fighting against malaria?

N’Dour: When I got the numbers of people dying every year of malaria – especially children under five and pregnant women – I was shocked -1 million people dying every year. I was shocked. I decided to bring my foundation and all my staff to do what we could do sensitise people to this.

People are not really giving enough importance to malaria –I am talking about Africans here. Africans say malaria is just a little thing – they don’t know you can die in the same day.

So in Africa there is still a lack of awareness how dangerous malaria is?

Today, because of all the work done people are becoming sensitised to it and they react. They say this is dangerous – go get that net – protect the kids.

Do you think music is a good way of raising awareness of important issues?

Music is language and is a power – it’s maybe the first language. If you use music you can catch people faster then other ways – because they enjoy it.

In Africa when you talk about something a little bit sad you can put some rhythm to it – people are dancing! But they get the message and the next day maybe they can change their ways.

We realise because of our experience, our job, our passion that music is power.

When did you first decide to combine your music with activism?

It was in the beginning of my career. I was going around schools doing playbacks and I thought there really is a connection between children and me.

During the year they listened to my music behind their parents’ backs and at the end of the year I came to them and I performed – these were big successes.

I think Unicef saw this and they encouraged me – they said are you ready to be an ambassador? I said yes, I can do a lot of things for the kids and this is really the point when things started.

I saw that I can do my music, I can travel, I can be happy with my music and do more – with fights against malaria and so on.

Nothing is happening without my music – I’m here in London to play tonight but I am talking to you about malaria. It’s important and it doesn’t cost me anything.

You come from Senegal – a country which is deeply affected by malaria – have you had any personal experience of the disease? 

I have lost a lot of friends who have died because of malaria. You see every day the effects of malaria – even on the economy. More then $12bn are lost because of Malaria in Africa. It’s terrible.

And no one is coming into the picture and saying we have to stop that. I think this is really my fight – dedicating my life and the rest of my music to fighting malaria – in connection with Malaria no More.

The first round of our work was talking to people in Africa – which is doing very well.

The second round is talking to people from here – from the West.

You’ve collaborated with many great musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Sting and Paul Simon. How much is collaboration with the West important in the fight against malaria and how much is it Africa’s responsibility?

Lots of rock stars here are trying to do something – talking about Africa. Bono (U2) has a big impact on the rest of the world but that doesn’t mean we Africans don’t have the solution or don’t want to talk to people.

People are ready to listen to rock stars but people are expecting to listen to Africans, too; to listen to singers from Africa, to pop stars from Africa.

This is the moment you are going to see and listen to Africans talk about the danger of malaria.

This is a brand new thing – all my friends – Bono and Peter Gabriel and all these activists plus what we are doing in Africa is what I call surround – surrounding the problem.

Youssou N’Dour is using music to raise awareness of malaria

Surround! It’s about coming together – is that a collaboration?

That’s it.

What other issues do you think the media aren’t covering in Africa?

You know Africa is one picture, one continent – but it is comprised of (more than 50) countries and every single country is different.

Different languages and different riches.

There can be something good happening in Ghana and Senegal and on the same day something bad happening in the Congo.

People here (just) watch the difficult images of Africa – all the war, aids, poverty and other things.

We have to show the difficulties of the continent but we have to make sure people understand that this is a continent with many countries and every single country has a government and a president who are responsible locally and they are not doing good everywhere at the same level. 

If we’re doing well in Senegal and Ghana – elsewhere they are doing badly.

You want us to realise the difference between these different countries?

In music when you get just one track you get mono – what I am saying is that we should listen to Africa in stereophonic. Bad things and good things, also.

Going back to your particular country – Senegal – where you have a newspaper, website, radio station. This makes you incredibly influential. Have you ever considered going into politics directly?

I don’t think so. I think what I am doing is really political. What I am doing is being behind people – thinking about rights and the voice of the people.

It’s very important. I’m focusing about what is happening in my country and my continent and sometimes I have a really different position to the government. But I am free with my music – I can talk to newspapers.

I’m a happy man – music is my passion – my work also. I’m not looking for a job. I don’t think I need anything else – but I’m still here interested in everything. I’m not saying one day I’m going to become a politician.

No I don’t think so – but I’m here – here to make sure everything is going well – I’m not the only one. There are a lot of great Africans doing good things. I’m not interested in getting an office but where I am is a strategic place.

You’ve been performing since you were 12 and your music has developed over your long career. You have produced records which meld Western and African influences and collaborated, as I’ve said, with some great Western musicians. But your recent Grammy winner – Egypt – goes back to a very pure African and Muslim sound. What was the idea behind this?

I’m so interested in having my freedom musically and one day I decided because I am a Muslim to connect the sound of Egypt and the sound of Senegal. When you do that one of the most important links is the religion Islam.

Islam is the same everywhere – Egypt, Senegal, China – everywhere. But the way people promote it and bring out Islam in Senegal is something different.

The way we approach religion is something people have to do know – this is why I did that album.

I think it is really important. Musically this is the first connection between Africans – we are doing collaborations between Africa and Europe or the US but forgetting Africans with Africans.

I am really proud of this album – I think it is something really positive. Islam is something people have to know better.

Source: Al Jazeera