Born in Dakar in 1959, Youssou N’Dour is a passionate singer, composer, bandleader, and producer whose strikingly expressive voice transformed both the mbalax music of his native Senegal and Western pop. N’Dour returns to the U.S. in September 2014 with his band, the Super Étoile, who have recorded and toured the world with N’Dour for nearly 30 years. With his traditional griot oral history, Wolof lyrics, and praise-singing with Afro-Cuban arrangements N’Dour was named “African Artist of the Century” by the English publication fRoots and to the TIME 100— Time magazine’s annual list of “the hundred men and women whose power, talent, or moral example is transforming the world.” N’Dour was the subject of the documentary I Bring What I Love, about Senegal’s divided reaction to his Grammy Award-winning album Egypt, a deeply spiritual album dedicated to a more tolerant view of Islam (both the album and the documentary soundtrack were released by Nonesuch). In 2013 N’Dour was awarded Sweden’s prestigious Polar Music Prize.
He has traced the roots of his griot (traditional oral historian) heritage, and explored his Muslim faith and its sonic impact by collaborating with Egyptian musicians, winning a Grammy for his efforts.
For N’Dour, this freedom and directness translates into a stronger medium for the messages that he, too, has dedicated his career to spreading. His voice has launched Senegalese social movements (“Set” became a rallying cry for urban youth activists in 1994). His songs have whipped up international support in the fight against malaria (2009’s “Fight Malaria”) and for women’s rights (1989’s “Shaking the Tree” with Peter Gabriel), to name just a few of the issues N’Dour has addressed. His work as a UNICEF ambassador—and as a global pop star dubbed “the world’s most famous singer” by Rolling Stone—has taken him across the planet.
On his travels, the importance of those who had gone before hit home, musicians like Bob Marley who hailed from long-denigrated places and yet managed to parlay powerful music into global stardom and a new social consciousness. “When I started traveling, I started seeing how Bob Marley had affected the world. I saw how someone from an underdeveloped country can become a star, someone who’s really loved,” N’Dour explains. “He was my example. I knew looking at Bob Marley that I could do my music from Senegal and touch the world.”
“Reggae gives you more space than mbalax. You have more room to breathe,” N’Dour reflects. “You know the rhythm and the emotion, exactly what the song is saying to you. It’s very direct at its heart.”
In reggae, N’Dour also heard the powerful transits that music from Africa made, as slavery ripped people and sounds from their homelands: “When people were taken from Africa, the music left, too.” Reggae’s African heart had long intrigued N’Dour, whether listening to Marley songs in the market or at home on his uncle’s records. He fantasized about taking his catchy yet moving songs and letting them unfold in a new reggae context.