The Kennedy Center

Youssou N'Dour


An undisputed giant of world music, Senegalese artist and humanitarian Youssou N'Dour has raised Senegal’s exuberant mbalax style to global stature. Introduced to American audiences on seminal albums such as Paul Simon's Graceland and Peter Gabriel's So, N'Dour continues to influence virtually every realm of the international music scene, riding high on tumbling African rhythms and stratospheric vocals.

Youssou N’Dour works with Peace Corps/Senegal through Malaria No More (a non-profit, non-governmental organization) and the Youssou N’Dour Foundation to reduce deaths caused by malaria. Peace Corps volunteers across Senegal are leading efforts to prevent malaria by providing malaria prevention education and leading a campaign to universally distribute insecticide treated mosquito bed nets. In April, the Peace Corps announced a partnership with the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) that will expand malaria prevention activities throughout Africa.

Youssou N’Dour’s strategy is pan-African: “What all of us Africans share is much more important than what we don’t share,” says this elegant, 50-year-old youngster, who grew up in the Medina in Senegal’s capital city, Dakar. Bringing unity to the African continent has been his priority for a long time; the key (along with love, opinions, and a great festive sense) lay in the professional practice of music for some 37 years. Yet his career was bound to lead to a form of musical expression that has become universal: Reggae, which was born in Jamaica in the 1960s.

As a man of the media and a fighter for citizens’ rights – from wiping out the African debt to the battle against malaria – Mr. N’Dour is well aware of the political import of reggae, the music genre directly linked to Rastafarianism, whose leading figure was the “Ras Tafari” Haile Selassie, the black Emperor of Ethiopia.

As a religion, intellectual movement, and way of life, Rastafarianism was conceived some 30 years before the first sound-systems by two Jamaican renegades living in The United States, Marcus Garvey, the ideologist of beauty and black rebellion, and preacher Leonard Percival Howell, who left Jamaica on a ship to America but returned from Harlem to work the soil in the hills of the Caribbean. Youssou N’Dour shows his allegiance to the genre without pretending to belong.

African unity is not the only thing in the mind of Youssou N’Dour: he also had the desire to untangle the threads of the black Diaspora. In 1992 he found an ally in filmmaker Spike Lee, who released the album Eyes Open on his label, ‘40 Acres and A Mule,’ (named after the compensation awarded to freed slaves after the American Civil War). At the time, Mr. N’Dour wore a “wooy wooy”, the woolly hat taken from a song dedicated to the children of Africa, quickly branded with an ‘X’, as in Malcom X, (but also an ‘X’ as in Xippi, his recording studio in Dakar.) In 2007, in Amazing Grace, the film made by British director Michael Apted, Mr. N’Dour played out the tragedy of the slave trade in his role as the slave-poet Olaudah Equiano.

Mr. N’Dour was born in 1959, the son of a labourer named Elimane and his wife Ndèye Sokhna Mboup, a traditional “Griot” singer. After two years in street-theater, Mr. N’Dour’s career really started when he was 13, and it was the result of a miracle: in 1972, Papa Semba Diop, known as Mba, passed away. He was the leader of the Star Band in Dakar, and Mr. N’Dour sang a tribute to him, a song he composed onstage right there in Senegal’s Saint-Louis Stadium. “Everyone was still in tears, and I brought a little joy. I was vibrating. Mba was like a star fading from the sky.” At the end of his song, Mr. N’Dour was given a standing ovation.

In 1981, after leaving the Etoiles group in Dakar, Mr. N’Dour founded the exemplary orchestra Super Etoile, which saw its Parisian debuts in 1984 during Africa Fête, the African cultural festival set up by Mamadou Konté from Mali, and it featured in the great pan-African dances and events organized at the Bercy Omnisports stadium in Paris by its leader. After meeting Peter Gabriel in 1984, Youssou N’Dour joined “Band Aid for Ethiopia;” in 1988 he sang at Wembley when Nelson Mandela was freed, and then alongside Sting, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Springsteen for Amnesty International.

By 1996, Mr. N’Dour was already famous worldwide thanks to “7 Seconds,” his duet with Neneh Cherry (released in 1994 on the album Wommat, which also featured his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”), and he recorded Voices of the Heart of Africa with the great Yandé Codou Sène in the pure Senegalese Griot tradition. In 2007, he released Rokku Mi Rokka (the title is in the Pulaar language of the Toucouleurs) with musicians from the north, on the borders of Mauritania and the Sahel states of Mali. The album was ranked #30 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 50 Albums of 2007” list.

Mr. N’Dour released “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)” in 2009 as part of the IntraHealth International campaign to use open source technology to solve health issues in Africa. In 2011, Yale University awarded Youssou N’Dour an Honorary Doctorate of Music for his outstanding musical career and his promotion of tolerance through music.

Watch Past Performances

Video 9/21/2011: Youssou N'Dour

Singer and percussionist Youssou N’Dour is one of the most celebrated African musicians in history. His mix of traditional Senegalese mbalax with eclectic influences ranging from Cuban samba to hip hop, jazz, and soul has won him an international fan base of millions. Part of the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps.

Youssou N'Dour