Youssou N’Dour on Politics, Music, and the Theater-Filling Documentary of His Life

By
Photo: Getty Images

While the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour is certainly the most famous singer in Africa, in the U.S., he’s probably still best known for his duets with Peter Gabriel (“In Your Eyes,” “Shaking the Tree”) and Neneh Cherry (“Seven Seconds”) and his collaborations with the likes of Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. But given the runaway success of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s new documentary Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love (currently playing at Village East Cinemas and opening in L.A. this week), the 49-year-old Grammy-winning activist, singer-songwriter, producer, and sometime actor, whose infectiously eclectic, pop-inspired music has long been a staple of many world-music compilations, may finally gain the greater exposure he deserves. N’Dour recently took time to answer Vulture’s questions.

In the West, musicians and celebrities are often ridiculed when they speak out or get involved in political causes. Have you ever come across this stigma?
It’s sort of the opposite in my country; people think that as a musician I should take an even stronger position in working for social causes or helping people. And we try to sing about the reality of life in our songs and in our art — we often treat subjects that are political in nature. For example, a few years ago, I wrote a song called “Toxique,” about toxic waste, and I think it actually influenced a number of people’s opinions.

When you perform in the U.S., what’s the composition of your audiences like?
The first group of people to come to my concerts are the Senegalese community here, who spread the word around about my music. I don’t really see them as the public at all — they’re actors, like me. They’re the people who really understand and get the music; at the concerts, they start dancing and everything, and suddenly everybody else gets in the mood. Sometimes someone even comes up to the stage in front of my microphone just to dance. They’re like promoters. They’re promoting my music right there.

So you’re one of the biggest and most popular musicians in the world. Are there any musicians out there who make you giddy?
There’s a lot of them. When I went to a Stevie Wonder concert, I was like a little boy. He had been such an idol for me. But I think you categorize music not by people but by periods, certain eras. The era of Prince, for example. What he did at that time really impressed me. [Editor's note: We interviewed N’Dour before the death of Michael Jackson.]

This film gets quite up close and personal to your family — we see your grandmother, we see your family home, etc. Were you worried about giving a camera crew so much access to your life?
Yes, of course. We had never had such intimate parts of our lives exposed before in public, so I was very worried about this beforehand. My first instinct was to be very protective. But after I saw how it was going I felt I could breathe a little easier. I think it’s a credit to the director that she was able to create a certain relationship with each member of the family. In a sense, she got permission from each of them, gaining their trust.

You gave a surprising and powerful performance in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, playing the eighteenth-century abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. Have you considered doing more film work?
Making movies takes an enormous amount of time, which is why I don’t go back to it. I don’t really have the time to give to it. What I know is the stage, the recording studio, the concert hall. That’s my world. But if somebody proposes a film to me that shares my vision or is about something I believe in strongly, then I might act again. That was why I accepted the role in Amazing Grace. My character was a slave who had purchased his freedom and was now an abolitionist. I felt it was important to show that there were many black people at the time who fought to abolish slavery. So, I was in the film because I was bringing a message. I don’t really see myself as an actor.