Encouraging the emergence of a « new » African

Interview with Youssou Ndour, by Mademba Ndiaye

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Youssou Ndour, right now you are an internationally acclaimed artiste. How would you explain the rags-to-riches story of a boy from Medina?
First of all, you have to have faith. It’s not your geographical location that makes you succeed. Whether you come from Kuala Lumpur or a working-class neighborhood in Dakar, it’s all the same. You must believe that all men are created equal, that they have the same potential. I repeat, your geographical location is of little importance, in fact, it is the surroundings that benefit from the success of its children. It’s not your surroundings that will make you, it’s what you do to improve your surroundings that matters.
It’s true, however, that I had an extraordinary experience living in Medina. I was born and raised in Medina. I was very close to my maternal grandfather who inculcated in me a love for hard work very early in life. He helped me a lot. I remember when I began to attend school, he would leave Rue 22 (Editor’s note: Almost two kilometers from Youssou Ndour’s family home) and come to our house to make sure that I got up in time for school! In a way, this made me disciplined in everything that I do. Afterwards, I took everything in stride. I went to school, then I started working as a musician, and soon felt that this work could take me to a higher level. I remember well my first wish, which was to be famous in Medina.
So you already had this vision…..
Absolutely ! During my school holidays, I went to all the parties in Medina where they had kassaks (Editor’s note: a night-time ceremony with traditional songs for young circumcised males). By 1:00 a.m., I had been to all the kassaks! I would sing there and people would talk about me, that’s how it all started.
Youssou, your involvement with street children is well known. For many years you have worked toward improving their lot and you have invested a lot of your time and effort to ensure that they have a better future. Today, what is the result of all this effort?
It is very difficult to say exactly, because even when you think you are making progress, you can see perfectly well that the situation with street children has worsened. I have participated in some of the initiatives taken to try to improve their situation, to give them an education, training, to get them to go back home. But at the same time, the population is growing, so the number of street children has also increased. Sometimes I go out at night on my bike to see the children who are sleeping on the streets, and there are always more of them, and I… (long pause)
Feel discouraged ?
No, no, not at all. On the contrary, when faced with such a situation, you are motivated to speak out so that many more persons will get involved, because, as we say in Wolof, « What one person can do well, two can do better. »
We have heard about some of your business ventures like the Super Etoile (Super Star) band, the « Xippi » studio and even the « Jololi » production house. We hear a lot less about the « Fondation Youssou Ndour » (Youssou Ndour Foundation). Why do you keep it so quiet? How much success would you say this Foundation has had?
I must point out that I do not directly manage the « Fondation Youssou Ndour. » I am just a member of the management board which also includes personalities from various fields (banks, sports, private companies, etc.). When this board takes decisions, I accept them and I can’t change them.
The Foundation has done excellent work. As a member for example, I have lobbied for support for training in jobs in the music industry. When we perform in London for example, the musicians are of course Senegalese, but the entire technical team (sound, lighting, management, etc.) is comprised of Westerners. I have nothing against them, but I have appealed for training in technical engineering and management, because, apart from the musicians on stage, there are jobs in the music industry that locals are not getting. I was able to convince the Foundation to pledge 70 million francs to work with the Association of Senegalese Musicians to train professionals from the subregion in this area. We have even seen results that have exceeded expectations, because managers and young technicians now understand that in order to work with a Youssou Ndour or another musician on American stages, well, they must have the same qualifications as the American technician or manager.
The Foundation also supports the fight against malaria, and for the past three years we have been providing grants to some fifteen students who come from disadvantaged families in the interior of Senegal and who are studying in Dakar. We give them financial support and monitor their academic progress.
We have also participated in the Davos Forum in Switzerland for the past five years in order to meet counterparts, and I myself had to represent the Foundation which is doing a lot of work at the international level. We have a lot of credibility which allows us to work with other foundations.
With the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?
Yes, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on malaria research. We also work with the Ford Foundation and the Celine Dion Foundation.
In contrast with « Jololo » and « Xippi » which are commercial ventures, the Foundation, has opted to do minimal publicity, but it is effective and we make sure that people come to us to find out what we’re doing.
I must also say that we have just set up a new organization, the « Fonds Youssou Ndour » (Youssou Ndour Fund) which has nothing to do with the Foundation. This fund was established in collaboration with IntraHealth International, an American NGO in Pennsylvania. So we are going to mobilize funds so that we can be much more visible and effective in the fields of education and health, and the promotion of cultural activities. This fund will initially be based in the United States and will cover all of Africa. So, for example, an organization from Liberia or Mali could aspire to be like the Youssou Ndour Foundation or the Youssou Ndour Fund.
You are a UNICEF ambassador. Coumba Gawlo Seck, Ismaïla Lô and Baaba Maal, just to mention only a few other Senegalese nationals, are also ambassadors of international organizations. What do you think of this appeal to musicians and artistes in general?
I think that to be able to support a cause, in addition to working at your job, is extraordinary. I must recognize the involvement of Senegalese and African artistes who without hesitation agree to work with these organizations, which I must say were failing before they came to us for help. They now realize that in order to make their operations more effective, they must work with other sectors of the population like artistes, the clergy and sports personalities, and since they started doing that, they have gained greater recognition. But let me point out that this does not mean that there are no disagreements. Whenever I meet with the people from UNICEF, I share my ideas with them without seeking their approval. When I don’t agree with them, I tell them. It’s more productive. And while we do all this on a voluntary basis, I ask, nevertheless, that they take my schedule into account when planning UNICEF activities with which I will be associated: interviews, advertisements, representations, etc.
Let me also add that every musician should think of himself as an ambassador, whether or not an international organization is behind him. A young musician should feel like that in his community.
Speaking of international organizations, let’s talk about the World Bank as well. Do you think that the development assistance agencies are effective or mere cash distributors?
I wrote a song against the Bretton Woods Institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, entitled « Picc Mi » (The little bird), a story about the bird and the crocodile! Since at that time they did not communicate with the people, they were perceived as institutions which were sucking up everything. They were the crocodile while Africa was the bird, the prey. Afterwards I changed my opinion a little, because I had the opportunity to speak with the heads of these institutions. I think that the World Bank deserves a lot of credit for having dared to change its approach, in that reports are now being sent from our countries to the headquarters in Washington. While the World Bank continues to work with governments, it is also listening to the people and civil society, and because of this, the decision makers in the Bank are more well-informed.
If I had to formulate World Bank policy today, my position would be to encourage all developing countries to invest in an attitude change process.
What does that mean?
Simply put, while I believe that all the poverty-related problems are the responsibility of those in power, they are also the result of people’s behavior. We need a new type of person who is better able to use the resources, like those of the World Bank for example, and better equipped to find fulfillment in life.
The attitude is wrong. People do not know what to do or what not to do, what is their right and what is not. There is an abdication of responsibility by the authorities, heads of families and leaders in society. That has to change, because as we say in Wolof « Baala ngay wouyou, nefa » (Editor’s note: « Before responding « present, » you must first exist »).
You have a lot of faith in man…
Oh yes! A lot. You have to work on his attitude, invest in it, that is what is going to enable us to make speedy progress. Here in Africa, if you train a man, he becomes very productive. But at present this is not the case. Not everyone has the same capacity to use information and all the available resources, so that in his mind, he is this new person that I speak of.
Bono, the leader of the band U2, played a significant role in the debt forgiveness campaign for poor countries. Given your charisma, are you planning to follow his example for a specific cause such as the fight against corruption, for example?
I know Bono and I think he really deserves a lot of credit. His commitment is totally selfless. His band is undoubtedly the most famous worldwide. But he knows that his fame allows him to speak with all the powerful figures in the world, such as Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary-General, or Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister. He uses all of that for the benefit of the causes he supports, while mobilizing the artistic community. What he is doing is critical.
As for corruption, we talk about it a lot but it’s not exclusive to Africa. There are scandals every day in the United States. I don’t like it when Africa is discussed only in terms of corruption, poverty, war, and AIDS. You never hear about its positive side. For example, we have just democratically elected a woman as leader of Liberia. We should be speaking about that, the growing leadership role of women. I think that Africa needs us to talk about these positive things, although I don’t deny the need to also talk about its problems. I refuse to concede that all African states are corrupt; African countries are making a serious effort to fight corruption. And after all, doesn’t the money stolen by Africans end up in Western banks, in Europe or the United States? We want to relegate Africa to the « corrupt section, » but if we look at corruption in the world, I really don’t think we’re at the top of the list!
Youssou, you are a private entrepreneur. Is it easy doing business in Senegal? In your opinion, what should be changed to improve the business environment?
A train needs two rails. So does the economy. On one rail, we come up with our projects, but on the other, the state needs to play its regulatory role effectively. For example, my production company controls 60 percent of the music market in Senegal. We have produced many young artistes who have become established, and therefore mini- enterprises. We have a parallel, informal sector to compete with. We, and companies like ours, pay taxes and salaries. Persons in the informal economy work alone, without a professional code of ethics, and pay neither taxes nor salaries. They lower prices, pirate our products, or offer similar products to consumers. What can we do when faced with such challenges? There are always people establishing companies legally, but when the State does nothing to safeguard healthy competition, these people close their businesses, go underground and become part of the informal sector.
That is the problem in the private sector. The State must be strong to ensure fair competition, so that companies can work, and investors can invest their money in our economy. The fact is that in our field, music, you can find people everywhere selling pirated CDs of artistes in broad daylight, robbing them of royalties. Nobody cares, but if one were to forge an asset of the State, sanctions would be applied. These bootleggers are doing business with impunity. Should we as artistes get some sticks and run them down in the streets? What I am saying also applies to other productive sectors. The State must be strong and severe. And this isn’t the case today.
The second thing I think is important – although it doesn’t apply to me personally because I have paid my taxes since the beginning of my career in 1984 – is the tax administration system. The State does nothing beforehand with regard to taxation. People are allowed to establish their business in much the same way as a fish you allow to keep moving while attached to the bait and hook and which suddenly gets caught. In other words, taxes are like death….
Isn’t that too strong an analogy?
Not at all. I am simply saying that like death, nobody should escape taxes. They must be paid because the State uses them to redistribute the fruits of growth. The new person I am talking about, who is also represented in the economic context as a Baol-Baol who gets rich overnight, needs to be taught about citizenship so that he appreciates the importance of paying taxes. The Baol-Baol establishes a formal company without paying taxes because there is no information about it. And suddenly one day the tax collector arrives. So he does something very simple: he closes shop and enters the informal sector.
Even so, the environment should be a favorable one, considering Senegal’s success in terms of democracy, especially with the 2000 elections, and in sports with what the Lions accomplished at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and because of our cultural products.
And the banking system?
It doesn’t support the private sector. I have heard that the banks have excess liquidity but they have unbearable interest rates and require excessive collateral. Now I see them going everywhere to collect money, even in front of your home, considering all the banks being set up in front of your house. But it is just to take your money from you close to home, because to get a loan, you still need to go to the General Directorate!
Youssou, you live in Senegal even though you could have moved somewhere in Europe or in the United States to make music or conduct your business, as lots of artistes do. Why did you choose to stay in Dakar?
Family first! I am very close to my extended family, which also includes my friends. I really love them. Artistically, I have always thought that my music should reflect how I live. Living here always reminds me that there are things I have no right to do. That I, along with others, am an Ambassador of this country.
The simplest response is that Dakar has an international airport! I can come and go when I want, and I don’t need an exit visa. I am an international artiste, and were I to move to France, I would go to the United States and then go back to France. If I moved to the United States, it would be the same. And since an artiste has to come and go, I might as well stay here where we have an airport too!
What do you think about the World Cup going on now in Germany? (Editor’s note: the interview took place on June 13)
I think the World Cup started well. Unfortunately some African teams were not in the best form to advance. But Africa has potential that is not altogether evident at the World Cup. Think of Samuel Eto’o, winner of the Champions League with Barcelona, best striker in the Spanish league.
This cup is also important as it is the launch of the « real » World Cup for Africa that is scheduled to be held South Africa in 2010.
In this context, you have a project with FIFA?
Yes, we have just established a foundation with myself, and others like Bono, Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton, that will use football to help development. We also want this World Cup to be an opportunity to build Africa’s worth. And that is where I am impressed by the vision of the FIFA President, Sepp Blatter. We are going to stage a large concert in Berlin before the end of the World Cup to say « Goodbye Germany, Hello South Africa. »
Your prediction?
England! I support the African teams and Argentina, but I think that England can win the World Cup. And that really wouldn’t be bad considering all the nationalities represented in England and English football. The English league is great. Even if there are various nationalities in other championships, it’s different in England. We’ll see.
On June 10, you were awarded an honorary doctorate by a management school in Senegal. As someone who left school early to pursue your music, in which you have achieved spectacular success, what did you feel wearing this university gown?
I told them clearly that I regret what happened with school. If I had the same chances as today, I would have continued my studies. That was a sincere message. I also want to tell youths that talent is not enough. You also need education.
We need that type of school, but also training schools such as garages and carpentry workshops in Medina or Thiaroye (working-class neighborhoods in Dakar) that are true training centers. And I would be just as proud to be conferred with an honorary doctorate by these centers.
And what about that reception at the French Senate?
It had to do with Francophonie. We are working hard to raise the profile of Francophonie, and I’m a member of the organizing committee for the Senghor Year. (Editor’s note: First President of Senegal). It was a good experience.
Another topical issue. Thousands of young people are risking their lives today while trying to reach Europe by borrowing traditional canoes with this terrible slogan « Barcelona or Barzakh » (Barcelona or death in the Wolof language). You have praised migrants in one of your most famous hits. How do you see this phenomenon?
It is an extremely difficult question. Why would young people want to leave at all costs? Because they have no jobs. Why do they have no jobs? Because they have no training. Without training, you can’t get a job. You can’t even offer work to someone who doesn’t know how to do anything. It all comes down to the education and training necessary to create opportunities for yourself.
The second common phenomenon is that when someone lives abroad, his family home is transformed and his mother has a car and a telephone. And all that thanks to a migrant child who lives in poor conditions in Europe or the United States but sends money home. It is said that migrants send 300 billion per year in remittances to Senegal. When a young person sees that, he’ll do everything to leave, to be able to do the same thing for his mother. And even the family puts pressure on the young person to do the same as his peers. They start making his life difficult. He’ll try to get a visa by any means necessary. That’s because money is valued above all else now, even though a person can still be useful to the society without money.
I wholeheartedly discourage young people from risking their lives to get to Europe. But the State needs to understand that it is not the billions that will solve the problem. They must invest in the new man. What is happening is a reflection of State failure, and also that of parents. It’s also Europe’s failure because the leadership only worries about the 20 percent of the electorate that has to be wooed with anti-immigration policies. Bush and Sarkozy are one and the same when they speak about immigration: it’s just to win elections.
As artistes, the action we’ll be taking is to stage a large concert in Nouadhibou in Mauritania, most likely in October. We are going to invite many African and European artistes to launch a message to end illegal immigration and all its dangers. And I can assure you right away that on that day, no canoe will leave for Europe. We are going to send a message for the new man!

source : World Bank Global Network///Article N° : 5753

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