With Rohey Samba
In this my final letter to you my daughters, I write to you about a musician who has inspired me for many years. More than the music he plays, the boldness of his talent and the essence of his character is a big inspiration. I would love to share a few words about this man and perhaps help you as you grow to learn from his genius.
The life of Youssou N’Dour is often held up to young and aspiring individuals as an example to show what a man with no particular advantages of birth, education or environment may achieve. He was born to a working class family in Medina, the outskirts of Dakar, with no particular educational pedigree. For those whom favour had not been bestowed, there is great encouragement.
He thrived over difficult and sometimes unfavourable conditions using common sense and raw talent to overcome. His adversaries call it luck. And people like me call it common sense. Yet for those cynical persons who call his genius, common sense, a faculty he so largely possesses is the power of perception, which the common man does not induce to have.
All great persons have this common sense. It is a precondition for success. It is what separates the mediocre from the rest, and carries forth these persons above the heads of the crowd. Common sense does not require high education or embellished characteristics. It helps embellish characteristics of course and has been used by men and women who have it in abundance to play with the minds of people with lesser doses for the longest time.
Youssou N’Dour did not receive the nuances of literary education, which persuades through embellishment for the purposes of persuasion or self-gratification. The lyrics he sings are generally devoid of emotional undertones, with no mastery of human nature to speak of, unlike say, Thione Seck’s lyrics. He sings as he would speak to people. And people love it; it is as they would speak to themselves.
Not claiming any particular powers, his plain directness of language and his simple and practical views on daily life add to the sterling merit of his lyrics for their appropriateness to the issues of our times. His most recent song, Naay, has generated a huge discourse with many differing views by men and women alike.
In a country where men take up polygamy as their inherent right given by Islam, his postulations in the song premised on the bigotry of men on the issue of matrimony, stated simply, the discrepancy between the reality of men being sole breadwinners and thus do not have to be miserly and the inadequacy of their resources to cater appropriately for the women under their discharge in conjugal bond.
Islam indeed prescribes rules and laws on the matter of marriage between men and women, ensuring women are not the worse off for getting married. Thus, Naay in a sense questions the status quo pleading with women to run off, once they realise the men in their lives cannot provide adequately for them as a result of their miserliness. Coming from an African man born in the Senegambia area, this song among multitude others dealing with women shows in large strokes of the canvas, a musician of the first order. And a beautiful human being, not consumed by his regressive culture.
Yet the mainspring of Youssou N’Dour’s genius and the truest evidence of his greatness lies in the purity of his love for his country and the fervour of his conviction that only Africans can develop Africa. True to his spirit, he is married to an African woman. Lives in a beautiful house in Senegal, where he was born and raised. Has his businesses in Senegal. Employs Africans to run his businesses, while he manages his forte, which is music. Contributes heftily to the economy of his country. And so forth. This has won him the untainted love of the Senegalese people and have availed him their goodwill to the extent that everything he touches turns into gold in that country. Mash’Allah.
In all, he refutes the imputation on the African race, that inferiority complex is our lot. Through his music, he says without seeming to say, what each one of us must hear. He is not a polished orator or even a brilliant writer as I alluded to earlier, but he expresses in his songs a justness clothed with patriotism and self-belief, which has carried him forth through all these years.
Among his most memorable songs, and one of my first songs down memory lane is Emigre. To date, when migration plays a significant role in The Gambian society with overseas remittances accounting for about 20 percent of the country’s GDP, according to recent findings by IOM Gambia, the fight against illegal migration and relatable aspects of border management and also the protection of vulnerable groups, such as women and children, from exploitative practices as in trafficking, is increasingly pertinent.
More pertinent perhaps, is the fact that however long Gambian immigrants stay overseas, The Gambia needs them more. Conveniently doling out cash to their relatives back home, and not returning to develop The Gambia from their knowledge and broad experience, is like giving a man some fish, and not teaching him how to fish. In here, man is referring to The Gambia where fish is resources. Thus spewing negative comments from afar, online, will not change the status quo. Hands on action by all well-meaning Gambians will.
But that is Youssou N’Dour for you. Every one of his songs has a message, which is as relevant in the 1980s as it is to our current situation. It is hard to realise for those whose memory does not go back to the late ’80s to early ’90s that immigration was a terrible fact of life even back then too. What of all those ‘semesters’ with their dazzling cars? What if they built skyscrapers and invested in our economy. Where would The Gambia be today?
While the impression which most of his songs leaves is a desire to dance, sing and clap at the same time. Youssou N’Dour sings his part without fuss, striking high notes that are suffused with his directness and conviction prompted by an innate obeisance to a calling to inform, educate and entertain at the same time. A feat only few of his peers are able to do effectively.
Look, I love music. As a writer, I do get depressed. It is only natural when you reach out to your deepest emotions, which bursts forth in fitful flashes, to convey a message that only you know how to express. Writing is scribbling down the notes of one’s thoughts. Once you release these notes, they belong to the ages. Music tampers fear when views find expression. Music helps us relate time, moments and emotions with exactness as it stays long after memory is suffused with idealism.
Today, more than ever, fame is stitched into the fabric of social media by people who want to make themselves famous for the sake of being famous. For me, I value every worthy work of art as human genius at its peak. I value a piece of music for its rhyme, rhythm and content. But Senegambian culture is such that comparing peaches with oranges just for the heck of it is a daily conundrum.
To this, the distinctive merits of Youssou N’Dour is that the guy does not display his cleverness beyond the words he sings. In this respect, he refuses point blank to interpret the meaning of his lyrics, urging each and everyone of us to interpret them as we deem fit. The universal truth of his words sets the matter to rest, when we realise that he seeks straight for the destined aim, leaving no room for ambiguity.
He does not impress with obscure or confusing words because the heart of his songs define his character. Youssou N’Dour values family and excellence. He is loyal, forthright and open-minded. Youssou N’Dour surrounds himself with a dream team, which includes his family for he is sole proprietor of his business. Not every Tom, Dick and Harry in his family of course, but highly skilled and well-trained members who are able to hold their own.
Beyond that, he coaches, teaches and acquires the best talent across Senegal and in Africa at large. In fact, one of our own aspiring and very talented Gambian media personality, Awa Gai, who used to work for GRTS, is currently employed by one of his companies, Televison Futur Medias. What’s more, he pays his staff heftily to retain and maintain them in their positions. Who would not like to work for this kind of guy?
From the horse’s mouth, Youssou N’Dour listens readily and seeks advice. He is not opinionated but is very decisive. He does not ponder when he makes a decision, or waver after he arrives at a decision. While he leaves many things to his team, he does not lean too much upon them. Without pretension, he makes independent decisions and takes full responsibility for his acts.
This was amply manifested when he decided to run for elections in Senegal in 2012 against my all-time favourite president, Abdoulaye Wade. We know from the accounts of his election manifesto, Fekki Machi Bolleh, and his political discussions that this is a man who does not waste time in vain regrets when things do not go his way or when his expectations are not attained.
Moreover, following his brief stint as Minister of Tourism and Culture of his hometown of Senegal, he realised that government function, with all the its idiosyncrasies and the inflated self-importance attached, gave him nothing. His resolute will overcame the dirty game of politics, which essentially isolated him from self-reliance and the platform he knows most. He kept his options open nonetheless waiting for events to guide him back to his music. These events would not take long to come.
In the interim, in Youssou N’Dour-like wit, he coined the song ‘Nama cha yem moucha. Koumah chi bormbah. Ma jayl.” Meaning, longing for you, referring to music, is not enough, should I be cast aside because of you, I will be better off. For those familiar with the nuances of the Wolof language, he was simply stating that the years most favorable to his learning powers are over and done with. He was no government official. He wanted, no, needed to return back to his calling, music. President Macky Sall gave him a nod of approval and released him from his post soon after. He was made a presidential adviser thereafter, which position he retains to date.
The job of minister of state was not made for persons whom his type are formed. Youssou N’Dour is meant to sit at the other side of the room, to observe, learn from the masses and speak to them just as they would hear themselves speak. He triumphed over the adverse politicking of his time, which is based mainly on jealousy, hatred and innuendos. He returned soon after to display his rare and superior powers in music singing song that seem to mature with age as wine.
And if you would ask me, what differentiates him from all the musicians of the world, I would say it is the force of his conviction and the steadiness of his utterances…