There's a tang of tear gas in the air as Youssou N'Dour pops up through the sunroof of his car.
Africa's most famous living musician is on the edge of Independence Square in downtown Dakar, Senegal, surrounded by 50 journalists and 100 supporters and, beyond them, a line of 100 riot police fingering plastic bullets and a water cannon mounted on an armored truck.
Behind N'Dour the police truck is revving its engine, pushing forward into the crowd. N'Dour looks worried, glancing back over his shoulder. But he's also angry. "This is the problem in Senegal," shouts the 52-year-old, indicating the police. "They are afraid of real change. But they don't have the right to stop us. These police are our police. We will be back. We will pursue this fight to the end. We will continue." And with that, his minders hustle him away.
N'Dour is finding there are ups and downs to running for President in his native Senegal. As someone who is to African music what Michael Jackson was to pop, he draws the crowds. On the other hand, his high profile also attracted the attention of Senegal's ruling regime, which barred his candidacy on Jan. 27, just 25 days after he announced it, while simultaneously allowing the 85-year-old incumbent, President Abdoulaye Wade, to run for a third term. Thwarted, N'Dour must now content himself with being one leader among many and a political novice at that in a fractious, disorganized opposition protest movement that aims to unseat Wade in an election on Feb. 26. So far at least five demonstrators have been killed in clashes with security forces. Asked to describe his new life, N'Dour replies: "Confused."
But not crushed. N'Dour is naturally quiet and reflective, but his younger brother Bouba says in politics N'Dour is discovering a "much more aggressive" sense of purpose. N'Dour tells TIME he is now set on building a national political movement ahead of legislative elections in June and an eventual second run at the presidency. The key to his appeal is his reputation for integrity; he is the musician who never forgot his roots, the self-made millionaire who distributes mosquito nets in Dakar's backstreets, the global star who stayed home. His friend and frequent collaborator, New Orleans jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, says the move into politics makes sense "because of his sincerity. Politics is the art of insincerity. But every now and then a person can sweep in." N'Dour says circumstances, and the sky-high stakes, simply give him no choice. "We're building a new Africa," he says. "We want a continent where power is returned to the people and we don't have these tyrants. This is the start of the biggest political fight in Senegal's history. But we also hope the spirit of our struggle will inspire other African countries that need change to create a continent founded on legality and democracy."
It sounds momentous, something like an African Spring. Coupled with Africa's surging business prospects the International Monetary Fund says seven of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies in the next decade will be African such a continental sweeping away of Africa's remaining Big Men might even herald the arrival of an African renaissance. Equally, the spark may fail to take and Senegal could hurtle toward violent insurrection and repression. Leonardo Villalón, professor of African politics and a Senegal specialist at the University of Florida, says: "Anything could happen. Whatever does, the implications, for Senegal, and the region, are enormous."
Youssou N'Dour was born in october 1959 in the neighborhood of Medina in Senegal's dusty, seaside capital, Dakar. Dakar is both a city of skyscrapers and a place where goats still wander sandy streets. Medina is rough and tough, a place for hustling and street smarts. N'Dour's father was a carpenter and his mother an illiterate housewife. But his mother's side belonged to a caste of musical storytellers griots and as a boy N'Dour spent much of his time at his grandmother's house, surrounded by musicians. At 11, he quit school; by 12, he was singing with a theater group; at 13, he recorded his first song. By his late 20s, he was lead singer of Dakar Super Etoile (Dakar Superstar), a UNICEF ambassador, signed to Virgin Records and on regular tours of Europe and the U.S., where he was quickly crowned the new king of world music. Marsalis remembers hearing N'Dour play in the late 1980s when the pair performed on an Amnesty International tour with Sting, U2, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel. "Youssou was the wild card," says Marsalis, who was in Sting's band. "I see these Africans. And they're up there nailing it, killing it. I was completely wowed. He's a master musician."
N'Dour's global fame grew through collaborations with artists like Marsalis, particularly a 1993 duet with Neneh Cherry, "7 Seconds." But while other successful African artists left for Paris or New York City, N'Dour stayed in Senegal. True to his Medina roots, he became a canny businessman, opening a nightclub and later a radio station, a newspaper and a TV station.