Youssou N’Dour’s music is not what you’d call mainstream. He sings in Wolof—a dialect of his native Senegal—laying jazzy vocals over undulating waves of drums and horns. But none of the fans who have caught his act on Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour have thought to question the African pop star’s right to be headlining the show, right up there with Bruce, Tracy and Sting. “He’s had standing ovations,” says his manager, Verna Gillis. “They respond to his voice.”
Youssou N’Dour (pronounced yousue en-dure), 29, grew up in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, the oldest son of a garage mechanic who tried to stifle his young son’s musical ambitions. “He wanted me to stay in school and become a boring bureaucrat,” says N’Dour, who instead ran away from home briefly at 14. Only then did his father let him cut a record, which became a local hit. By the time he was 20, N’Dour and his band were certified national stars in Senegal, and N’Dour was helping to support his family.
The first time N’Dour played Europe, it was to an audience filled with African émigrés. When he returned in 1985, he was beginning to find a white audience; rocker Peter Gabriel caught a London show and later sought N’Dour out in Dakar to talk about working together. In 1986 N’Dour sang backup vocals on Gabriel’s So album and opened for him on a three-continent concert tour. “Here’s the group I like best in the world,” Gabriel would tell the audience. “I’d like you to listen to their music.” N’Dour’s 1985 album Immigrés sold well in Europe and will be released in the U.S. this month.
Like all the Amnesty stars, N’Dour sometimes writes music with a message. While watching a news report from South Africa one evening, his mother conceded that she saw only “blacks and whites fighting each other.” Hoping to set her straight, Youssou wrote Mandela, a biting anti-apartheid song. Getting involved with Amnesty has only strengthened his resolve to “say exactly what I think,” N’Dour says. “I’m going to push the people of Africa to do the same.”