All those peace songs for Africa – Do they really work?

By Liesl Louw-Vaudran

AFP/Pierre Andrieu - Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour performs during his concert at the Bercy concert hall, in Paris, on October 12, 2013

AFP/Pierre Andrieu – Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour performs during his concert at the Bercy concert hall, in Paris, on October 12, 2013

In his latest music video, world-renowned Senegalese pop star Youssou N’Dour  performs with vocalist, Idylle Mamba from the Central African Republic (CAR). The song is an emotional call for peace in the troubled CAR where Christians and Muslims remain engaged in a bitter conflict.

The video includes images of Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. A Christian leader in a predominantly Muslim country, he was an example of religious tolerance.

The video goes on to show Muslim Imams and Christian pastors in the CAR holding hands amid the destruction of the conflict that has torn communities apart.

The lyrics are mostly French and Mamba, who lives in Cameroon, might not be that well known to her fellow Central Africans, but this is certainly a positive message.

However, the question may be asked whether the message will indeed reach the right people. To what extent are musicians or artists able to contribute to peace-building in Africa, especially given the dearth of good leadership on the continent?

Cynical observers will say that it is merely a way for musicians to attract attention and improve their sales.

For some, activism could involve mainly photo opportunities. Institutions like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Education Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) have long since recognised the power of associating a famous face with a good cause.

Goodwill ambassadors include stars like Nigeria’s Femi Kuti , Benin’s Grammy-winning singer, Angélique Kidjo, and Colombia’s Shakira. South African actress, Charlize Theron has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2008 – along with the likes of United States musician, Stevie Wonder, and actor, George Clooney.

Others, however, devote a lot of time and energy to trying to make the world a better place. Two musicians who are especially famous for their activism in Africa and, by extension, hobnobbing with powerful politicians are Bono from U2, and Bob Geldof, who led the Live Aid campaign to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims in the 1980s.

Both singers are still involved in various initiatives, following the Live 8 project in 2005 that accompanied former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, on which Geldof served.

Their ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign to scrap debt and increase aid to Africa was severely criticised, but it did raise global awareness of these issues.

The difference between these artist-activists and personalities like N’Dour, however, is that the former have not, so far, run for political office. Raising awareness and speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos is one thing, but being in the executive is quite another. Dare one say that being a politician is a job?

Haitian President, Michel Martelly, for example, was a well-known musician before reaching the highest office in that country.

Superstar Wyclef Jean also attempted to stand for president in the election that brought Martelly to power in 2010.

N’Dour, who tried to run for president in 2012, is now an advisor to Senegalese President, Macky Sall, with the rank of minister.

N’Dour is well liked and must be admired for his grassroots projects and investment in the media in Senegal. But he seems to be diplomatic only when it suits him.

During an interview with French media on March, 16 N’Dour surprised some by attacking non-Africans for meddling in Uganda’s affairs.

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Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a Johannesburg-based freelance journalist, Africa analyst.

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