OnlineRock Blog

22 January 2012

Can Musicians Be Politicians? Youssou N'Dour Is Willing to Try

By Tomi Mendel

Internationally renowned singer and musician Youssou N’Dour is ready to take a step away from music and enter the world of politics. He has recently announced his candidacy for the office of president in his native country of Senegal. The 52-year-old, extremely popular throughout the African continent, is quite confident that he can succeed, saying in a BBC interview, "I'm going to win this election in the first round. Definitely. No question." Unfortunately for N’Dour, there is a fairly mixed track record for musicians entering into politics, especially when compared with their acting brethren. Thespians like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger famously had a lot of success in government here in the United States, rising to offices of considerable power. Meanwhile, overseas, actors Joseph Estrada (Phillippines) and Lech & Jaroslaw Kaczynski (Poland) earned governing positions in their own nations.

Mid-’90s hit for Presidential Candidate Youssou N’Dour

As far as musicians go, however, Congressman Sonny Bono is probably the only notable example in the United States. Although Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra ran for Mayor of San Francisco in 1979 (coming in fourth) and was second place to Ralph Nader in the 2000 race for Presidential Candidate of the Green Party, his valiant efforts have never resulted in any sort of position of power. Hip-hop star Wyclef Jean’s unsuccessful 2010 bid for the Presidency in Haiti is another discouraging example for Youssou.

Jello Biafra: Leader of the Free World?

On the other hand, history is not completely unkind to politically ambitious musicians. Tropicalia pioneer Gilberto Gil, for instance, has had a fairly successful career outside of music. From the extremely low point of political exile from his native Brazil in the late 1960s due to the content of his music, Gil climbed all the way back to achieve the office of Minister of Culture in his homeland, a post which he held for five years. He has continued to release new music throughout his political career. Peter Garrett, former vocalist for Midnight Oil, is a similar example, currently the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth in Australia.

He’s gotta be the coolest of all politicians.

Strangely, politicians may in fact have had more success as musicians than the other way around. One of former-President Bill Clinton’s most memorable moments was his sunglasses-clad saxophone performance on The Arsenio Hall Show, and former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice was actually a standout pianist as a teenager, even later showcasing her skills in a performance for Queen Elizabeth II. Another U.S. President, Richard Nixon, was also a highly accomplished musician from a very young age, and a little digging on Youtube reveals a performance of an original piano concerto on The Jack Paar Show. He also made a special appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville only months before resigning from office in 1974. 

A thoroughly fascinating video.

Perhaps the oddest story of musical success for a politician comes from Charles Dawes, who, before serving as Vice President under Calvin Coolidge, had a minor hit with a composition entitled “Melody in A Major.” Unfortunately, Dawes, who died in 1951, did not survive to see his tune transformed into a major pop hit, with a version by Tommy Edwards (featuring lyrics by Carl Sigman) known as “It’s All in the Game” hitting number one on U.S. and U.K. charts in 1958. Dawes’ many other accomplishments include a Nobel Peace Prize and a tour of duty as a Brigadier General during World War I. 

Isaac Hayes brings us the sexiest - and definitely the least Vice-Presidential - rendition of “It’s All In The Game” 

Overall, there is not a great precedent for musicians like Youssou N’Dour when it comes to gaining political office. At the same time, no one with this strong of a local fan base has ever really given it a try. It is unclear whether his fame can translate to votes, but if examples like that of President Reagan are any indication, it certainly won’t hurt. Current President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is in hot water after attempting to modify electoral laws in his favor, so there might be room for an unexpected candidate to triumph. For a country that has remained relatively stable amid many troubled neighbors, these elections are a big deal, and the voting, which takes place in February, should prove quite interesting. Perhaps we’ll get to see, for the first time ever, a musician rise to an extremely powerful governing role.


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