In Senegal and much of Africa, according to Rolling Stone, Youssou N'Dour is "perhaps the most famous singer alive." Beyond those borders, he is a well-kept secret, but appreciated by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sting, Lou Reed, and Paul Simon, to name just a few.
Last week, Youssou N'Dour visited with me and sat for a portrait. He was joined by documentary filmmaker Chai Vasarhelyi, whose new film about him, "I Bring What I Love," opens June 12th in New York and nationwide throughout the summer.
I asked Ms. Vasarhelyi, "Why this film"? Below, her email response.
Although he is one of the most popular voices coming out of Africa, many people around the world still don't know Youssou N'Dour's work. I wanted to make a film that would illuminate Youssou's life and his message.
I was immediately drawn to the magical, soulful rhythm of Youssou's album 'Egypt' when I first heard it and that gave me the idea of making a big, beautiful film about Africa. Youssou hoped that the album was an opportunity to share his rich, spiritual vision of a tolerant Islam with the world.
I could not have anticipated what an emotional trial I would capture on film. I knew I wanted to give audiences a vibrant experience as seen through the process of releasing his most personal album; we unveil his faith, his family loyalty, his love of Africa and his unshakable belief in humanity.
Similarly, I could have never predicted the controversy surrounding the release of 'Egypt,' but those events strongly shaped the film's themes of conscience, faith, and doing the right thing. Regardless of your religious upbringing or musical tastes, I hope the film provides the chance to see an artist take a risk, faces the consequences, effect change and finally be rewarded on the world stage.
Last week in Cairo, President Obama engaged the Muslim world when he spoke about the fact that "America and Islam are not exclusive.... they overlap and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." Obama's words are very much in the spirit of Youssou's life's work.
Timothy, when you so kindly took the time to shoot a portrait of Youssou in your studio, I marveled at the way you so quickly captured the dignity and compassion of this extraordinary man. Both Youssou and I thank you, for it is all too rare that a film about an African subject receives this kind of positive attention.
For me, YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE brings to life a contemporary, hopeful Africa.
(c)Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, All Rights Reserved
YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE, exclusive New York Engagements begin Friday, June 12th at the Paris Theater, IFC Center, and BAM Rose Cinemas. The film opens in Los Angeles, July 3rd, and nationwide throughout the summer. Watch the trailer here.