Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love functions as a bizarro-world version of the Barbara Kopple Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing. Both films capture major artists at pivotal stages in their career. Both artists are warmly received in Europe, but the subject of furious debate in their home countries for controversial statements. But where the Dixie Chicks got into hot water for an off-handed quip about being ashamed to share a home state with former President Bush, N’Dour became an unlikely controversy magnet for making an artistic statement that shouldn’t have offended anyone.
N’Dour nevertheless drew intense criticism throughout his native Senegal for releasing Egypt, an album praising the great religious icons of his Sufi faith and preaching brotherhood and tolerance. In the aftermath of September 11, N’Dour, an international music superstar and one of the most famous, popular musicians in Africa, felt it was important to project a positive image of Islam onto the Western world, but he was criticized in Senegal for releasing the album during the holy month of Ramadan, and combining sacred subjects with pop music in ways some found offensive or even obscene. When N’Dour made a video in a holy city, ridiculous rumors claim that the devout family man has magically morphed into the Luther Campbell of the motherland.
I Bring What I Love echoes the similarly engaging, albeit frustrating, Shut Up & Sing in regularly veering into label-finessed hagiography. N’Dour’s love for his faith, family, and homeland are undoubtedly sincere and touching, but he tends to communicate them in carefully scripted sound bites that sound suspiciously like press releases. Love alternates scenes of the singer nobly spreading his message of peace and love onstage with scenes of him being adorable with his children and distinguished in his role as an unofficial ambassador for Islam and Africa. Love looks and sounds great, but in depicting N’Dour as a lofty symbol for music’s power to bridge worlds and inspire, it sometimes loses sight of the man.