On Thursday (April 21), Grammy-winning musicians Youssou N’Dour, Arooj Aftab and Lido Pimienta joined NPR music critic Ann Powers for Pop Conference 2022’s opening keynote address, “The Way Back Home: How Musicians Navigate Race and Borders.”
In collaboration with Billboard and New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, each explored how their respective music crosses borders and allows audience members to rethink notions of home and homelands, as well as race and identity.
Powers began the discussion by asking each artist how their experience with crossing borders has resonated through their music. N’Dour, who spoke in French for the duration of the evening, responded first, explaining how his art allows him to travel despite having never lived outside of Africa. “Music is my airplane,” he said. “It is music that takes me away to different places.”
Pimienta approached the question more figuratively as she touched on how she’s had to reconcile with language barriers. “My shows are stand-up comedy with music in it,” she said to describe how she bridges the communication gap. Aftab said she also uses humor in her shows and that she strives to create sensitive and conversational music around language so that sonically, listeners are immersed. “Even if we sing in another language, the expression always remains,” N’Dour added.
As one of the most highly celebrated African musicians of all time, N’Dour helped popularize mbalax music before achieving unprecedented international success in his collaborations with artists like Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry and releasing numerous border-crossing albums. Aftab, an acclaimed semi-classical, Hindustani, minimalist composer, songwriter and singer, was recently awarded the Grammy Award for best global music performance and is the first ever Pakistani artist to receive a Grammy. While Canadian-Colombian interdisciplinary artist, musician and curator Pimienta foregrounds Afro-Indigenous traditions and explores the wider politics of race, gender, motherhood, and identity through her work. In their own unique ways, each of this year’s panel participants has been a leader in reimagining the role and power of popular music as it circulates in a rapidly globalized world.
When it comes to maintaining a sense of home in their music, N’Dour mentioned that he tries to balance what he says in his music in relation to where he lives and what he wants present to the rest of the world. Pimienta then added that she stays within herself, saying “I don’t wear my culture, I am my culture.”
Powers concluded the conversation by asking the musicians to name a “voice” that virtual audience members should be listening to.
“Kouyaté Sory Kandia is the voice of angels,” N’Dour said. “His voice has a lot of class, a lot of tradition.”
“There’s a Pakistani Rajasthani legend, her name is Reshma,” said Aftab. “You cannot miss listening to her. She has a lot of live videos on YouTube, she’s a treat to watch live. And then there’s this younger woman who’s Egyptian, her name is Dina El Wedidi. She’s incredible.”
“You need to listen to Combo Chimbita,” said Pimienta. “You should also listen to tonada, and finally Sexteto Tabalá.”
As the longest running music writing and pop music studies conference of its kind, from April 21-24, Pop Conference 2022 will bring together the world’s leading pop scholars, journalists, writers and musicians for four days of virtual events exploring pop music’s role in shaping the way we think about borders, race and home. Other events include original concert performances by Jamila Woods and Aurelio Martinez, a special tribute panel to influential music writer Robert Christgau and two closing keynote panels on Sunday (April 24) paying homage to the written and musical legacies of beloved writer/bandleader Greg Tate, who passed away in December 2021.
Pop Conference 2022 is free and open to the public with advance registration here.