An African music star who ignited worldwide controversy among fellow Muslims with one of his albums was in the city Saturday to perform at an arts festival aimed at spreading a deeper understanding of Islam.
"I want to show the true face of Islam -- a religion in which people can dance, even enjoy,'' Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour said over lunch in Harlem, where children mobbed him with adoration in the streets. "People don't have to associate Islam with fear and sadness. Why is that the only image of Islam in the media?''
A new documentary film about N'Dour's struggles and victories plays in theaters across the United States starting June 12. It was screened Saturday evening before his hourlong sold-out live show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, capped by a frenzied dancing ovation from the audience.
Over the years, the 49-year-old singer has sold millions of albums and performed with Western stars including Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Sting, and Bono.
N'Dour insists on performing religious-themed music in his vibrant, African rhythm-driven shows -- despite a boycott of his 2004 album "Egypt'' in his native Senegal that lasted almost two years. The album initially was banned in Egypt, with Muslims accusing N'Dour of "desecrating'' Islam by mixing it with secular pop culture; some even spread false rumors that he used naked women in videos.
On Friday in Brooklyn, the best-selling pop artist opened the "Muslim Voices: Arts And Ideas Festival'' of 100 artists from 23 countries. Their 10-day program ranges from Arabic cinema, Indonesian dance and African music to film and other visual arts.
The documentary "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love'' follows the controversy that tagged N'Dour after the release of "Egypt,'' which won a Grammy in 2005. The next year, N'Dour and his band filled Carnegie Hall.
"When I listened to 'Egypt' I was moved, because he grew up listening to the (late) Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum, the voice of the Muslim world,'' said Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who directed the documentary. "And he wanted to celebrate Islam in Senegal as a peaceful, tolerant culture.''
At the time in N'Dour's native West Africa, some stores returned copies of the album, radio stations refused to play it and sales were poor compared with those of his previous releases.
He persisted, winning over many of his detractors as an official UNICEF goodwill ambassador who is working to stop malaria in Africa on behalf of the U.S.-based nonprofit Malaria No More, distributing free mosquito nets to families on the continent while entertaining them.
N'Dour said he hopes the documentary will help him "to break a taboo subject -- that Islam is what the extremists do.''