Over the course of our conversation, Ragheb Alama uses the word ‘vision’ a dozen times. He is referring to his own but also to that of the team around him. The first couple of times, you think it might be just a convenient buzzword, but over the course of the conversation, you realise that his longevity and success in the Arab pop music-entertainment complex can only be credited to vision. He is Arab pop’s first mogul in a way; the region’s equivalent of an American rapper releasing hit singles, owning a basketball team, having a TV show, supporting scholarships for kids, and launching a water brand.
Alama’s start was inauspicious. A kid from Ghobeiry, a municipality on the edge of Beirut, he was a contender on Lebanon’s now-legendary talent show Studio El Fan, which has run intermittently on various television channels since 1972. The show hosted many artists who would go on to become huge stars, from Elissa to Haifa Wehbe. I wonder where might he have ended up if he hadn’t found success on the show?
“I didn’t actually succeed on Studio El Fan, because the show got suspended due to the war. I was successful in the first stages, but then the whole programme stopped because of the security situation, so I couldn’t make it to the final. But I continued alone. So, I didn’t depend on the show, I depended on myself,” he smiles. Maybe there was nowhere else Alama was going to end up.
Sweater, $235, jeans, $130, Boss
With dozens of records and singles, a passport stuffed to the brim with stamps from far-flung international tours, endorsement deals with some of the world’s most covetable luxury brands and a position as a judge on The Voice, Alama has been a force in Arab pop music for close to four decades. He has witnessed every change in the local and global industry. But that’s not to suggest that he harbours nostalgia for the way things used to be.
“I embrace change and march forward. You know, the dinosaurs refused to adapt, and they went extinct. So that’s my attitude to change,” he laughs. He is widely credited as the first artist in the region to release a single with a music video – with “Alby Asheq’ha” (My Heart Adores Her) – so perhaps it’s in his blood to innovate. Today, he’s extremely present on every social network you can think of. I ask if he thinks social media makes it harder or easier to break into the industry today.
“It’s easier to get famous, it’s harder to be sustainable,” he says reflexively. You can tell he’s thought about it before.
Sunglasses, price on request, Bottega Veneta. Blazer, $645, trousers, $280, Boss. Shirt, $310, dunhill. Sneakers, $560, Celine by Hedi Slimane
Beyond the music, he has become something of an icon, even earning that the 21st century’s ubiquitous accolade of becoming a meme. A Facebook page has been posting the same photo of him from the ’80s every single day since 2015. That page has 134,000 followers at the time of writing. Icon status, right there.
Alama has an old-world charm about him. Something timeless in his style harks back to an era where men wore tuxedos to go to, like, the hotel bar.
“I don’t run after fashion,” he says. “It’s just something I feel. I pick from fashion to see what fits my character, my age, my history. I know what suits me and what doesn’t. Especially now, because I have to find a compromise between what I like and what my sons like. They help me a lot. I like to show my children that I listen to them, and value their judgement. No one will ever love me like they love me.”
Does he hope that his sons, who are already gaining quite the following on social media, will get into the entertainment industry? “I can only give them advice. I can’t impose anything on them. For now, neither of them seems interested in my profession. And I like that: they’ll have their own character, their own personality.” He pauses, maybe thinking of something else. “I believe in freedom, people should follow their desires. When I was young, starting out, my parents didn’t want me to go into music. But I made my decision. If I had followed their desires, maybe I wouldn’t have succeeded. People have to follow their impulses.”
Not only did he go into music, he brought his brother Khodr along for the ride. A mechanical engineer by training, Ragheb convinced him to join as a musician in the early days.
“Slowly, we realised he should become my manager. He has a vision and a strategic mind. And of course, there’s loyalty. It’s something very important in our family. But he’s not just my manager because he’s my brother. He’s my manager because he’s good at it.”
We talk, inevitably, about the ongoing revolution in Lebanon. I ask him if he sees any hope on the horizon. His voice shifts, he stiffens.
“As long as the people in parliament who brought Lebanon to this dark place are still there, I have no hope. All the parties, all the leaders, they should all be out. They led a conspiracy against the Lebanese people. They made them hungry and poor. They even ruined the air, the environment, industry, agriculture, our relationships with the international community, our children’s future. We need a new parliament based on the nation, not on religion or sect.” I find his position oddly clear, free of doublespeak. Alama is a prominent person – and Lebanon is a small country. He must be friends with some of those people in power.
“Others are scared to give their opinion. I’m not scared to give my opinion, even though I have friends in the political world. I don’t owe anyone anything. I’m scared about the future of my children and my country. They’ve made everyone leave. Even hope has left.”
In 2018, Alama released “Tar El Balad” (The Country is Gone), decrying deprivation, poverty and the general collapse of the Lebanese system. On the song, he sings that “even dreams emigrated”. One MP went on television and said Alama should be beheaded for the song.
“A lot of radio stations were forbidden from playing that track by the authorities. It’s still banned. So when they ask me to come do interviews I say, ‘No, if you’re not playing the song, I’m not coming in.’”
We haven’t managed to find much hope, then. We steer back towards the stage. Alama has a gig coming up at Paris’ legendary Olympia concert hall. Though, in his mind, even that icon can’t compare to Carthage. He pronounces it slowly – “Carthage” – taking his time to wrap the sounds around every letter.
“Of course, I like all those big stages, like the Royal Albert Hall and Olympia, but Carthage has no equal. It’s a combination of the stage and the Tunisian audience, which is one of the best in the world to perform to.”
Over the years, his music has certainly travelled. Today, there are Turkish and Iranian covers of his best-known hits. Like much else in Alama’s career, this hasn’t been an accident. It has been the result of strategy and – you guessed it – vision. He has been actively collaborating with artists from around the world for years, realising early on the value of featuring on someone’s track or vice versa. He has worked with everyone from Colombia’s Shakira, to Nigerian megastar Seyi Shay on 2018’s “Yalla Habibi”.
“I want to mix cultures together. I want their audience to hear me and I want my audience to hear them. Recently, I did a collaboration with an Iranian artist based in Los Angeles, Andy Madadian, and now I have this new Iranian audience!” Alama says his next major project will unveil one of his dream collaborations – but he can’t say anything yet. It’s early days. I try to find ways to insist on a name, or a country, but he’s firm. You can tell he’s not being coy, just professional. It’s the characteristic that runs through everything he does.
Before his role as coach on the swivelling-chairs of The Voice, Alama was a judge on The X Factor and Arab Idol. As a man who grew up with Studio El Fan, mentorship remains, four decades later, incredibly important to him.
“Even during my career, I always thought it was important to bring people on stage with me to introduce them to my audience. I’ve always liked opening doors.” Today, these shows are a way of doing that on primetime television to millions of viewers.
“I think we’re going back to tarab.” He’s referring, of course, to the kind of ecstatic form of Arab music performed until the mid-twentieth century, most famously by Umm Kulthum.
“In the ’80s, people started to fall in love Western music. But now, people won’t go out to a place if it doesn’t play Arabic music. It’s a big shift. I think we’re going back to our roots. The younger generation is getting access to this music through remixes and these club nights. And I think we’ll return to an old style of singing”
I look down at my phone and realise, embarrassingly, that I’m on his Instagram account, which I’d been scrolling through in preparation for our chat. I tell him I was struck by his bio, 70 percent of which is dedicated to philanthropic roles. I ask about his position as Goodwill Ambassador at the UN Environment Program. “I did that for seven years, until last year. I realised that my audience cared about the environment a lot, actually. I think we managed to raise a lot of awareness. Even though I’m not with the programme anymore, I carry that message with me.”
Alama also works with the Children’s Cancer Center in Lebanon.
“I’m very lucky that I haven’t been affected in my family by cancer, but it’s a cause I hold very dear. You know, you don’t have to be poor to empathise with the poor, or cold to empathise with those who can’t find shelter, or be ill to feel something for the sick. This is why I carry humanitarian messages.”
In the parlance of Arab music journalism, he tells me he has a scoop for me.
“I’m actually making a song right now, about cancer. I talk about cancer in a way that shows that it’s not something we should be afraid of. That people can beat it, that they’re fighters.” I tell him it’s an important move in our part of the world. A lot of people don’t even pronounce the word cancer. I tell him how my own father still calls it, “that illness”. “Exactly,” says Alama. “You’ve hit the nail on the head. I say that in the song. I say, ‘Use the word.’ There’s a power in those who weren’t scared of cancer, they are better able to beat it.
“Anything I can help other people with, I’m willing to do. You can either go through life tearing up flowers and uprooting trees, or you can go through life planting them. I want to go through life planting them.” Alama’s engagement with philanthropy started young. He opened his first school at just 27 years old. (The Saint George schools now educate 2000 students across four campuses.)
In the orbit of Ragheb Alama, there’s a lot figured out – so much of the vision firmly in place: endorsement deals, hit songs, a TV show, philanthropic work, a loving family. Does he have any regrets after so many years in the business and the public eye? At first I think he hasn’t heard the question, so I repeat it. He whispers the word ‘regret’ with something like contempt.
“Never! I consider every mistake a lesson. I have never regretted anything in my life.” You can tell that he means it.
But you wonder, you do, if a man like this, with a vision he holds so closely, has anything he hopes to see. Something he’d regret not seeing.
“You want the truth? With the wars and the criminality we see around us from Palestine, to Lebanon, to Syria, to Iraq, this language of guns and death and fire. It’s truly my hope that during my lifetime I will see our countries living like North America or Europe. Just peaceful, normal lives. That’s my only hope. I dream we’ll get to a point where it doesn’t matter what your religion or sect is. A point where the only thing that really matters is if you’re a good humanitarian.”
Photography: Bobby Buddy
Styling: Keanoush Zargham
Makeup Artist: Ophélie Crommar At La French Agency
Hair Stylist: Alan Antoine
Producer: Malaika Naik
Fashion Assistant: Ava Safari
Assistant Producer: Anisha Lachhwani