Mohamed Ramadan moves at a blistering pace. In the span of two weeks, the Egyptian actor and singer arrived in the UAE to shoot the music video for Ya Habibi before launching it on Sunday. The song was released at an intimate Dubai event and on Spotify billboards in Riyadh and New York.
Ramadan says it is all rather tiring. “Fifteen days and I swear to you it has been nothing but work,” he says. “You see my social media pages. There was no visiting cafes or shopping. This was how focused we have been here and I am glad it turned out well.”
The odd yawn aside, Ramadan is in great spirits when The National meets him in Dubai, and is dressed in archetypal swanky fashion, wearing a sparkly jacket with matching shoes.
He is only the second Arabic artist to be beamed on New York Spotify billboard after Amr Diab, and Ramadan is glad he has found success while sticking to his roots.
"Myself and my team managed to get this by celebrating our culture," he says. "A lot of the time there is this notion that Arab artists have to sing in English or French to get international attention. With this song, I did none of that. I sang in Arabic and even the title I did not change. It's great to see the words Ya Habibi on that billboard."
But there is still no denying the international appeal of Ramadan's latest work. As with his single TikTok, a collaboration with Armenian-American rapper Super Sako, in Ya Habibi, Ramadan again works with a global star to create a track that blends various styles.
Why he's focusing on Africa, not America
TikTok is a mix of Egyptian hip-hop with Armenian and Balkan folk elements, while Ya Habibi is built on sturdy Arabic percussion that is carried by a euphoric French pop chorus sung by Congolese rapper Maitre Gims.
The single reached more than a million YouTube streams in its first 12 hours on the platform, and is proving to be a hit. But Ramadan’s international collaborations can seem random. Surely someone with his fan base could manage a collaboration with Jennifer Lopez?
"What I am looking for is longevity. Tell me, what is the point of going to the West and singing with an American star, for instance, if my continent and region does not identify with me?" he says. "This is why with Ya Habibi, I am focusing on Africa and I will be for a while to come. I want to reach Nigeria, Congo, Zambia and Senegal and other important places.
“To become an international star means first getting support from your country, then those in your region where they share the same language and then your continent,” Ramadan says.
“That is when you go global. With that process, the industry will truly listen to you. People will respect you as an artist because you arrived internationally with millions of fans behind you. You will be too big to ignore.”
Ramadan’s plans in the UAE
Ramadan wants to take the UAE along for the ride, too. He is a frequent visitor and a golden visa holder, but this is his first music video to be filmed in the country, and the production serves as a glitzy representation of Dubai’s entertainment and lifestyle scene.
They go on night cruises on super yachts in the marina, rap in helipads with panoramic views of the emirate's skyline, and hang out in the lush opulence of the hotel Palazzo Versace. With all this glitz, Ya Habibi is a triumph, considering it was filmed within a week.
“With the whole situation with the coronavirus, we wanted to go to a place where we could shoot a video safely and with professionalism, and really the UAE is the best place for that,” Ramadan says.
“From the permits by the Dubai Film and TV Commission to the international crew, it was a great and professional experience. It’s a testament to a country that is smart and is always looking ahead. I want to do more work here.”
Ramadan on his UAE golden visa
Ramadan can come back as much as he likes, because he was granted a UAE golden visa. The scheme is offered to investors, entrepreneurs, chief executives, scientists, outstanding students, doctors and other skilled people, and grants the holder a renewable 10-year visa.
“This was honestly something that I did not plan or expect,” he says. “I am very grateful for this. I think the powers that be saw that I have the potential with my company to bring a lot of initiatives here to the UAE, and they gave me that opportunity. With Ya Habibi, the whole crew was about 150 people. Imagine [the employment opportunities] if I do 100 or more music videos here.”
On being number one
While his peers go to pains to separate their acting and music work, Ramadan sees both mediums as going hand in hand in ultimately promoting his brand, the goal of which is “to be No 1”.
This is a reference to the title of his 2018 hit, a song some took out of context.
"Some people looked at it as a form of arrogance, which is not true," he says. "Number One is a positive song. It's about encouraging you to be the best that you can be. I am not saying that I am number one, but that is what I work very hard to be."
The results of his hard work have certainly been impressive. Ramadan emerged in the 2006 drama Cinderella (a biographic series about Egyptian actress Soad Hosny, in which Ramadan played screen legend Ahmed Zaki), and has gone on to become one of the Arab world's most bankable actors.
Despite the success of this year's drama El Prince and the Al Kenz action film series, Ramadan admits to not being satisfied with an acting-only profile. "And this is why I turned to music. I realised that musicians have over 100 times the fan base of actors," he says.
“I don’t know why that is but that is just the case. As an actor, I can get maybe 1,500 people in a theatre to see me perform in a play, but last year I played a show in Marrakech and more than 100,000 people came. So I studied the situation and wanted to move towards that direction, but in a considered way.”
This also allows Ramadan to highlight his lighter side. While his television roles, such as El Prince and last year's Zelzal, are often serious, tracks such as Number One and Mafia are full of humour and zany dance moves.
“Especially with the music videos, I am just trying to be myself,” he says. “I don’t really sing about romance or heartbreak. It’s more youthful, energetic, with lyrics about being positive.” But you cannot be positive all the time, and Ramadan has been the subject of controversies of late.
But you cannot be positive all the time, and Ramadan has been the subject of controversies of late.
In April, he met some criticism after his character, Radwan, tore up an Egyptian passport in a scene from El Prince. Subsequently, Egyptian lawyer Ayman Mahfouz filed a legal complaint against Ramadan over the scene, reportedly accusing the star of "working to insult all the symbols of the Egyptian state".
In June, Ramadan was also subject to attacks from racist trolls online after he uploaded a photo of himself and his son. Ramadan responded to the vitriol: “I am happy that my children will grow up to be anti-racist with proof being in their own household that their mother and father are of two different colours.”
Ramadan says criticism has also become a form of motivation for him. “At home, I have a book. You can almost call it a ledger where I write nearly every day the people that were kind to me and those that were hurtful,” he says.
“Those on the blacklist just give me more energy. I document what they did and said and it makes me strive to prove them wrong. That has always worked for me.”
Walking out of our interview with Ramadan feels like leaving the eye of a whirlwind: he has so much energy it is almost overwhelming, but we also cannot help but root for him and his Africa-focused, unapologetically Egyptian ethos. Yalla habibi.