Mohammed Rifi should be enjoying the good life.
Ever since he won the inaugural The X Factor Arabia in May, the Moroccan became a hero in his homeland and the regional press are touting him as possibly the Middle East's next superstar.
Backstage at Dubai Music Week before the Pepsi Arabic Concert, the 29-year-old didn't strike the confident figure of someone with the world at his feet. That playful twinkle in the eye is gone and the shy grin endearing millions of television viewers is replaced with a tight smile.
“It’s hard,” Rifi says. “Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful but fame is extremely difficult. People now treat you differently and you are getting used to this new way of life. I am a simple guy and before I would meet friends, play football and do some fishing and go home. Now I walk around with bodyguards. I am not used to it. You can’t get used to it.”
Like most talent-show winners, it’s not only Rifi’s voice responsible for his ultimate success; his inspiring story is also crucial to his appeal.
Born in Casablanca, Rifi entered the workforce as a child after his father abandoned the household, leaving him and his brother to support the family.
Beginning at dawn, Rifi would spend the morning working in the fish market while in the afternoon he would clock on as a kitchen hand in a restaurant. Rifi also moonlighted as a security guard in a Casablanca mall. His spare time was spent fishing or relaxing with friends. He practised singing to soothe his nerves after a hard day’s work.
At the urging of friends, Rifi decided to enter the Moroccan auditions of The X Factor Arabia. He immediately impressed the judging panel comprising the Emirati singer Hussein Al Jasmi and the Lebanese pop stars Wael Kfoury and Elissa.
Rifi’s boy-next-door appeal, coupled with a melodious high-pitch tenor, saw his fan base swell; his victory was unsurprising.
Now signed with Sony Music Middle East, Rifi says he is uncomfortable with the trappings of a regional pop star.
He yearns for his former inconspicuous lifestyle in Morocco and struggles with the glitz of Dubai, where he travels for his recording work.
“It’s very busy here and a lot of people speak English and other languages I don’t understand,” he says.
“Also, everybody in Dubai drives cars and I am not used to seeing people not walking around. People here seem to be in a rush; where I come from that’s not the case. In Morocco, I would walk to places, see my friends and see both the rich and poor on the streets. Here, a lot of people – and may God bless them all – have money. If you don’t have money in Dubai, it’s a tough place to live.”
The music front is also another source of consternation to Rifi.
As well as the concert performance, Rifi’s recent Dubai stay found him finally completing the recording of the much-anticipated debut single Waraq wa Alam (Paper and Pen).
Rifi said the recording process thus far has been painstakingly slow and he is itching to begin working on his debut album.
“It is sung in an Egyptian dialect and I hope it appeals to everyone from the Gulf – Egypt to Morocco,” he says.
“I am past that now. I am ready to work on the album. It is extremely frustrating because people are asking me about it everywhere I go and on Facebook and all I can say is ‘be patient’. If I am doing the album by myself I will be already working on it. But I am part of a large company and there is a way of doing things. ”
Such realisations give Rifi doubts about having a long-term career in the music industry; he is purely thinking short-term for now.
“I will do the best that I can and then simply withdraw,” he says. “I don’t feel at the moment that I want to stay in this field for long, to be honest.”
A stage hand suddenly appears requesting Rifi to prepare for his headline set.
Does he regret auditioning for The X Factor Arabia?
“Look, everything happens with the permission of God,” he says. “At the same time, I do feel like I have choices. When I have enough of the entertainment world, I will walk away with no regrets. Money is not everything, you understand? I work to live, I don’t live to work.”