Fans swoon over this Islamic pop star

Maher Zain's songs cover a wide range of styles, from slick ballads to driving Europop.
Maher Zain's songs cover a wide range of styles, from slick ballads to driving Europop.PHOTO: OEP

Maher Zain gets more than 100 million views on YouTube a month, particularly from Muslim-majority places

BIRMINGHAM (England) • At about 11pm on a recent Friday, in a room backstage at the International Convention Centre in the British city of Birmingham, pop star Maher Zain, dressed all in white, was meeting his fans after a sold-out 90-minute show.

Ms Fiaza Kausar, a 23-year-old receptionist, walked up to him, somehow managing to keep her cool.

After taking a photograph, she was ushered out of the room, replaced by the next person in line who had paid £150 (S$270) for the chance to meet him.

Zain, who was in Birmingham for the eighth performance of a tour for British charity Penny Appeal, is one of Islamic pop's biggest stars.

The 36-year-old has more than 26 million likes on Facebook and gets more than 100 million views on YouTube a month, particularly from Muslim-majority places such as Indonesia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

He also has friends in high places. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey "loves me as an artist", said Zain, who performed in Singapore last year.

The singer works hard to ensure his music reaches a wide audience.

He releases albums in Arabic, Turkish and sometimes Malay, and includes songs with lyrics in Urdu and Indonesian.

His songs cover not only a wide range of styles, from slick ballads to driving Europop, but he also releases vocal-only versions for strict Muslims.

Given his popularity, his public image is surprisingly narrow - focused on charity work and little else except the fact that he likes working out. In Birmingham, when fans were asked what they knew of Zain, other than his music, many could say only that he is a family man and role model.

Sitting in a London hotel room three days after the Birmingham concert, Zain denied having any strategy for a public image. "I'm the same guy on-and offstage," he said, adding that he liked his privacy and quiet life in Sweden.

"I don't want to live this life, basically. I really don't. I believe I'm on a mission and you cannot turn it down, you know what I mean? I've been chosen," he added.

Zain was born in Lebanon. When he was eight, his parents sold their car and other possessions to buy fake Swedish visas so they could escape the country's civil war.

He remembers little from that time, apart from playing in the snow shortly after arriving in his new country. "You're just a kid - everything's new and fun," he said.

Music was largely a hobby until his 20s, when he met Nadir Khayat, a Swedish-Moroccan music producer known as RedOne, who has worked with artists such as Lady Gaga and Shakira.

Khayat needed an assistant so Zain went to the United States with him. But just before RedOne hit the big time, Zain returned to Sweden to take a break. "It was supposed to be a short time," he said. "It was, like, I will go back, I will go back, but that didn't happen."

Instead, he rediscovered his faith.

"I had many questions about life and death. It doesn't make sense that I'm just born and then I'm going to work and I'm going to have fun, whatever I'm going to do, then die and that's it," he said.

Zain is very active on social media and regularly highlights issues that affect Muslims. He has championed the support that Mr Erdogan has shown to the Rohingya in Myanmar and Syrian refugees.

But he insisted that highlighting such issues is "more humanity than politics".

"When you see these things, I feel that as a human and as an artist, I have a responsibility to highlight what people are going through."

A few hours after the interview, Zain took the stage at Central Hall Westminster. The show was far livelier and louder than Birmingham's.

Halfway through his set, he covered Michael Jackson's Heal The World, a song that seems to perfectly sum up what he stands for.

But the biggest reaction came when he played Number One For Me, a song about his mother.

"Who here loves their mother?" he asked, to screams from the audience. He told the crowd to hug their mother if she was there, and to send her a text message if she was elsewhere.

"And if she's not with you anymore, don't forget to pray for her," he added.

The audience swooned.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Fans swoon over this Islamic pop star'. Print Edition | Subscribe