Jungkook, Davido, FIFA… Morocco’s award-winning producer RedOne is on top of the world

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Friday, 16 December 2022 09:16

(Illustration - Jean-Marc Pau For TAR)

The FIFA World Cup’s official music producer, RedOne, talks about the transformational power of sport and song, his hunch that African music would be the future, and his work with Korean pop idol Jungkook.

The Africa Report first had coffee with Nadir Khayat – better known as two-time Grammy-winning producer RedOne – in a perky Stockholm brasserie back in 2010. Over a stack of waffles, he and his musical partner Efe Ogbeni were plotting out how African music could go global.

12 years later, those seeds are bearing fruit. Khayat is now FIFA’s executive director of entertainment and is responsible for the soundtrack of the Qatar World Cup. He chose Nigerian afrobeats legend Davido to feature on the official theme, ‘Hayya Hayya (Better Together)’.

“It means that dreams do come true,” he says, speaking to us via video link from Doha. “I’m very happy, football has been in my blood since I was a kid growing up in Morocco.”

This is not his first FIFA rodeo: Khayat’s hit ‘Bamboo’ became an ‘official melody’ for the 2006 World Cup, and he contributed ‘One World’ for the 2018 competition. However, he is now in the driving seat… and he’s enjoying the ride. On ‘Hayya Hayya’, he can be spotted playing the guitar alongside Davido in the Qatari desert. “Of course! I’m a rock guy, I love playing. I was enjoying the filming of the video, the atmosphere of the World Cup, so it was a very beautiful moment, for sure,” says Khayat.

“Davido is a friend and he is a huge star for us Africans,” Khayat tells The Africa Report. “He believes in the dream and when you see somebody from Africa making it big in the world, putting their stamp on history, it makes you proud.”

Davido has helped lift the afrobeats genre onto the global stage, connecting people in a new way. “For me, football and music are the same, they bring cultures together, bring all the differences together, and make people feel good,” Khayat says.

“[…] Efe [and I] always believed that Africa would be the future – we manifested it in a way, and it [took] time, but slowly, slowly it was growing, and now it is taking over the world.”

Topping the charts

This incremental process is something that Khayat can identify with. “I did not realise I had talent until I was 16,” he says. “I saw [the band] Europe, and heard ‘The Final Countdown’, and that was it, that was when it clicked. I was obsessed, I wouldn’t do anything but play guitar and learn everything about music.” Rather than play covers like his brothers, he found he could compose. “I had new ideas.”

Hopping over to Sweden around the age of 18, he went to all the concerts he could – “Metallica, Rolling Stones, everything” – and realised the potential of music to blur boundaries. “The concerts were full of people from all different backgrounds, and everyone gets along because they share the love for music. You start crying sometimes.”

Everybody thought I was a crazy kid who was dreaming of winning Grammys in America.

Then came the magic of creating music for larger audiences, working with Lady Gaga, and dissolving the boundaries further. “That feeling when you have a whole stadium, and that music is theirs, not mine, not Gaga’s, fans singing ‘Bad Romance’… that is a crazy energy.”

Today, with awards to his name and a long roster of A-list collaborations under his belt, he is able to reach not tens of thousands, but millions. His FIFA World Cup song ‘Dreamers’, featuring Jungkook from the K-pop boy band BTS, topped the charts in over 100 countries.

“He is the voice of a new generation,” says Khayat. “The lyrics say it all: ‘We are the dreamers, we make it happen because we can see it.’”

He is pleased for Jungkook, taking a risk on his solo material. “He is in BTS, they are massive, but that doesn’t mean you are going to have success when you go solo. For him to have the first World Cup song that goes to number one and breaks records – you can’t be anything but incredibly happy for him.”

We are going to make this a huge scene globally. We are working on that, it might take a few years, but it’s going to happen

In a way, he could be talking about his own journey. “Everybody thought I was a crazy kid who was dreaming of winning Grammys in America; and if you’re from a little town in Morocco, Tétouan, how can you dream of winning a Grammy? It’s impossible.”

This FIFA World Cup in Qatar has certainly faced criticism – around the human rights of workers, the treatment of minorities and corruption. Other commentators have pointed to double standards in the way Qatar has been treated.

Beyond these polemics, it is worth taking seriously Khayat’s ideas around differences being soluble in music. While this might seem flimsy gift-card material at first glance, there is some evidence for the liberalising impact of global sporting events.

Catalytic trajectory

Jungkook would have been five years old at the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, which is credited with opening the political and cultural space in Korea.

The result, two decades later? Korean cinema, television and music is a key export, and many of those artists are doing the difficult work of digesting the traumatic decades of the 1980s and 1990s, helping Korea make sense of its past and push society forwards.

It might be a stretch to project a similar catalytic trajectory for Qatar, but Khayat thinks the World Cup is an important moment for the country and the region. “All the [visitors] that have come here say: ‘This is incredible, the people here are so welcoming, very positive’, […] this will have a huge impact for the future – so many people witnessing how smoothly the event is being run,” says Khayat.

He highlights the choice of Qatari singer Aisha on the ‘Hayya Hayya’ track. “We could have gone for a big Arab star, but we wanted to choose a new talent, to really show the world, look, there are women in Qatar, in Africa, in the Khaleeji world, that can really have an impact.”

Music also plays a part in Morocco’s own South Korea-style cultural industrial policy. Over the past decade the Kingdom has created multiple music festivals, such as Mawazine, or the Fes World Festival of Sacred Music. “It started with the King, who has used it to connect and listen to the youth,” says Khayat. “We are going to make this a huge scene globally. We are working on that, it might take a few years, but it’s going to happen.”

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