She is a singer who has made her mark on the music industry in the Middle East. Her journey to fame hasn’t been easy, but her talent and skill at reinventing herself have kept her fans flocking and kept her name carved among today’s top Arabic singers. eniGma’s Deputy Editor, Omnia Zaied sat down with Samira Said at her home to find out the secret to her success.
I am on the outskirts of Cairo, at Samira Said’s suburban house. The colour of the house is Marrakech red and has a distinct Moroccan flair, a reminder of her Moroccan roots. The silence of New Cairo envelops us, though it is occasionally interrupted by the sounds of Sherif, our photographer as he sets up for our cover shoot, and those of Maissa, our Fashion Director giving directions. Silence still rules in Said’s bedroom as she gets her make-up done. Her voice is low and modulated as she comments on the random conversations taking place around her. It’s difficult to identify her with the voice streaming from her iPad which is blasting her latest single Mazal (He’s Still). “It is nominated for Best Song at the World Music Awards,” she tells us with underlying excitement.
Awards are nothing new to Said, which is amply proven by the wall full of trophies in her living room. A World Music Award from 2003, a Best Artist in the Middle East from the BBC Awards for World Music and a slew of regional awards. When you look at them you can’t help but realise how accomplished Said is. Her 40-year journey in show business has been full of ups and downs but she overcame the challenges that came her way and managed to reach the top.
Said has witnessed the rise of legends and the fall of wannabes. She witnessed the evolution of records from cassette tapes to virtual tracks. She experienced many changes in the industry and faced many challenges; and most importantly she survived them all. “In this business you don’t have to have the best voice, but you have to know how to be different and special. An artist has to get bored of himself before people start getting bored of him. You have to always renew yourself,” she tells me. “I am in constant pursuit of something different, something new, something that I’ve never done before.” This gives away what kind of a person she is. Even after all this success, she is still looking for something new to do.
Sitting in her Juicy tracksuit, playing with her dogs, Said looks nothing like the diva she is known to be. She is calm, collected and confident. “You know, if I was given another lifetime, I wouldn’t do all this again,” she says with a smile. “Yes, when you achieve success you feel it was totally worth it, but still it took a lot to get here.”
Being a young woman trying to make it in the music industry was no easy feat. Said is one of those celebrities who had to do things the hard way. “I’ve never been one of those people who are just lucky. I had to work extra hard for everything I achieved,” she tells me. “In the Middle East, if you are an artist, and particularly if you are a woman, you are alone. You don’t have real managers or assistants; you are on your own,” she says.
And her hard work has certainly paid off. The 14-year-old Moroccan girl who arrived in Cairo to try her luck at singing turned into one of the best selling artists in the region. She had a best-selling album or single or an award every working year in her life and every step in her career is considered a milestone in the history of Arabic music. And she did it all on her own.
Even though Said was used to fame since she was nine years old, when she participated in the talent show Mawaheb on Moroccan TV, she still had a lot to learn about fame when she came to Egypt. She ultimately reclused herself to her inner circle of friends and acquaintances and built a wall around her personal life with her only son Shady; and she didn’t allow anyone to break into that circle. “I learnt to keep my personal life to myself. I am very picky when it comes to the people I surround myself with. And It’s not because I am famous, it’s because this is my personality. I don’t like to be surrounded by a lot of people who are not that close to me. I’d rather have just a few close friends.”
This allowed her more quality time to produce better music. Her albums Moch Hatnazel Anak Abadan (I will Never Let you Go), 1986, A’al Bal (On My Mind), 1998, and Aweeni Beek (Make Me Strong), 2004 were among some of the best selling Arabic albums of all time. The latest album, Ayam Hayaty (Days of My Life), came out more than five years ago before Said took a break and decided to lay low for a while.
“After the album came out in 2008, it seemed like the whole industry was changing. The problem of the illegal downloads was at its peak. Producers were reluctant to produce albums because no one was buying them anymore,” she says. Soon thereafter, the Arab Spring started and the unstable political and security situation in the region left her with no desire to produce anything new. “I am in this business because I love music and I have to be 100 percent comfortable to be able to create. With everything that was going on I felt I had nothing to give. I tried, but I couldn’t,” she recalls. Till the increasing demands of her fans finally convinced her to sing again. She recorded Mazal , for which she is nominated for the World Music Award and she is planning to release another Egyptian single in the coming two months.
The departure of her son Shady to study business in the UK encouraged Said to join the television show, Sout Al Haya (The Sound of Life) as one of the celebrity judges on the show. “It came at the right time. I needed something to take my mind off being alone and missing Shady. We used to go to Beirut three days a week to shoot. It was a great opportunity for me,” she says.
As she prepares her next Egyptian single, Said seems to be approaching a new phase in her life; a phase of nostalgia for her Moroccan roots. “I love Egypt. I have lived here for more than half of my life. But sometimes you reach an age where you just long for your family and your roots. I think I am in this phase now,” she says. But it doesn’t mean she is thinking about shying away from everything. “There are still a lot of things I want to achieve,” she says. “Artists abroad are much luckier, they get to do a lot of things we can’t do here. I would love to perform the way they do and to be able to sing about a variety of topics,” she says.
Yet in the end, Said’s ultimate dream is quite simple. “To know when to stop,” she says. “I want to leave when I am on top, this is how I’d like people to remember me.”
ART DIRECTION & STYLING: Maissa Azab
PHOTOGRAPHY: Sherif Amar