Ali — one of the 12 finalists in Eurovision France, c’est vous qui décidez — was not born in Paris as his song “Paris me dit, Yalla ya helo!” would suggest. But there’s nowhere else where he feels so at home. Despite his joyful character, the 29-year-old carries painful memories of the Lebanese war that led him to flee his homeland. Soon he will try to represent his adopted country, France, at Eurovision. Before then the singer agreed to give his very first interview to Wiwibloggs.
“France has adopted me, and I think the least I can do to thank her is to represent her at Eurovision,” he tells me. “In any case, my France, the one that welcomed me with open arms. That’s why I want to represent France…I feel at home. Having an adopted country is really great.”
Ali knows how lucky he is to have been able to change his destiny and start an artistic career, which he was not previously destined for. Born in Lebanon, he has a degree in interior design. Then, in 2014, everything changed when he decided to flee his country, which was hit by civil war. He first settled in Milan to finish his studies, and then arrived in France to work in the fashion industry. In Paris, he finally dared to indulge his artistic inclinations.
“I studied interior design because in Lebanon, it is rare that we are encouraged to go towards artistic professions. We are more encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, architects, so under this pressure, I went into higher education. France allowed me to realise my dreams.”
Paris Me Dit, Yalla ya helo!
“Paris me dit, Yalla ya helo” literally means: “Paris tells me, come my beautiful!” Written by the French band Hyphen-Hyphen, it builds on Ali’s personal journey, capturing his discovery of his new life and packing it in a song.
“In this title, I reveal myself by telling my story, where I come from. I was born in Lebanon, in a period of war, under the bombs. I lived through things that left their mark on me. The society in which I lived pushed me to forge a shell to protect and armour myself.”
The title recounts the indescribable feeling Ali experienced upon arriving in France. The feeling of being “called” by the country. A call taking the form of a welcome — to live at last and to wish for a more serene future. The rhythm of “Paris me dit” also helps to convey the transition he felt: Dark verses lead to a luminous refrain, and a play on lights and shadows show his movement toward freedom. Beyond his personal story, Ali wants to offer a message of hope to the public. In short, one can live through hardships and then recover.
“This song is really the story of my story, of moving on from my old life to my new life. So I invite everyone to have hope that you can experience difficult things and that you can face obstacles, but knowing there are always solutions, you can’t let yourself go. Ideally, maybe I dream too much, but if there is a little Ali somewhere who thinks ‘if Ali did it, I can do it’, then I would have won it all.”
He believes his artistic pursuits help heal the wounds of his past.
“When I talk about the war, I always ask myself what I can do with it — what can it bring? For me that’s the artist’s duty, the added value. In any case, I want to turn this into something positive.”
As he transforms his trauma into something positive, he makes sure not to lose sight of his past. He accepts that these experiences, on some level, shape the man he is.
“I think that, unconsciously, the memory of the war in Lebanon is present and influences me. It’s not that I’m trying to tap into it. When I create something, I don’t tell myself that I’m going to draw from this memory to create. But unconsciously, when this kind of event strikes us, it is no longer possible to erase them from our memory. What happened, it’s part of me. These events have contributed to who I am today. If I had not experienced this, perhaps I would not have had the courage to leave Lebanon, to come to France and take risks to launch new projects. What I experienced in Lebanon allows me to take a step back from the subject I’m talking about”.
Eurovision France: C’est vous qui décidez
In a few weeks time, Ali will participate in Eurovision France, c’est vous qui décidez! While he can’t show all of his cards, Ali teases good things to come. He refuses to resort to meaningless stage gimmicks. The French audience should expect to be treated to a story where emotion guides proceedings.
“I am a very ‘visual’ person. I like symbolism and storytelling. Anything you see on stage will make sense. I don’t like what is gratuitously meaningless. I like thoughtfulness. Even in spontaneity, I like when it is intelligent and thoughtful. We’re going to try to transcribe my story on stage, and make it visual. We’re also going to try to create emotion, because I like that and it’s something important to me. So I’m going to try, as much as possible, with my team, to speak of my personal development, where I started from and where I am today.”
You’ll likely remember getting a glimpse of a heart on his hand in his Eurovision France music video. It’s not by chance. It is a direct echo of the French expression “avoir le cœur sur la main” (to have your heart on your hand) — a symbol of giving of oneself, of giving a part of who one is to others and showing generosity. In a nod to the ongoing pandemic, he offered us some amusing advice: that perhaps it is better to have your heart “on your elbow” to minimise contact.
“This is the sign of sharing. I really want to give and share love. We really need it right now.”
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Questioned about some criticism he’s faced over his performance, the singer wants to reassure people: this is not the final version. It’s too early to talk about a revamp, but the arrangement will be different. Moreover, the official release of the song will take place in January, and will come with a surprise.
“The video of the audition is not at all the final version of the title. The live will change everything, and I have a surprise in store for the title, in January, because that’s when ‘Paris me dit’ will be officially released. And that’s when we’ll be able to discover the final form. It will be a more elaborate version, with a different production. For the the tv show, it’s a surprise!”
He didn’t compare himself to Madonna. But the singer did summon a pop star punchline when criticised about his vocal skills: “I don’t make music to sing but because I have something to say”.
Should he have the chance to represent France in Rotterdam, Ali promises a flood of tears. Beyond a dream, this would be the reward for the many efforts and sacrifices he has made.
“I’ve been watching Eurovision since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to take part in it, but I told myself that it wouldn’t be possible, that it would never happen. It’s true that everything is possible, but above all we can make things possible. If we don’t do things to make it happen, it will never happen. It’s incredible to tell myself that I was a spectator and that now I have everything in my hands to try to become an actor. And above all, for a cause that is so dear to me.”
It is important to point out that Eurovision France will be the singer’s first professional music stage. Before now, he has performed on only a few local stages.
He continues to work in the fashion industry in parallel with his musical projects. Ali recently launched his own ready-to-wear line “ZALZALI”. The brand already has nearly 2,000 followers on Instagram. Just like during his audition, he will wear a stage costume from his own collection.
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Are you touched by Ali’s personal story of dislocation and finding a home? Are you ready to hit the club with him? Let us know in the comments box below.