Lionel Richie, All Night Long in Iraq

With his smash hit, All Night Long, Lionel Richie endeared himself to the citizens of Iraq and US Soldiers.

Why is Lionel Richie so Popular in Iraq?

You know him as one of the most famous singers in the world today. He's sold more than 100 million records, won five Grammy Awards, and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But if that's all you know about Lionel Richie, you've got nothing on the Iraqis.

According to a 2006 news report that covered the phenomenon, “Grown Iraqi men get misty-eyed by the mere mention of his name. ‘I love Lionel Richie’, they say. Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song.”

While many of Richie's hits are popular in Iraq, one certain song has really captured the love and imagination of the Middle East, and Iraq in particular.

 

The Legend Surrounding All Night Long

Take your mind back to 2003. It's a time when, just a couple of years after the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States led a coalition that included Australian forces to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was suspected of harbouring weapons of mass destruction. Not a pleasant time by any means, and worse in Iraq where citizens fell into a devastating war that still hasn't concluded.

What helped them through it? Lionel Richie, of course. The singer has said that Iraqis told him personally that his song All Night Long was played throughout many households, even as Western tanks were driving through the city of Baghdad.

The reason may be simple, and at least a little ironic. Saddam Hussein was a known oppressor of his people who despised the Western ideology. So is it really surprising that they would play a well-known Western party hymn to celebrate his upcoming end? Consider the lyrics:

“Yeah, once you get started, you can't sit down. Come join the fun, it's a merry go round. Everyone's dancing their troubles away. Come join our party, see how we play!”

There's another aspect to this, as well. Turns out, Iraqi citizens weren't the only ones playing the catching tune. In fact, a CBS report uncovered the same song was also adopted by the American National Guard as they were deployed to Iraq. For these soldiers, a helicopter unit who quite literally had to fly all night long, Lionel Richie became somewhat of a musical meme.

It's difficult to believe that the two are not connected. Somehow, the soldiers' obsession with the song, adopted as an anthem for the country's liberation, transferred over to the Iraqi citizens. It led to a love of Lionel Richie in Iraq, and eventually in the Middle East in general, surpassing anything that even Richie could ever imagine was possible.

 

How Does Richie Feel About his Fame in Iraq?

Not surprisingly, he loves it!

"This is the probably the most fascinating experience of my career. The music has found its way to the Middle East. It's enjoyed by the Shi'ites in Iran and it's popular in Libya."

In other words, the love has spread beyond Iraq. Now, Richie has become an absolute icon in a country generally known for being hesitant to adopt Western culture. Unfortunately, that fame hasn't quite translated to his family just yet, because according to ABC News, his daughter Nicole doesn't enjoy nearly the same fame as her father.

But that doesn't stop the love of Lionel. When people who can't understand a single word of English still know all of your songs by heart, you know you're doing something right. We think we know just how famous Lionel Richie is, but compared to the love he gets in the Middle East, that's nothing.

 

The Power of Peace in Lionel Richie's Songs

We know he's famous in Iraq, we know how he got there, and we know that he loves it. That leaves one, final question. Just why has his music actually caught on in a culture that is so different from the one in which he originally composed it for? According to Richie, the reason is simple: the power of love and peace. A reporter who quizzed him on his fame in Iraq stated:

“He has performed in Morocco, Dubai, Qatar and Libya. There is obviously something up there. The more we talked, the more he theorised as to the reasons his music might be so popular here. He thinks it is because of the simple message in his music: Love.”

In the Middle East, and especially under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, speech was restricted. But that didn't diminish the power of a simple I Love You. According to Richie, it's the three words that cross every border and boundary, which mean something deep and unique for everyone. Considering how many of his songs are about love, and how straightforward his message tends to be, that reasoning makes perfect sense to us.

It also explains why Richie gave a concert in front of Libyan dictator, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi, despite criticism from the international community. He characterised the event as an attempt at peace, to celebrate the humanity of the colonel's adoption of his daughter.

In the end, it's tough to argue with someone who has been told by Nelson Mandela that his songs gave him strength during the lengthy prison ordeal that preceded his rise to end Apartheid in South Africa. In Iraq, the music seems to have had a similar effect. Wherever Lionel Richie goes, his songs move ahead, spreading the word of love and building a powerful message of peace as a result.

Lionel Richie has never held a concert in Iraq, and has only stepped foot in the country once, to visit the soldiers who adopted his song as their own anthem. And yet, he might just be one of the single most famous people in the country. Understanding why helps us not only make sense of how pop culture can cross borders, but also how immensely powerful music can be in bringing people together. If Lionel Richie can do it, who else might be next?

 

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