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Tobias Rahim Wants to Take Danish-Language Pop Global

Tobias Rahim, a 6-foot-7 Kurdish Danish pop singer, strode around the vast stage of Copenhagen’s Royal Arena one recent Saturday night dressed in a tasseled gold cowboy outfit.

He was midway through “Stor Mand” (“Big Man”), a romantic duet sung with Andreas Odbjerg, another star in Denmark. But it seemed like Rahim barely needed to perform: He simply pointed his microphone at the 16,000-capacity crowd who manically sung every word for him.

Soon, the crowd — some wearing cowboy hats just like Rahim — made their adoration even clearer, when a group started chanting, “The girls want your body.” The quirky 33-year-old, who posed nude for a previous project, quickly moved onto the next hit.

In recent years, American music fans have become accustomed to listening to pop in languages other than English. K-pop groups and Spanish-language acts like Bad Bunny have had hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and French-language singers have been appearing at major festivals in the United States.

Danish, an often staccato language spoken by only about six million people and whose alphabet includes the letters Æ, Ø and Å, is perhaps an unlikely choice for pop’s next lingua franca. But Rahim said in an interview the day after the show that there was no reason Danish-language pop couldn’t take off, too.

Outside the country, Denmark has long been renowned for its gastronomy and noirish television dramas. Rahim said there was equal talent in its pop scene. “The energy field here is really strong,” he said. Rahim had heard criticism that Danish was an ugly language, but he said he disagreed: “Any language converted into music can be super beautiful.”

A handful of Danish musicians, including the fresh-faced Lukas Graham and the arty singer MØ, have long made music in English to cultivate audiences abroad. Simon Lund, the music editor of Politiken, a major Danish newspaper, said in an interview that the country was still producing great English-language songs, but that it was also seeing a boom in Danish-language pop, with acts showcasing catchy melodies.

Among those, Lund said, Rahim was the phenomenon. Last year, tracks from his second album, “Nar sjælen kaster op” (“When the Soul Vomits”), topped Denmark’s singles charts for nearly 40 weeks. “Når Mænd Græder” (“When Men Cry”), a track about how men should be able to be emotional, set off a national debate about the nature of masculinity, Lund added.

In the run-up to Christmas, Rahim released a poetry collection that included a picture of him nude, clenching a rose in his mouth. The book sold out in stores and now, the singer is “impossible to ignore” in Denmark, Lund said.

Growing up half-Kurdish and half-Danish in the coastal city of Aarhus, Rahim said he never felt like he fully belonged and often felt “half.” The nude photographs, he added, showed him as a proud, and whole, mixed-race “neo-Scandinavian man.”

Throughout his career, Rahim has tried to find success outside Denmark.

In 2009, shortly after leaving school, he moved to Cali, Colombia, where he became friends with rappers and reggaeton musicians who lived in one of that city’s more impoverished neighborhoods. Rahim said he spent about two years making music there and left only after witnessing a neighbor get shot.

In Denmark, he released a handful of tracks as part of the reggaeton duo Camilo & Grande, but in 2018, he got the urge to move again, this time heading to Accra, Ghana, where he performed as an Afropop artist under the name Toby Tabu. In Ghana, Rahim said he sought to act like any other local musician, hustling to get his upbeat songs played on the radio, performing support slots for big local names and sleeping on couches while he tried to break through.

Despite those attention-grabbing travels, his career only truly took off in Denmark with the 2022 album “When the Soul Vomits,” written with the producer Arto Eriksen and filled with ’80s influenced pop songs and personal songwriting. Rahim said he used to be afraid of being vulnerable in his music, fearing that producers would tell him to stick to “sexy reggaeton,” but at the height of the coronavirus pandemic he forced himself to overcome such doubts. Soon, he was working on tracks about his Kurdish heritage and his father’s emotional distance.

So far, becoming a pop phenomenon — even in a small country like Denmark — has been a mixed experience. Rahim said that last year he often felt like he was on a runaway train, and that he started having delusions “that someone was going to kill me.”

In the fall, while rehearsing for a performance at Denmark’s main music awards, he had a panic attack. It “felt like my body was underwater,” he recalled. He pulled out of the show and public life, only returning with this spring’s arena tour. He is now feeling better, he said, and in recent weeks he released two tracks, “Toget” (“The Train”) and “Orange,” about the year’s challenges and a more hopeful future.

During a 90-minute interview, Rahim said that when it came to breaking through outside Denmark, he did not believe in having a master plan, but would simply go “wherever the river takes me.” He then pointed to a tattoo on his arm of a fish racing through a stream with the word “river” written in Danish above it to show how important the idea was to him.

“I love the world, and I really feel an urge to interact with the world,” Rahim said, “but I also love making music here.”

At the recent arena show, Rahim had decided that — for now at least — he was going to bring the world to Denmark. At the show’s climax, he announced that he was about to play “Kurder I København” (“Kurds in Copenhagen”), a tropical pop song about immigration that ends as a Middle Eastern party tune complete with Kurdish chants and traditional instruments.

He invited several guest singers and musicians onstage, one waving the Kurdish flag, talked about how proud he was to be a Kurd, and then told the crowd he wanted them to all link their pinkie fingers and start bobbing up and down as if dancing at a Kurdish wedding.

As the crowd followed his instructions, Rahim beamed from the stage. In that moment, he looked truly at home.

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