Time magazine called him “Islam’s biggest rock star.” The Independent? “Holy rock star: The voice of Islam.” With that kind of press, and several million album sales under his belt, you’d think Tehran-born, London-raised singer Sami Yusuf would be willing to continue mining the rich ‘Muslim superstar’ seam he struck, almost by accident, with the release of his debut, self-produced, album, Al Mu’allim, in 2003, which sold over 2 million copies.
“My success was meteoric,” Yusuf says. “But, when I made that album, I never thought, ‘This is a religious song’ or ‘It’s a pop song.’ It was just a stand-alone project. My faith had become integral, and I felt moved to express that. I never thought I was going to be a singer. My mum took that album picture. I’m there with my glasses on looking like a geek.”
Four years later, that geek was responsible for the closure of Taksim Square in Istanbul, as more than 200,000 fans came to watch him perform.
In the interim, he’d unwittingly popularized a new musical movement in the Arab world – Islamic pop/rock.
“The so-called Islamic music videos on Arab music channels all came about after 2003,” says Yusuf. “They’re using English, as I have done. They’re following the formula that I, accidentally, ‘invented’ and they see me as a pioneer of ‘their way.’”
Even his geekiness became a fashion. “I was in Kajikistan recently and this guy came up to me and was like, ‘Sami! I went and learnt Arabic because of you!’ And his hairstyle, his clothes, he looked identical to me. And it was so… weird.”
Not that he's ungrateful for the attention he receives. He describes it as a “blessing.”
“It’s beautiful. People say, ‘Mr. Sami, just continue. That’s all we want from you.’ It’s a dream come true,” he says. “They’re not throwing bottles at me. It’s a great honor; I’ve been really fortunate. My life philosophy revolves around healing. We’re all healers. And if you heal, you will be healed. I’m fortunate to be blessed with all that healing from people.”
It’s clear, though, that Yusuf doesn’t see the media or the music industry’s portrayal of him as an ‘Islamic’ musician as such a blessing.
“I’m not a pioneer and I don’t want to be a part of that. I’m my own guy. I’m an independent soul and I don’t want to be part of their industry,” he explains. “Watch some of the videos, and just look at how people of non-Islamic faith are portrayed. It’s very subtle. But it’s utterly disgusting. Obviously, not every non-Muslim is a drug dealer or alcoholic. In my videos, I’ve never tried to demonize anyone. I don’t believe in ‘The Other.’ That’s never been me. But it makes a lot of money, that stuff.”
Yusuf doesn’t talk much about the legal dispute with his old label, Awakening, that led to a well-publicized split in 2008. He maintains that the last album of his released by Awakening was an unofficial collection of “leaked MP3s.”
“Somebody’s hacked into my emails and taken these tracks,” he says. “They’re demos. It was an incredibly traumatic experience. Only an artist can understand what I’m talking about.”
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