Read the original interview on CAMPUS magazine’s Jan-Feb online issue: http://issuu.com/oryxmags/docs/campus_jan-feb_2013
In a world where music has become based on glamour and fame, only a few musicians sing with principle and British Sami Yusuf is not your typical mainstream musician. He’s a man on a mission to bridge gaps. Spiritual revivalist Sami talks about how music can be used as an instrument of peace.
Born with an innate passion and talent for music, Sami Yusuf uses music to bridge worldwide religious and racial gaps and some say, he bridges the gap between the West and the East. Originally Azeri, Sami is a cohesive jar of cultures and a product of two major civilizations—Persian culturally and British by nationality. Sami sings his self-coined genre, Spiritique—manifested by philosophical and spiritual lyrics, and incorporates Middle Eastern and Western harmonics—in English, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Azeri and Malay and on a multitude of classical and ethnic instruments such as the piano, violin, tar, tombak, santour, daf, tabla and oud. He studied music in one of the world’s most prestigious music institutes, the Royal Academy of Music in London. Sami’s groundbreaking debut album, Al Mu’allim—an album independently composed, produced and performed by him—sold over three million copies and his second album, My Ummah, sold over four million copies.
Called “Islam’s biggest Rock Star” by Time magazine, Sami’s music brought the attention of international news channels such as the BBC, ABC, Al Jazeera and British newspaper The Guardian. His success was soon acknowledged by the University of Roehampton in London and as a result Sami became the first and the youngest Muslim recipient of the honorary Doctor of Letters award in recognition of his “extraordinary contribution to music,” standing alongside Mark Twain, J.K. Rowling and Robert Frost. Sami is one of the only three musicians in the world to ever be honored with this award.
Fame, however, isn’t Sami’s concern. His legitimacy and benevolence is reflected through his commitment as United Nations (UN) Celebrity Partner to reach out to those in need throughout the world. He has recently launched a campaign in partnership with the United Nations World Food Program to help end hunger in the Horn of Africa that was hit by its worst drought in the last 60 years. His Live8concert in Wembley Arena raised millions of pounds for the victims of the conflict-stricken Darfur, Sudan. Sami also cooperated with the UN sponsored charity, Save the Children, to help uplift the morale of the victims of 2010 Pakistan floods by sending a message of hope through his charity single, Hear Your Call.
Sami is the first global ambassador of Silatech—a Qatar-based initiative promoting entrepreneurial skills and open access to capital and markets for large-scale job creation in the MENA region. He launched his fourth album, Salaam last November at Virgin Megastores at Villagio Mall where he greeted hundreds of fans. In December, he performed at Katara’s Amphitheatre in front of over 3,000 people where five local talents, Abdulla Al Mullaa, Mohammad Al Mana, Nadir Abdul Salam, Jana Hajj-Ali, and Mohammad Mohammad Ouda got the opportunity to share the stage with him and perform one of his songs. During his stay in Qatar, I had the opportunity to talk to the messenger of peace and love about how his pious music has won over the hearts and minds of millions across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.
What inspired you to become a musician?
The reality is I believe creative people are born creative then that talent needs to be nurtured. I didn’t choose to be a musician, I was born with music in my blood. I was very fortunate to be in an environment consisting of musicians and composers. My father is a master musician/composer—academically trained. I learned my first instrument from him when I was six and I started producing professionally at the age of 13-14. That gave me a sense of confidence. My dad knew I was making tonnes of mistakes but he would continue to encourage me, saying, “mashallah,” and that encouragement gave me a lot of confidence, not arrogance. It breaks the fear barrier, I felt I could do anything.
For a while, I was working in pop music—with good lyrics—I was disoriented and not very happy in that scene. It wasn’t me so I decided at the age of 19 to become a lawyer at King’s College but al hamdulilallah that didn’t happen – God willed otherwise, destiny had something else in plan. I released Al Mu’allim, which was a very beautiful thing that happened in my life and I’ve been doing this since.
Why did you choose to sing spiritual music?
I’m not really a mainstream singer but I had mainstream success. I can’t share the stage with Lady Gaga, basically. I wouldn’t know what to do. I’m a spiritual person. From a very young age, I have been drawn towards the higher things. I wouldn’t mingle with kids my age who skipped ropes. I was with my father, studying and learning poetry and listening to him reciting poetry. I was with people older than me. I was always interested in things other kids weren’t interested in. I don’t know, it was like a calling, Allah Sobhana Wa Tallah blessed me with orthodoxy. I’m very glad I became quiet orthodox in my beliefs. Spirituality is there as well because it has orthodoxy—the inner and deeper meaning. The esoteric and inner meaning is very important to me, not only the outward. I’m very fortunate that we did something in 2003 [release of Al Mu’allim] that opened doors, brought spirituality into the realm of life. One of the problems in the Arab world, without making generalizations, is that people feel disconnected with what they see on TV. One of the reasons why Al Mu’allim was a success was because it reflected the inner scenes and emotions.
Tell me about your new album, Salaam! How is it different from your other albums?
Salaam is my fourth studio album. We launched it first in South East Asia and al hamduliallah by the grace of god, we sold gold within 24 hours and I’m assuming double platinum now. It was a fantastic launch in Malaysia. The launch of my album in Qatar is the MENA launch. The international launch – including iTunes and digital – was in December. The theme of the Salaam album is self-explanatory, I decided to focus on peace and the universal values that bind us together. We’re living in difficult and troubled times. There’s a lot of us, them and others partitioning. It’s a very weird and awkward time in history that we’re living in. Without going into politics and details, this us and them business is really dangerous. Dividing people is really dangerous based on ideology, faith or religion. The whole theme of Salaam has the essence of peace, bringing people closer together and also a further experimentation with my own genre, Spiritique.
Once I first started, people called me munsheer – Islamic rock, Islamic pop – so I coined a term Spiritique and that’s my music, which is essentially music that is aimed at bringing about social cohesion but more technically speaking is using eastern/western modes. I compose my own music so I’m not your typical mainstream artist. I make everything myself, I compose the music, arrange the music and perform many of the instruments in my music. It’s more personal, intimate, real and true and there’s less filtering so all my songs are very dear to me. In this new album, I collaborated with my father for the first time and even sung a song with him which is actually a real favorite for me. It’s called Dry a Land. Salaam is a very important song for me – it’s an anthem. It’s my own small anthem because it encapsulates everything I believe in in terms of peace. It’s all English with a little bit of Arabic.
What are some of challenges you face as a musician?
Some of the challenges are being used as a mascot. Earlier in my career, I was used as the golden boy, the perfect one who represents a so and so group. And off course, this is nonsense, there’s no such thing as perfect. It’s very dangerous for one to idealize things. The challenges that I face are stuff like that – being used as a mascot. But also in Europe, in the West, in a sense, I’m a product of the modern world. If it wasn’t through modernity, I wouldn’t know about other faiths and religions, and I probably wouldn’t have grown up in the UK. Having said that, it opposes many challenges because as an artist, as a musician, as a person of faith, I do believe faith is important, all faiths. I’m very happy to hear someone who’s a devote Christian and says to me ‘your music made me become a better Christian’. I’m very happy to hear that. I believe sincere faith, based on intellectualism, has a lot of good to offer to the world. I like to talk about the sacred, the higher things in life. I always have since 2003, at least as a professional singer. You obviously face challenges, the moment you talk about god, religion, faith and Islam. I haven’t honestly, al hamdulilallah, had any problems like that. I haven’t had anybody complain to me because I’m not a preacher, I’m an artist. My music is universal so I don’t have too many issues but it is a challenge. For example, I’m not aired on radio in the UK. So there are challenges, but al hamdulilallah, I don’t have much to complain about because I keep to myself. It’s been a very smooth journey. I’m not very commercial. I don’t perform too much. I don’t make too many albums. In 10 years, I made four albums. I concentrate more on quality not quantity.
What was your most memorable show so far?
The smaller the crowds, the better. When you perform at intimate shows, you get to interact with the audience, you get to see them. It’s nice to interact. One of my favorite shows/concerts was in Barcelona, Spain. There were around 1,000 people. That was one of our smallest shows but it was really, really, really enjoyable for me because there were a lot of Spanish people there with different backgrounds. It was just a really spiritual, cool, enjoyable, wonderful and uplifting night. Everyone participated. Everyone was singing. I could talk to them. It was like a workshop. But every show we do is memorable!
Where, in what regions, do you think your music has greatest impact? Why?
Visibly, I would say the Muslim Diaspora. It’s an immediately identifiable Diaspora so that means people of the Islamic faith with a nominal or sentimental, or practicing or not practicing faiths in, if I may be daring enough to say, most parts of the world, in Europe, third generation and America. In the Arab world, I have possibly the greatest impact in Egypt. I never had a machine behind me. This all happened by word of mouth, Internet, sales. I still can’t believe we’ve sold so many CDs. But I’m not really concerned about the numbers. Those things can really bug you down. They can change your attention and play with your heart. When I made Al Mu’allim, I really didn’t expect anything. I really didn’t. The picture was taking by mum in the living room. It was going to be my first and last album just to do something sacred and move on. But destiny had something else planned.
What do you think about music in the Arab world today? What is Arabic music lacking, in your opinion?
There’s unbelievable talent in the Middle East and these guys need help. They just need a push, a platform and support. It’s very critical to support talent. Fundamentally speaking, there’s an identity crisis. Much of the music you hear, the architecture and everything, is always coming from a Western perspective. And it’s always, unfortunately, with inferiority. This inferiority should be put into context, we have to understand and be easy on each other but we hope inshallah by investing in our local talent and by investing in reigniting and reviving our traditions and roots, we can create a mixture where there’s modernity that respects tradition. Modernity on its own is disastrous because it’s not from our own world view, culture and civilization. It’s an alien. Arabic music today is heavily influenced by alien forms of technology, especially pop music. In the Arab world, you have young people who speak English better than Arabic, which is a bit of a shame. And because of the inferiority that exists in some quarters of the Arab music industry, they actually prefer listening towestern music because, for them, the Arabic stuff is the inferior version to the western stuff. It’s sad.
Western music itself is decadent, without sounding too harsh. I think they’re suffering, they’re looking for inspiration. They don’t have it so they come to the Arab world, they go to India and now, you’ve got Arabic percussion and beats in pop and western music. They kind of reached a dead end. Pop music can only go on for so much time. That’s why it becomes so cheap. Music is a dead industry in the West. Rihanna sold 8,000 CDs to go no. 1 in the UK. That’s really bad. To sell gold now, you have to sell 5,000 CDs. The benchmark and standard has gone down. That’s why people rely on live shows. They go and put these circus-style live shows where you’re not really going to a concert, you’re going to a pre-arranged pre-programmed circus. And the newer artists are miming, 80% of the time, in their concerts. So what you’re really buying is not really music, you’re buying a culture, an identity—the R ‘n’ B, rock, gothic culture. It’s not only music, it’s a subculture.
Spiritual music is rare today in the Arab world. Why do you think that is so? And do you think spiritual music is necessary to spread peace?
Spiritual artists, who sing about the sacred, have a big responsibility to play, in that they can either leave people close minded, feed into a close-minded understanding of religion and basically without knowing it, create more fundamentalism, or they have an opportunity to bring people together and spread peace and love, not in an exclusivist way but in an inclusivist way. So one of my criticisms in some quarters of Islamic music industry that’s been created post-2003 is that it’s too exclusivist and there is perhaps some kind of self-righteousness: ‘you got to look like me, you got to sound like me.’ I think that there’s a big role to play and there are a lot of good artists out there in different parts of the Arab world.Their role is to bring people together. Don’t divide, unite! Don’t destroy, build! Be part of the solution, not the problem!
Tips for young men and women who want to follow in your footsteps?
In the post-modern world we live in, if there’s any advice I have, it’s to know your roots. Ibdaa (innovation) needs to occur within tradition. Ibdaa (innovation) without tradition is abstract. We have a very rich civilization and culture, we need to convey and expose it to people. Tradition is very important. It’s very important to know that. Know your roots and then innovate!