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Legendary singer/songwriter Yusuf Islam releases his first album of new songs for almost 30 years this autumn. Yusuf Islam says “There were one hundred reasons for leaving the music industry back in 1979, not least because I had found what I was looking for spiritually. Today there are perhaps one hundred and one good reasons why I feel right making music and singing about life in this fragile world again.”
The album is a collection of brand new songs including revivification of some truly spellbinding compositions which lay unfinished in Yusuf’s musical memory and completed for this album. All were recorded over the past year with renowned producer Rick Nowels. Yusuf Islam is one of the UK’s most celebrated artists. As Cat Stevens he achieved international success in both the Sixties and Seventies. In 1977 Stevens embraced Islam, adopted the name Yusuf Islam and took a break from music. The release will coincidentally be at the same time as the 40th anniversary of the first Cat Stevens’ record, I Love My Dog, November 1966.
“And if a storm should come and if you face away,
“Heaven/Where True Love Goes” – Yusuf Islam
“Much has changed, but today I am in a unique position as a looking glass through which Muslims can see the west and the west can see Islam,” says Yusuf. “It is important for me to be able to help bridge the cultural gaps others are sometimes frightened to cross.”
Over the years, Yusuf’s work has been recognized with major awards. In 2004 he was awarded the Man for Peace award by a committee of Nobel peace laureates. In 2005 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Gloucestershire for services to education and humanitarian relief. Yusuf Islam has signed a new deal with Polydor Records to release the as-yet-untitled album later this year.
The Life of a Living Legend
Aliases: Stephen Demetre Georgiou, Yusuf Islam, Cat Stevens
Born: July 21st, 1948
My father was a Greek Cypriot and my mother was Swedish, but for some reason they decided to send me to a Roman Catholic school. I suppose that was the first anomaly of my life. Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, I was brought up Greek Orthodox, so didn’t take part in the religious rituals at school; you could say it meant I started out life as an observer.
My family wasn’t strict at all, but they did want me to have a good moral grounding – hence their reasons for sending me to a Catholic school. I learned about good and bad, and about morality in general, and religion definitely left a strong impression on me. When a friend of mine refused to kneel at prayer because he didn’t want to spoil the crease in his trousers, it caused a fracture in our friendship. I must only have been about seven at the time!
Ironically, considering I have now converted to Islam, my upbringing was very anti-Muslim. Essentially, the Greeks and Turks were enemies, so I adopted the stance of my Greek Cypriot father and hated everything about the Turks, including their religion: ‘Islam’, whatever that meant.
There was a Muslim family living near us and, although we never hurled abuse at them or anything like that, we did keep our distance. I grew up in the West End of London. My parents ran a busy restaurant in the upper part ofShaftesbury Avenueand so the atmosphere I was born into was exciting. Life was all lights, hurried people and black taxis. We were close to the theatres and that is definitely where I picked up my interest in the entertainment industry.
I was the youngest of three, and I’m sure my brother and sister would say I was very spoiled as a result, but I certainly did my fair share of hard work. By the time I was ten, I was already working as a waiter in the shop, clearing away and mopping up, so I suppose that’s when I first learned how to serve people. Sometimes, I turned the kebabs, but normally things went quite well and, because I was so young, I got lots of tips from the customers.
Being a mixed-race child wasn’t difficult. The part ofLondonI grew up in was so cosmopolitan that I didn’t stand out at all. But it was an interesting situation at home. The hot and cold of my parents’ different personalities meant I learned to maintain a kind of balance throughout my life. I loved the emotions of my father and the fact that he was so very strong-willed, active and smart. But his temper was sometimes a bit much for some of us. Our mother, on the other hand, was very cool and collected, and always found time to listen.
But I do remember a bit of shouting in our household. I must have been about eight when my parents decided to break up. It was an unusual separation because they both remained in the house. We all lived above the restaurant, with my father taking a first floor room, while my mother took another.
We all shared a single living room but the real centre of activity was the shop, where my parents both continued to work. The only difficulty was the sleeping arrangements. Occasionally, I would become the object of a tug-of-war between them. Because my father usually won, I would end up sleeping in his room most of the time. Strangely, though, I was always closer to my mother.
After they separated, she tried to set up home inSweden, and I found myself going to school there for about six months. I was the only dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned boy in the whole blond- haired, blue-eyed school. At play time, I was the centre of attention. I had a section of the playground for myself where all the boys could come to take a look at me. This way, I got to choose who would be my friends that day, but it increased my sense of being an observer.
I was always a sensitive child and tended to look rather closely at life for someone so young. I was quite an introvert and was forever thinking. I can’t remember a time as a child when I wasn’t thinking about something. Once, I tried not thinking, while I was on my way to school, but I couldn’t manage it.
When we returned to my father inLondon, I found myself always trying to patch up things between my parents. I felt I had to be a bridge between them. Later, when I became famous, my success was a great source of pride to both of them. In a way, I think that helped to keep us all together. I showed my artistic ability at a very young age, and it was my mum who encouraged me. I would often draw late into the evenings, but instead of telling me to stop and go to bed; she would leave me to get on with it. My interest spread to music, which gave me a way of expressing all those thoughts. We had a grand piano at home, and I soon learned how to play it. Later, I switched to the guitar and started writing songs which I recorded on to a demo tape in a studio just down the road. Once I had changed my name to Cat Stevens, I was on my way.
I had my first hit when I was 18, with a song called ‘I Love My Dog’. All that fame led to a big change of lifestyle. I was being interviewed, photographed and chased by girls. Although I’d love to say none of that actually changed me, it did have an effect. Rather than worrying about being too young for this success, I thought I had left it too late, my expectations were so high.
I had grown up inSohoand was pretty streetwise. I suppose I was quite naughty when I was young, trying to see what reaction I would get from my parents. I smoked and went off to art school at 17, and that exposed me to lots of ideas and new customs. Although I lived life fast, I was always searching for answers. I was aware that there was something I had to achieve in life. At first I thought that if I had luxuries, that would answer all my problems, but it didn’t.
At 19, I contracted tuberculosis and was whisked off to hospital. It was a very scary time as I came face-to-face with my own mortality. It sparked off my first earnest search for a way forward. The thoughts which I developed during that teenage period of illness helped me to reflect on things, and paved the way for the life I now lead as a Muslim. I began searching for meanings and spiritual truths about our existence; it was a search that initiated a long journey.
I was always on the search and of course my songs reflected this, I was trying to glimpse under the surface, cross the materialistic surface and grasp the truth. So i began studying different religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Zen, even Astrology. I soaked all these religions in me. If you analyse all my songs now, you can see my biography, where I was at that stage, my thoughts, beliefs and emotional state.
In 1976 my brother gave me a copy of the Quran to read, I began reading and was overwhelmed to see such a unique truth and enlightment to my heart to see how God communicates to his people through the Quran. The real turning point was when I almost drowned in the Pacific Ocean shortly after. I was swimming relatively far from the beach and suddenly I just couldn’t swim anymore. I was fighting the water and noone was near to help me. It turned out that actually someone was there to help me! I screamed God if you save me now I will stand up for you the rest of my life! Just like that a wave carried me to the beach and i was saved. Ever since I am convinced that there is a greater power that decides about life and death. I converted to Islam and took on the name Yusuf Islam and turned my back on my music career. For me it was a step to focus on my new path, do charity work and enjoy my family. It was never a dogmatic and eternal decision, yet at that time it gave me the space I needed.
I hope to bridge the gap between Islam and the Western world, I want to teach the West about Islam through me and vice versa.
My son is very musical and talented, I went back to my music through him. I woke up one day saw his guitar and I just began playing some accords and sang some words I had in mind. Music is a great way to express yourself and communicate the changes in my life that brought me here.