Sami Yusuf: A sacred trust

The rock star Sami Yusuf talks about his new album, parting ways with his former record company and not being Lady Gaga.

While many regard Sami Yusuf as the Muslim world's equivalent to the likes of Robbie Williams, the musician shrugs off such labels.
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Sami Yusuf hates to be pigeonholed. He's often described as "Islam's biggest rock star" or the "Muslim Robbie Williams", but he does not want to be defined by his religion.

Since releasing his first album in 2003, Yusuf has sold an estimated seven million albums and last year was named in the list of the world's 500 most influential Muslims. His composition Supplication was used on the soundtrack for the 2007 movie The Kite Runner and was nominated for the award for Best Music by Bafta, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

He has played to more than 200,000 people in Turkey, was given a presidential-style welcome in Tajikistan, and is adored in countries as diverse as Germany, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan. This summer, he filled Wembley Arena for a charity concert that raised more than £2 million (Dh11.6m) for victims of the floods in Pakistan, and yet he is hardly a household name.

As he walks through the foyer of Dubai's Westin Hotel, there is a small ripple of recognition and an Egyptian businessman politely asks to be photographed with him, but nobody rushes up to badger him - and that's the way he likes it. The thoroughly modest and unassuming star has driven himself to our meeting, arrives unannounced and apologises for being late, although it's only a matter of a few minutes.

He's here for the launch of his new album and is anxious to explain his very strong feelings about identity, which is complicated to say the least. Ethnically, he's Azeri but he was born in Tehran and grew up in the UK.

"I'm proud to be British and proud to be Muslim. I pray five times a day, but I'm not extremely religious," he says. "Identity is a tricky one. Rather than letting people define you, you have to define yourself. I'm a rock musician from London."

There's more to it than that, of course, and you have only to go to one of his concerts to understand how he has become an icon and role model for Muslim teenagers who love his music, along with its spiritual and religious messages, as much as they love his voice. He sings in several languages including English, Arabic, Turkish, Azeri, Urdu and Farsi.

"I hate the terms 'Islamic pop', or being described, as I have, as the Lady Gaga or the Robbie Williams of the Muslim world," he says.

He has even coined a new word, "spiritique" in an effort to extract himself from the pigeonhole he has has been put in, partly by his former record company, who chose to market him that way. His acrimonious split from them has marked the past three years, and Yusuf sees the new album, Wherever You Are, as the product of the hurtful and damaging turmoil he has suffered.

Without going into too much detail, he says he feels cheated by the record company that produced his first two albums but released a third, made up of demo tracks and experimental work after he had parted company with it.

"They took raw demos, mastered them and released them. In some cases, I hadn't even added the words and there's just a lot of humming. It was made up of experiments and sketches and released as a professional product in several Arab countries." He considered suing, but in the end decided against it.

"Suing people is so expensive and time consuming. I decided I would rather do an amazing new album. I also did a video for my website and explained to my fans what had happened and that this was stealing. I left the company because of various disagreements and felt that I was being cheated."

These are issues that clearly still rankle, but Yusuf is doing his best not to sound bitter and says he loves everyone, "even the people who hurt me".

Although he was born in Iran, his parents moved to the UK when he was three years old, and are now naturalised Britons living in Stockport, northwest England. His German-born wife, who converted to Islam before she met Yusuf, also lives there; although the couple, who have been married for five years, also have homes in Dubai, Sharjah and Cairo.

Yusuf grew up in Acton, west London and describes his schooldays there as "tough".

"I didn't conform or join groups or gangs," he recalls. "They called me the 'posh kid' or 'piano boy' because I did music and spent a lot of time with other kids from similar backgrounds."

However, the one thing they didn't pick on him for was his religion. Most of his friends, he says, were "middle-class white guys".

"I grew up in an environment that was spiritual but not particularly religious," he explains. "I never had the scenario that I couldn't be friends with this person or that person. I don't distinguish people by ethnicity. I had all sorts of friends and nobody even noticed who was this religion or who was that. It's all very different now."

At home, the youngest of three children, Yusuf was in his element. His father, a music teacher and composer, and mother, who plays Azeri percussion instruments, both encouraged their son's prodigious musical talents. As well as playing piano and violin, Yusuf also plays many Persian, Turkish and Arabic instruments. "My background is unique," he says. "My father is a wonderful classical musician. I grew up with the most prominent Azeri composers and musicians coming to our house, and we used to jam together. As a 12-year-old kid I was jamming with people old enough to be my grandparents. It gave me confidence to play with these incredibly talented and very influential people."

After finishing his secondary-school studies, he got a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London, but left after eight months, saying he found the hot-house atmosphere there stifling.

"It wasn't for me," he says simply. "I don't want to sound conceited or arrogant but out of the hundreds of people who go to these institutions, only one of them turns out to be a Mozart. You go to these places full of passion and come out like a mouse, feeling you can't do anything because some famous composer has done it before. Where's the melody, where's the soul?"

Instead, he went into music production. "I never thought I was going to be a singer - I'm definitely a musician and composer."

He began singing his own songs by accident. In 2001, he was working as a producer and recorded a demo for the Persian singer Omid, to help the artist learn the songs. "Omid said it was really good," he recalls, "then my family started to encourage me."

Yusuf's debut album Al-Mu'allim, with its messages of love, peace, mercy and tolerance, was a runaway success and he quickly became something of a role model among young Muslims. He admits he has had his share of criticism from "purists" who believe that popular music has no place in Islam. "I don't have time for people who are just going to criticise me," is his response. "My understanding of Islam is such that some things are absolute. Faith for me is absolute. Everything else has been disputed and we will never find two scholars who agree.

"People who come to my concerts are there to listen to the music. I don't sing about sex, drugs and rock 'n'roll. People come to experience some kind of spiritique - music that infuses Oriental and occidental harmonics, underpinned with the essence of spirituality."

He believes his new album is his best work and hopes that songs such as Wherever You Are, written at the peak of his frustrations with his former record company, will explain how he felt at the time.

"I'm saying that my best times were when I felt close to God. I never stopped believing, but during this difficult time I was losing my patience. This song represents my saying goodbye to all that."

Other songs explore themes of healing, kindness and spirituality and highlight his concern for the younger generation and their lack of direction and ambition.

To some people, Yusuf may seem naïve, and despite his success he is disarmingly unworldly at times. When we meet he is wearing an exquisite lightweight black Gucci jacket, but when I ask him if he has bought himself diamond rings or fancy Maserati sports cars, he genuinely appears never to have heard of the brand. "What's a Maserati?" he asks.

Does he ever worry that he's setting himself up as a target for extremists?

"I used to be asked if I had been attacked yet or if I have received death threats and the answer is no. The thing that is going to define or distinguish people like me in the end is the music. If it's not nice, it won't work."

Nevertheless, he stays away from the politics of religion and resists attempts to hijack him as some sort of religious role model.

"People have tried to drag me into a lot of stuff. I avoided going to Darfur, for example, because they wanted me to be the Islamic George Clooney."

He is, however, more than willing to lend his name to humanitarian causes and has donated the proceeds of his single Hear Your Call to Save the Children, which is working in the four provinces hit by the disastrous floods in Pakistan.

"I see my position as an artist as a trust," he says. "My faith teaches me it's not mine. It's the way I use it that matters, and I want to serve humanity. I want this world to be a better place. I admire people who use their fame for the good of humanity. That's what I want to do. Buying a diamond ring doesn't give me a buzz."