Sami Yusuf, Islamic rock star

Posted on October 28th, 2007

Sami Yusuf, the star of the recent Muslim charity concert for Darfur, sings to the glory of Allah, but insists he is not a religious artist.

Largely unknown here in the country where he grew up, the 27-year-old has become a huge star in the Muslim world, selling millions of records, and dubbed “Islam’s biggest rock star” by Time magazine.

On Sunday evening he topped the bill at A Concert for Peace in Darfur at London’s Wembley Arena, dubbed a “Muslim Live 8” by some commentators after the anti-poverty global charity concerts in July 2005.

Yusuf was born in Iran but brought up in England, and his music combines oriental melodies with influences including hip hop, while he switches between Arabic or English in his singing.

In his music videos he seems as at home in a London bus – where he can be seen respectfully giving his place up to an old lady – as playing to pupils in a Koranic school in front of the Taj Mahal or by the Pyramids.

“I don’t consider myself a religious singer per se, I consider myself an artist who sings occasionally about religious topics, revolving on shared values, not exclusive,” he says.

With his modest manners, academic-style glasses and slight beard, he could pass for a model son-in-law in stark contrast to the excesses of a typical western-style pop star.

“He’s a great role model,” said Fareena Alam, editor in chief of Muslim magazine Q-news. “I love Sami, he is very talented, he’s a trained musician, writes his own songs … a reasonable guy.”

He was born in 1980 into a family of Azeri musicians, but grew up in the west London suburb of Ealing. Even if was recently feted as a hero in Azerbaijan, the country of his parents, he says he feels deeply British.

“As a British subject, I will always make sure that my loyalty is with the British government,” says Yusuf, who has backed Prime Minister Gordon Brown and participated in a conference on religious extremism.

The singer, who studied classical oriental music in London, divides his home life between London and Cairo with his German-born wife Maryam, who has converted to Islam.

In a veil and Islamic robe, she accompanies him everywhere and has inspired him to write a song about the “liberty” of wearing the hijab.

Yusuf says he hesitated for a long time before launching his music career, pledging to behave in a “dignified and respectable” way and avoid the typical excesses of western-style show-business.

“I always wanted to do something in music, but I didn’t want to do pop music, I didn’t want to become a slave of a record company,” he says.

“Friends of mine encouraged me, and then I saw a vacuum, the youth really don’t know who they are .. I want to reach Muslim youth living in the west, because I realise there is a big identity crisis.”

His record company, Awakening, produces and sells his records as well as those of other, exclusively male artists.

“I don’t have a huge PR company, I don’t have Coca-Cola sponsoring me, yet when I have a concert I’m literally taken aback by the reception. In Morocco the place could only take 25,000 people, 55,000 people turned up,” he says.

Having sold a million copies of his first album and three million of his second, he is preparing for the release of a third record in 2008.

Could he sing non-religious songs, to reach a wider audience? “It’s possible, but not probable. It’s not me,” he says with a smile.