At just 29, Tehran-born Sami Yusuf has become one of the world’s most widely recognised Muslim performers, being heralded by some as ‘Islam’s biggest rock star’ and ‘the Muslim answer to Christian rock’. His songs, which discuss Muslim life in the modern world and advocate peace and love, have made him enormously popular in the Middle East – his first two albums sold in the millions – while his London childhood helps him to connect to Western Muslim audiences. Now he’s working on his third album and has just released his new single, ‘You Came To Me’.
Your 2007 concert in Istanbul attracted a crowd of more than 250,000 people. Did you ever expect this type of popularity?
No, I didn’t expect that. You know the music industry; most performers have to go with what’s cool even if they don’t want to, but – thank God – I’ve just been singing from my heart without the support of huge corporate companies, and still managed to have this amount of commercial success. And that’s a blessing.
How do you deal with the fame?
A lot of it is to do with keeping close to those people who were with you at the beginning – the people who will pull you back in if you get out of line. Too many people get huge and surround themselves with yes-men who will agree with everything they say, even if they say the sky is green.
Do you ever struggle with the pressure of being a role model to young Muslims?
[Laughs] Definitely! I kind of have this golden-boy image, but a lot of that is to do with the people who were behind me when I was doing the videos. That kind of thing sells in the Muslim world, but the reality is that human beings are imperfect creatures; we make mistakes – other people might call them sins, but I’ll say mistakes. Whether my fans like it or not, the reality is that I’m very much human. But my music is pure and very honest.
You’ve just released ‘You Came To Me’, the first single from your new album. How has it done?
It’s been amazing; I released it just a couple of days after Ramadan and it has more than 300,000 downloads. The rest of the album will be very much the same, in the sense that it will be very intimate. The next official album is out in 2010.
I fell out with my previous record company because they released some old demos [as an unofficial third album]. But that’s the industry; my name – unfortunately or fortunately, whichever way you want to look at it – is making a lot of bucks for a lot of people. A lot of exploitation has taken place. It really hurt me, for sure. The official third album will be released in 2010, on a major label – I’m done with amateurs [Laughs].
How important do you think it is for young people today to be politically aware of what is happening in the world?
I think it is very important. However, in Europe the youth consider politics and God to be very cheesy topics. You won’t usually find a 17-year-old talking about what’s happening with [UK prime minister] Gordon Brown; it just doesn’t happen. But look at France’s 2007 elections; this crazy, far-right extremist almost came to power because the majority of people failed to vote. Not much voting takes place in the Middle East, of course, but there – and in the rest of the world – it is crucial to understand people’s religions and to disassociate religion from politics. Animosity shouldn’t exist towards anyone, towards any person of any faith.
You were born in Iran and grew up in west London, but now base yourself in Cairo. Where do you consider home?
I don’t consider myself Iranian; I consider myself very much British and Muslim. The only thing I remember from Iran was a toy ship that was on our TV; that’s pretty much it. I’m sure it’s a beautiful country with a beautiful culture, but for me home is London. But on a wider and a more spiritual level, home is wherever you find love.
Sami Yusuf’s new single, ‘You Came To Me’, is available to download at samiyusufofficial.com.