NEW YORK (Reuters) - British singer Sami Yusuf is not exactly sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, instead writing songs about topics as alien to rock music as the Beslan school massacre in Russia and the identity of young Muslims.
With more than 2 million albums already sold, the singer touted by Time magazine as “Islam’s biggest rock star,” hopes to do for the nascent form of Islamic rock what others have done with Christian rock.
Dressed in blue jeans and a brown leather jacket, Yusuf, 27, told Reuters he hates the way Islam is perceived by some in the West and believes his music can help bring people together with its Western and Middle Eastern influences.
“I feel as though (my fans) see me as representing them, not Osama bin Laden,” said Yusuf, who was born in Tehran but immigrated to Britain with his parents at the age of 3 and grew up in London.
“A lot of young guys are going through an identity crisis and I think that’s where people like me come in and say you can be British, you can be Muslim, you can be hip, you can be having fun -- it’s not either or.”
A New York Police Department report on Wednesday blamed the conflict between Western and Islamic values faced by young Muslims in Europe as making them more vulnerable to Islamist extremism. But Yusuf disagreed that an identity crisis would push young Western Muslims toward radicalization.
Yusuf wears a close-cropped beard, is married and describes himself as a devout Muslim who doesn’t drink alcohol and prays five times daily. He credits his British upbringing with giving him the opportunity to pursue his music career.
His says his influences include Bruce Springsteen, George Michael and Elton John but his music features classic synthesized Middle Eastern beats with a light pop feel.
He released his first album, “Al-Muallim,” in 2003 and although sung in English with some Arabic phrases and aimed at Muslims in the West, to his surprise it found success in the Arab world. His second album, “My Ummah,” was released in 2005.
“What I am doing is unique in the sense that it’s bringing together so many different influences and cultures and it’s kind of saying, ‘Look it works, we can all live together and we can all share and just chill,’” he said.
He hopes his music will help Muslims eschew extremism for tolerance and hope. In recent weeks he has toured the United States in a production by the charity Islamic Relief.
Yusuf’s manager, Wassim Malak of Awakening Records, described Yusuf as a pioneer in the Islamic music industry, which he said was relatively new but has the potential to become as popular as Christian music.
According to the Gospel Music Association, Christian music in the United States is worth about $700 million annually.
Yusuf’s second album included a song about the 2004 massacre at a school in the Russian town of Beslan by Chechen Islamist separatists and about the right of Muslim women to wear the Islamic headscarf, which France tried to ban along with other religious symbols in 2004.
Yusuf said his next album, due for release mid-2008, will include songs on Muslim identity and the negative effects of globalization. It will also have a song Yusuf is writing for “The Kite Runner” movie, based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini.
“My art sometimes I think is kind of pushed aside and the focus is on the religious side,” Yusuf said. “But I’m not going to compromise on my beliefs, on my principles. I am what I am, ... an artist who cherishes those universal principles and values we all hold dear, irrespective of faith, race and background.”
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