By Sharon Gest
Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, has recently released a new album called “A Is For Allah”, his fourth since his 1977 conversion to Islam. The album, which is to be sold along with a book by the same name, was officially launched at an event held on April 21st in London. It includes eight songs, most of which were written by Islam. He began working on this project nearly 11 years ago, and with the help of different collaborators, was able to see the project through until its official release to the public. Yusuf Islam has only recently resurfaced , following nearly 20 years of being away from the public eye, and so one may ask, is “The Cat” back?
Born in 1948 as Stephen Demetri Georgiou to a Cypriot father and Swedish mother, Yusuf Islam was raised as a Greek Catholic. Despite this fact, his parents sent him to a Roman Catholic school. Even as a child, he had always had a strong religious inclination and, thus, felt like an outcast among his peers. Islam recalls his childhood as a time of loneliness and of never quite fitting in.
His parents owned a restaurant in the West End in London where he worked throughout his childhood. It was there that he got his first taste of show business. The restaurant was located near the theatre district and the young boy was exposed to the bright lights, music and excitement from a very early age.
Stevens had always been very artistic. A direct inheritance from his mother, the two would spend hours drawing. Often, his mother would retire to bed, leaving the young boy to draw until the late hours of the night. This creative outlet eventually developed into music and at the “ripe” age of 17, Stevens began his studies at Hammersmith College art school. At this time, Stevens gradually became alienated from his religious upbringing and felt an increasing longing for something entirely different. He wanted to be a star.
It was at Hammersmith that he went through with his first identity change. Partly as an effort to disguise his Greek decent, but mainly with the purpose of achieving success in the music business in mind, he decided to change his name. Stephen Demetri Georgiou would be known from that moment on as Cat Stevens. This move, in retrospect, would start him out on the road to fame and fortune, which, ironically, would be the precise cause for another identity change years later.
His first hit, at only18 years of age was called “I Love My Dog”. This was the beginning of an immensely successful career. Over the years he wrote and recorded numerous albums, including “Matthew and Son”, “Tea for the Tillerman”, “Buddha and the Chocolate Box” and sold over 25 million copies worldwide.
Along with his enormous commercial success came fame, fortune and all the luxuries of life that money could buy. All these came at a very young age and had an increasing effect on Stevens. He had undoubtedly achieved the goal he had set for himself. He was a star, producing some of the most popular songs of the times, was adored by his fans and revered by his colleagues. But was this really what he really wanted?
Life, it turns out, gave him the circumstances to come to terms with what he had achieved and to assess his situation with care and in depth. At the age of 19, Stevens contracted a near fatal case of Tuberculosis and had to be hospitalized for nearly one year. Besides fighting the disease, the time spent in the hospital proved to be very meaningful for him. It was there that he began to deal with questions that arose from within himself. He became interested in Eastern mysticism and became a vegetarian. Realizing Buddhism was not for him, he continued his search in different directions. He tried everything from Zen to Ching, numerology to astrology, but nothing seemed to fit.
In 1975, his brother gave him a copy of the Quran after visiting a mosque. He described the atmosphere in the mosque as throbbing with life, yet, at the same time, full of peace and tranquility. Stevens soon realized that this was what he was looking for. For the first time in his life, he felt like he had found something that felt right. Nearly a year and a half after receiving the Quran from his brother, on December 23, 1977, Cat Stevens proclaimed himself a Muslim and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. “What I was searching for was an identity. I used to change my identity every other week only because I was looking for the peace I know must exist inside me somewhere. I had all the jigsaw puzzle pieces but the light was switched off. The Quran turned on the light.” (Islam, 1981)
The newly found Muslim decided to turn his back on his past life and started out by auctioning all the symbols of his former identity – namely, as a materialistic star. He auctioned off many of his belongings – including his guitars, pianos, synthesizers and even his gold records, turning the proceeds over to The Companions of the Mosque. Regardless of the public scrutiny and to his fans’ dismay, he turned his back on his old life and headed toward a future he regarded as right for himself. “I’m no longer seeking applause and fame. I’ve come to realize how meaningless such things are. It’s the creation of images that are larger than life that makes pop so completely unacceptable.” (Islam,1981).
In 1983, Yusuf Islam opened a Muslim school in London and is currently the chairman of four charities that deal with educational and humanitarian work. Among his many activities, he has brought attention to many causes and crises throughout the world.
Despite his attempt to shun away from the spotlight, he has somehow found his way back, but this time with a purpose, an agenda to help. He first resurfaced in 1995, issuing his first recording in 17 years. It was a double album called “The Life of The last Prophet”. This album contained a 66-minute narration of the story of the prophet Mohammad and three traditional Islamic songs. In 1997 he gave his first concert in 20 years. He performed for the Muslim community in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The concert was conducted with no musical instruments. A year later “I Have No Cannons That Roar” was released, a charity album of Bosnian songs. That same year saw the release of “Prayers of the Last Prophet”.
And now comes “A Is for Allah” – an educational collaboration that will undoubtedly reach many. The event celebrating the launch of the new album was hosted by Lord Ahmad of Rotterdam and was attended by friends and family of the artist, as well as members of the international press. Mr. Islam spoke briefly, recalling the history of the album and how it came to be. Finally, the guests got a chance to hear the title song “A Is for Allah”, performed by Zain Bhika. Bhika, originally from South Africa, performs most of the songs on the album.
Yusuf Islam has evolved through the years and seems to have finally reached a place where he has found meaning and happiness. Although many of Cat Stevens’ fans felt abandoned and feared the loss of contact with their beloved artist, it seems that he hasn’t really lost touch after all. “I am happy to reconnect and say to people I haven’t really gone that far away. I’m ready to communicate and I don’t want to lose touch. What I was really rejecting was the business – agents, record companies, the rat race, competitiveness. I didn’t want to stick around in that environment.”(Islam, 1998)
So, in fact, he did not disappear, but rather, he found new meaning for his talent, creating music with a message and a purpose, using his art to educate and share his insight. Is “The Cat” back? Not at all. As it turns out, he has actually been here all along – Albawaba.com.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)