Yusuf Islam (born Steven Demetre Georgiou, 21 July 1948), commonly known by his former stage name Cat Stevens, is a British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. His 1967 debut album reached the top 10 in the UK, and the album’s title song “Matthew and Son” charted at number 2 on the UK Singles Chart. His albums Tea for the Tillerman (1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971) were both certified triple platinum in the US by the RIAA. His musical style consists of folk, pop, rock, and Islamic music.
His 1972 album Catch Bull at Four spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard 200, and fifteen weeks at number one in the Australian ARIA Charts. He earned two ASCAP songwriting awards in 2005 and 2006 for “The First Cut Is the Deepest”, and the song has been a hit for four different artists. His other hit songs include “Father and Son”, “Wild World”, “Peace Train”, “Moonshadow”, and “Morning Has Broken”. In 2007 he received the British Academy’s Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Collection.
In December 1977, Stevens converted to Islam, and he adopted the name Yusuf Islam the following year. In 1979, he auctioned all his guitars for charity and left his music career to devote himself to educational and philanthropic causes in the Muslim community. He was embroiled in a long-running controversy regarding comments he made in 1989 about the death fatwa on author Salman Rushdie. He has received two honorary doctorates and awards for promoting peace from two organisations founded by Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 2006, he returned to pop music – releasing his first album of new pop songs in 28 years, titled An Other Cup. With that release and subsequent ones, he dropped the surname “Islam” from the album cover art – using the stage name Yusuf as a mononym. In 2009, he released the album Roadsinger, and in 2014, he released the album Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, and began his first US tour since 1978. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. His second North American tour since his resurgence, featuring 12 shows in intimate venues, began on 12 September 2016.
Early life (1948–65)
Steven Georgiou, born on 21 July 1948 in the Marylebone area of London, was the youngest child of a Greek Cypriot father, Stavros Georgiou (1900–1978), and a Swedish mother, Ingrid Wickman. He had an older sister, Anita (b. 1937), and a brother, David Gordon. The family lived above the Moulin Rouge, a restaurant that his parents operated on the north end of Shaftesbury Avenue which was a short walk from Piccadilly Circus in the Soho theatre district of London. All family members worked in the restaurant. His parents divorced when he was about eight years old, but they continued to maintain the family restaurant and live above it.
Although his father was Greek Orthodox and his mother a Baptist, Georgiou was sent to St. Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School, Macklin Street, which was closer to his father’s business on Drury Lane. Georgiou developed an interest in piano at a fairly young age, eventually using the family baby grand piano to work out the chords, since no one else there played well enough to teach him. Inspired by the popularity of the Beatles, at 15 he extended his interest to the guitar, persuaded his father to pay £8 for his first instrument, and began playing it and writing songs. He would escape at times from his family responsibilities to the rooftop above their home, and listen to the tunes of the musicals drifting from just around the corner from Denmark Street, which was then the centre of the British music industry. Stevens emphasised that the advent of West Side Story in particular affected him, giving him a “different view of life”. With interests in both art and music, he and his mother moved to Gävle, Sweden, where he attended primary school (Solängsskolan) and started developing his drawing skills after being influenced by his uncle Hugo Wickman, a painter. They subsequently returned to England.
He attended other local West End schools, where he says he was constantly in trouble, and did poorly in everything but art. He was called “the artist boy” and mentions that “I was beat up, but I was noticed”. He went on to take a one-year course of study at Hammersmith School of Art, as he considered a career as a cartoonist. Though he enjoyed art (his later record albums would feature his original artwork on his album covers), he wanted to establish a musical career and began to perform originally under the stage name “Steve Adams” in 1965 while at Hammersmith. At that point, his goal was to become a songwriter. As well as the Beatles, other musicians who influenced him were the Kinks, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, blues artists Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, Biff Rose (particularly Rose’s first album), Leo Kottke, and Paul Simon. He also wanted to emulate composers who wrote musicals, like Ira Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. In 1965 he signed a publishing deal with Ardmore & Beechwood and recorded several demos, including “The First Cut Is the Deepest”.
Musical career (1966–70)
Early musical career
Georgiou began to perform his songs in London coffee houses and pubs. At first he tried forming a band, but soon realised he preferred performing solo. Thinking that his given name might not be memorable to prospective fans, he chose the stage name Cat Stevens, in part because a girlfriend said he had eyes like a cat, but mainly because he said, “I couldn’t imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for ‘that Steven Demetre Georgiou album’. And in England, and I was sure in America, they loved animals.” In 1966, at age 18, he impressed manager/producer Mike Hurst, formerly of British vocal group the Springfields, with his songs and Hurst arranged for him to record a demo and then helped him get a record deal. The first singles were hits. “I Love My Dog”, charting on the UK Singles Chart at number 28, and “Matthew and Son”, the title song from his debut album, went to number 2 in the UK. “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun” was his second UK top 10, reaching number 6, and the album Matthew and Son reached number 7 on the UK Albums Chart. The original version of the Tremeloes’ hit “Here Comes My Baby” was written and recorded by Stevens.
Over the next two years, Stevens recorded and toured with an eclectic group of artists ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Engelbert Humperdinck. Stevens was considered a fresh-faced teen star, placing several single releases in the British pop music charts. Some of that success was attributed to the pirate radio station Wonderful Radio London, which gained him fans by playing his records. In August 1967, he went on the air with other recording artists who had benefited from the station to mourn its closure.
His December 1967 album New Masters failed to chart in the United Kingdom. The album is now most notable for his song “The First Cut Is the Deepest”, a song he sold for £30 to P. P. Arnold that was to become a massive hit for her, and an international hit for Keith Hampshire, Rod Stewart, James Morrison, and Sheryl Crow. Forty years after he recorded the first demo of the song, it earned him two back-to-back ASCAP “Songwriter of the Year” awards, in 2005 and 2006.
Stevens contracted tuberculosis in 1969 and was close to death at the time of his admittance to the King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, West Sussex. He spent months recuperating in the hospital and a year of convalescence. During this time Stevens began to question aspects of his life and spirituality. He later said, “to go from the show business environment and find you are in hospital, getting injections day in and day out, and people around you are dying, it certainly changes your perspective. I got down to thinking about myself. It seemed almost as if I had my eyes shut.”
He took up meditation, yoga, and metaphysics; read about other religions; and became a vegetarian. As a result of his serious illness and long convalescence, and as a part of his spiritual awakening and questioning, he wrote as many as forty songs, many of which would appear on his albums in years to come.
Changes in musical sound after illness
The lack of success of Stevens’ second album mirrored a difference of personal tastes in musical direction, and a growing resentment at producer Mike Hurst’s attempts to re-create another album like that of his debut, with heavy-handed orchestration, and over-production, rather than the folk rock sound Stevens was attempting to produce. He admits having purposefully sabotaged his own contract with Hurst, making outlandishly expensive orchestral demands and threatening legal action, which resulted in his goal: release from his contract with Deram Records, a sub-label of Decca Records. Upon regaining his health at home after his release from the hospital, Stevens recorded some of his newly written songs on his tape recorder, and played his changing sound for a few new record executives. After hiring agent Barry Krost, who had arranged for an audition with Chris Blackwell of Island Records, Blackwell offered him a “chance to record [his songs] whenever and with whomever he liked, and more importantly to Cat, however he liked”.With Krost’s recommendation, Stevens signed with Paul Samwell-Smith, previously the bassist of the Yardbirds, to be his new producer.
Musical career (1970–78)
Height of popularity
Around this time, Stevens had a catalogue of new songs that reflected his new perspective on what he wanted to bring to the world with his music. His previous work had sold at home in the UK, but Stevens was still relatively unknown by the public across the Atlantic. To rectify this, after signing with Island Records in 1970, an American distribution deal was arranged with A&M Records’ Jerry Moss in North America. Stevens began work on Mona Bone Jakon, a folk rock based album.
Producer Paul Samwell-Smith paired Stevens with guitarist Alun Davies, who was at that time working as a session musician. Davies was the more experienced veteran of two albums which already had begun to explore the emerging genres of skiffle and folk rock music. Davies was also thought a perfect fit with Stevens in particular for his “fingerwork” on the guitar, harmonising and his backing vocals. They originally met just to record Mona Bone Jakon, but developed a fast friendship. Davies, like Stevens, was a perfectionist, appearing at all sound checks to be sure that all the equipment and sound were prepared for each concert. He collaborated with Stevens on all but two of the succeeding albums Stevens released, and performed and recorded with him until Stevens’ retirement. Their friendship continued, however, and when Stevens re-emerged as Yusuf Islam after 27 years, Davies appeared again performing at his side, and has remained there.
The first single released from Mona Bone Jakon was “Lady D’Arbanville”, which Stevens wrote about his young American girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville. The record, with a madrigal sound unlike most music played on pop radio, with sounds of djembes and bass in addition to Stevens’ and Davies’ guitars, reached number 8 in the UK. It was the first of his hits to get real airplay in the US. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold record in 1971. Other songs written for D’Arbanville included “Maybe You’re Right”, and “Just Another Night”. In addition, the song “Pop Star”, about his experience as a teen star, and “Katmandu”, featuring Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel playing flute, were featured. Mona Bone Jakon was an early example of the solo singer-songwriter album format that was becoming popular for other artists as well. Rolling Stone magazine compared its popularity with that of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, saying it was played “across the board, across radio formats”.
Mona Bone Jakon was the precursor for Stevens’ international breakthrough album, Tea for the Tillerman, which became a Top 10 Billboard hit. Within six months of its release, it had sold over 500,000 copies, attaining gold record status in the United Kingdom and the United States. The combination of Stevens’ new folk rock style and accessible lyrics which spoke of everyday situations and problems, mixed with the beginning of spiritual questions about life, would remain in his music from then on. The album features the Top 20 single “Wild World”; a parting song after D’Arbanville moved on. “Wild World” has been credited as the song that gave Tea for the Tillerman ‘enough kick’ to get it played on FM radio; and the head of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, was quoted as calling it “the best album we’ve ever released”.Other album tracks include “Hard-Headed Woman”, and “Father and Son”, a song sung both in baritone and tenor, about the struggle between fathers and their sons who are faced with their own personal choices in life. In 2001, this album was certified by the RIAA as a Multi-Platinum record, having sold 3 million copies in the United States at that time. It is ranked at No. 206 in the 2003 list of “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
After the end of his relationship with D’Arbanville, Stevens noted the effect it had on writing his music, saying, “Everything I wrote while I was away was in a transitional period and reflects that. Like Patti. A year ago we split; I had been with her for two years. What I write about Patti and my family … when I sing the songs now, I learn strange things. I learn the meanings of my songs late …”
Having established a signature sound, Stevens enjoyed a string of successes over the following years. 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat album reached number two and achieved gold record status within three weeks of its release in the United States. It yielded several hits, including “Peace Train”, “Morning Has Broken”, and “Moonshadow”. This album was also certified by the RIAA as a Multi-Platinum record in 2001, with over three million sold in the United States through that time. When interviewed on a Boston radio station, Stevens said about Teaser and the Firecat:
I get the tune and then I just keep on singing the tune until the words come out from the tune. It’s kind of a hypnotic state that you reach after a while when you keep on playing it where words just evolve from it. So you take those words and just let them go whichever way they want …’Moonshadow’? Funny, that was in Spain, I went there alone, completely alone, to get away from a few things. And I was dancin’ on the rocks there … right on the rocks where the waves were, like, blowin’ and splashin’. Really, it was so fantastic. And the moon was bright, ya know, and I started dancin’ and singin’ and I sang that song and it stayed. It’s just the kind of moment that you want to find when you’re writin’ songs.
For seven months from 1971 to 1972 Stevens was romantically linked to popular singer Carly Simon while both were produced by Samwell-Smith. During that time both wrote songs for and about one another. Simon wrote and recorded at least two Top 50 songs, “Legend in Your Own Time” and “Anticipation” about Stevens. He reciprocated in his song to her, after their romance, titled, “Sweet Scarlet”.
His next album, Catch Bull at Four, released in 1972, was his most rapidly successful album in the United States, reaching gold record status in 15 days, and holding the number-one position on the Billboard charts for three weeks. This album continued the introspective and spiritual lyrics that he was known for, combined with a rougher-edged voice and a less acoustic sound than his previous records, using synthesisers and other instruments. Although the sales of the album indicated Stevens’ popularity, the album did not produce any real hits, with the exception of the single “Sitting”, which charted at number 16. Catch Bull at Four was Platinum certified in 2001.
Movie and television soundtracks
In July 1970, Stevens recorded one of his songs, “But I Might Die Tonight”, for the Jerzy Skolimowski film, Deep End. In 1971, Stevens provided nine songs to the soundtrack of the black comedy Harold and Maude which became a popular cult film celebrating the free spirit, and brought Stevens’ music to a wider audience, continuing to do so long after he stopped recording in the late 1970s. Among the songs were “Where Do the Children Play?”, “Trouble”, and “I Think I See the Light”. Two of the songs, “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”, were not released on any album until their inclusion in 1984 on a second “greatest hits” collection, Footsteps in the Dark: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2.
After his religious conversion in the late 1970s, Stevens stopped granting permission for his songs to be used in films. However, almost twenty years later, in 1997, the movie Rushmore received his permission to use his songs “Here Comes My Baby” and “The Wind”, showing a new willingness on his part to release his music from his Western “pop star” days. This was followed in 2000 by the inclusion of “Peace Train” in the movie Remember the Titans, in 2000 by the use in Almost Famous of the song “The Wind”, and in 2006 the inclusion of “Peace Train” on the soundtrack to We Are Marshall. Since then, permission has been given for Cat Stevens songs to be used in the soundtracks for several movies and tv shows, including the song “Tea for The Tillerman” used as the theme tune for the Ricky Gervais BBC-HBO sitcom Extras. A Christmas-season television commercial for gift-giving by the diamond industry aired in 2006 with Cat Power’s cover of “How Can I Tell You”.
In 2011, “Don’t Be Shy” was used in the pilot episode of the ABC television series Once Upon A Time. In 2014, “Cat and the Dog Trap” (from the Tell ‘Em I’m Gone album released as Yusuf) was used on an episode of the CBS television series Elementary.
In 2016, the single “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” appeared in a television commercial for the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Subsequent releases in the 1970s also did well on the charts and in ongoing sales, although they did not touch the success he had from 1970 to 1973. In 1973, Stevens moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a tax exile from the United Kingdom, however, he later donated the money to UNESCO. During that time he created the album Foreigner, which was a departure from the music that had brought him to the height of his fame. It differed in several respects: entirely written by Stevens, he dropped his band and produced the record without the assistance of Samwell-Smith, who had played a large role in catapulting him to fame, and instead of guitar, he played keyboard instruments throughout the album. It was intended to show a funk/soul element rising in popularity that Stevens had come to appreciate. One side of Foreigner was continuous, much different from the radio-friendly pop tunes fans had come to expect. In November 1973 he performed side two of the album at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood, with a pre-arranged uninterrupted quadraphonic simulcast on the ABC network. The show was titled the “Moon and Star” concert. This performance did include his band, but they were all but overshadowed by an orchestra. The album produced a couple of singles including “The Hurt”, but did not reach the heights he had once enjoyed. The follow-up to Foreigner was Buddha and the Chocolate Box, largely a return to the instrumentation and styles employed in Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman. Featuring the return of Alun Davies and best known for “Oh Very Young”, Buddha and the Chocolate Box reached platinum status in 2001. Stevens’ next album was the concept album Numbers, a less successful departure for him.
In April 1977, his Izitso album updated his pop rock and folk rock style with the extensive use of synthesisers, giving it a more synthpop style. “Was Dog a Doughnut” in particular was an early techno-pop fusion track and a precursor to the 1980s electro music genre, making early use of a music sequencer. Izitso included his last chart hit, “(Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard”, an early synthpop song that used a polyphonic synthesiser; it was a duet with fellow UK singer Elkie Brooks. Linda Lewis appears in the song’s video, with Cat Stevens singing to her, as they portray former schoolmates, singing to each other on a schoolyard merry-go-round. This is one of the few music videos that Stevens made, other than simple videos of concert performances.
His final original album under the name Cat Stevens was Back to Earth, released in late 1978, which was also the first album produced by Samwell-Smith since his peak in single album sales in the early 1970s. Several compilation albums were released before and after he stopped recording. After Stevens left Decca Records they bundled his first two albums together as a set, hoping to ride the commercial tide of his early success; later his newer labels did the same, and he himself released compilations. The most successful of the compilation albums was the 1975 Greatest Hits which has sold over 4 million copies in the United States. In May 2003 he received his first Platinum Europe Award from the IFPI for Remember Cat Stevens, The Ultimate Collection, indicating over one million European sales
While on holiday in Marrakesh, Morocco, Stevens was intrigued by the sound of the Aḏhān, the Islamic ritual call to prayer, which was explained to him as “music for God”. Stevens said, “I thought, music for God? I’d never heard that before – I’d heard of music for money, music for fame, music for personal power, but music for God!”
In 1976 Stevens nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu, California, United States, and said he shouted: “Oh, God! If you save me I will work for you.” He related that right afterward a wave appeared and carried him back to shore. This brush with death intensified his long-held quest for spiritual truth. He had looked into “Buddhism, Zen, I Ching, numerology, tarot cards, and astrology”. Stevens’ brother David Gordon, a convert to Judaism, brought him a copy of the Qur’an as a birthday gift from a trip to Jerusalem. Stevens took to it right away, and began his transition to Islam.
During the time he was studying the Qur’an, Stevens began to identify more and more with the story of Joseph, a man bought and sold in the market place, which is how he said he had increasingly felt within the music business. Regarding his conversion, in his 2006 interview with Alan Yentob, he stated, “to some people, it may have seemed like an enormous jump, but for me, it was a gradual move to this.” And, in a Rolling Stone magazine interview, he reaffirmed this, saying, “I had found the spiritual home I’d been seeking for most of my life. And if you listen to my music and lyrics, like “Peace Train” and “On The Road To Find Out”, it clearly shows my yearning for direction and the spiritual path I was travelling.”
Stevens formally converted to the Islamic religion on 23 December 1977, taking the name Yusuf Islam in 1978. Yusuf is the Arabic rendition of the name Joseph; he stated that he “always loved the name Joseph” and was particularly drawn to the story of Joseph in the Qur’an. Although he discontinued his pop career, he was persuaded to perform one last time before what would become his twenty-five-year musical hiatus. Appearing with his hair freshly shorn and an untrimmed beard, he headlined a charity concert on 22 November 1979 in Wembley Stadium to benefit UNICEF’s International Year of the Child. The concert closed with his performance along with David Essex, Alun Davies, and Yusuf’s brother, David Gordon, who wrote the finale song “Child for a Day”.
After a brief engagement to Louise Wightman, Yusuf married Fauzia Mubarak Ali on 7 September 1979, at Regent’s Park Mosque in London. They have one son and four daughters and seven grandchildren; a second son died in infancy. They currently live in London, spending part of each year in Dubai.
Life as Yusuf Islam (1978–present)
Muslim faith and musical career
Following his conversion, Yusuf abandoned his music career for nearly three decades. In 2007, he said that when he became a Muslim in 1977, the Imam at his mosque told him that it was fine to continue as a musician, as long as the songs were morally acceptable, but that others were saying “it was all prohibited”, and he decided to avoid the question by ceasing to perform. He has said there was “a combination of reasons, really”, and that the continuing demands of the music business had been “becoming a chore, and not an inspiration anymore”. In a 2004 interview on Larry King Live, he said “A lot of people would have loved me to keep singing. You come to a point where you have sung, more or less … your whole repertoire and you want to get down to the job of living. You know, up until that point, I hadn’t had a life. I’d been searching, been on the road.”
Estimating in January 2007 that he was continuing to earn approximately US$1.5 million a year from his Cat Stevens music, he said he would use his accumulated wealth and ongoing earnings from his music career on philanthropic and educational causes in the Muslim community of London and elsewhere. In 1983, he founded the Islamia Primary School in Brondesbury Park, later moved to Salusbury Road, in the north London area of Queen’s Park and, soon after, founded several Muslim secondary schools; in 1992, he set up The Association of Muslim Schools (AMS-UK), a charity that brought together all the Muslim schools in the UK. He is also the founder and chairman of the Small Kindness charity, which initially assisted famine victims in Africa and now supports thousands of orphans and families in the Balkans, Indonesia, and Iraq. He served as chairman of the charity Muslim Aid from 1985 to 1993.
Salman Rushdie controversy
A controversy arose in 1989 following an address by Yusuf to students at London’s Kingston University, where he was asked about the fatwa calling for the killing of Salman Rushdie, author of the novel The Satanic Verses. Yusuf made a series of comments that appeared to show his support for the fatwa. He released a statement the following day denying that he supported vigilantism, and claiming that he had merely recounted the legal Islamic punishment for blasphemy. In a 2006 BBC interview, he displayed a newspaper clipping from that period, with quotes from his statement. Subsequent comments made by him in 1989 on a British television programme were also seen as being in support of the fatwa. In a statement in the FAQ section of one of his websites, Yusuf asserted that while he regretted the comments, he was joking and that the show was improperly edited. In the years since these comments, he has repeatedly denied ever calling for the death of Rushdie or supporting the fatwa.
11 September 2001 attacks
Immediately following the 11 September attacks on the United States, he said:
I wish to express my heartfelt horror at the indiscriminate terrorist attacks committed against innocent people of the United States yesterday. While it is still not clear who carried out the attack, it must be stated that no right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action. The Qur’an equates the murder of one innocent person with the murder of the whole of humanity. We pray for the families of all those who lost their lives in this unthinkable act of violence as well as all those injured; I hope to reflect the feelings of all Muslims and people around the world whose sympathies go out to the victims of this sorrowful moment.
He appeared on videotape on a VH1 pre-show for the October 2001 Concert for New York City, condemning the attacks and singing his song “Peace Train” for the first time in public in more than 20 years, as an a cappella version. He also donated a portion of his box-set royalties to the fund for victims’ families, and the rest to orphans in underdeveloped countries. During the same year, he dedicated time and effort in joining the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, an organisation that worked towards battling misconceptions and acts against others because of their religious beliefs or their racial identity (or both), after many Muslims reported a backlash against them due in part to the grief caused by the events in the United States on 11 September.
Denial of entry into the United States
On 21 September 2004, Yusuf was on a United Airlines flight from London to Washington, travelling to a meeting with US entertainer Dolly Parton, who had recorded “Peace Train” several years earlier and was planning to include another Cat Stevens song on an upcoming álbum. While the plane was in flight, his name was flagged as being on the No Fly List. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers alerted the United States Transportation Security Administration, which then diverted his flight to Bangor, Maine, where he was detained by officers from the Department of Homeland Security.
The following day, he was denied entry and flown back to the United Kingdom. A spokesman for Homeland Security claimed there were “concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities”. The Israeli government had deported Yusuf in 2000 over allegations that he provided funding to the Palestinian organisation Hamas, but he denied doing so knowingly. Yusuf, who repeatedly has condemned terrorism and Islamic extremism, stated “I have never knowingly supported or given money to Hamas”. At the time I was reported to have done it, I didn’t know such a group existed. Some people give a political interpretation to charity. We were horrified at how people were suffering in the Holy Land.”
However, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added him to a “watch list”. The removal provoked an international controversy and led the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to complain personally to the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations. Powell responded by stating that the watchlist was under review, adding, “I think we have that obligation to review these matters to see if we are right”.
Yusuf believed his inclusion on a “watch list” may have simply been an error: a mistaken identification of him for a man with the same name, but different spelling. On 1 October 2004 he requested the removal of his name, “I remain bewildered by the decision of the US authorities to refuse me entry to the United States”. According to his statement, the man on the list was named “Youssef Islam”, indicating that Yusuf was not the suspected terrorism supporter. Romanisation of Arabic names can easily result in different spellings: the transliteration of the Islamic name for Joseph lists a dozen spellings.
Two years later, in December 2006, Yusuf was admitted without incident into the United States for several radio concert performances and interviews to promote his new record. He said of the incident at the time, “No reason was ever given, but being asked to repeat the spelling of my name again and again, made me think it was a fairly simple mistake of identity. Rumours which circulated after made me imagine otherwise.”
Yusuf wrote a song about his 2004 exclusion from the US, titled “Boots and Sand”, recorded in 2008 and featuring Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, and Terry Sylvester.
Lawsuit over News UK newspaper reports that he had supported terrorism
In October 2004 the News UK newspapers The Sun and The Sunday Times voiced their support for Yusuf’s exclusion from the United States and claimed that he had supported terrorism. He sued for libel and received an out-of-court financial settlement from the newspapers, which both published apology statements saying that he had never supported terrorism and mentioning that he had recently been given a Man of Peace award from the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. However The Sunday Times managing editor Richard Caseby said that while there was an “agreed settlement”, they “always denied liability” and “disagreed with Cat Stevens’ lawyers interpretation”, but took a “pragmatic view” of the lawsuit.
Yusuf responded that he was “delighted by the settlement [which] helps vindicate my character and good name. … It seems to be the easiest thing in the world these days to make scurrilous accusations against Muslims, and in my case it directly impacts on my relief work and damages my reputation as an artist. The harm done is often difficult to repair”, and added that he intended to donate the financial award given to him by the court to help orphans of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. He wrote about the experience in a newspaper article titled “A Cat in a Wild World”.
Lawsuit about allegation that he would not talk to unveiled women
On 18 July 2008, Yusuf received substantial undisclosed damages from the World Entertainment News Network following their publication of a story that claimed the singer refused to speak to unveiled women. The allegations first surfaced in the German newspaper BZ after Yusuf’s trip to Berlin in March 2007 to collect the Echo music award for “life achievements as musician and ambassador between cultures”. Once again he was awarded damages after the World Entertainment News Network allowed an article to be published on Contactmusic.com alleging that he would not speak to unveiled women with the exception of his wife. His solicitor said “he was made out to be ‘so sexist and bigoted that he refused at an awards ceremony to speak to or even acknowledge any women who were not wearing a veil'”.The news agency apologised and issued a statement saying that Yusuf has never had any problem in working with women and has never required a third party as an intermediary to function at work. The money from this lawsuit went to his Small Kindness Charity.
On his website, he discussed the false allegation, saying, “The accusation that I do not speak or interact with ladies who are not veiled is an absurdity…. It’s true that I have asked my manager to respectfully request lady presenters refrain from embracing me when giving awards or during public appearances, but that has nothing to do with my feelings or respect for them. Islam simply requires me to honour the dignity of ladies or young girls who are not closely related to me, and avoid physical intimacy, however innocent it may be.” He added, “My four daughters all follow the basic wearing of clothes which modestly cover their God-given beauty. They’re extremely well educated; they do not cover their faces and interact perfectly well with friends and society.”
Return to music
1990s–2006: as Yusuf Islam
Yusuf gradually resumed his musical career in the 1990s. His initial recordings had not included any musical instruments other than percussion, and featured lyrics about Islamic themes, some in spoken word or hamd form. He invested in building his own recording studio which he named Mountain of Light Studios in the late 1990s, and he was featured as a guest singer on “God Is the Light”, a song on an album of nasheeds by the group Raihan. In addition, he invited and collaborated with other Muslim singers, including Canadian artist Dawud Wharnsby. After Yusuf’s friend, Irfan Ljubijankić, the Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was killed by a Serbian rocket attack, Yusuf appeared at a 1997 benefit concert in Sarajevo and recorded a benefit album named after a song written by Ljubijankić, I Have No Cannons That Roar.
Realising there were few educational resources designed to teach children about the Islamic religion, Yusuf wrote and produced a children’s album, A Is for Allah, in 2000 with the assistance of South African singer-songwriter Zain Bhikha. The title song was one Yusuf had written years before to introduce his first child to both the religion and the Arabic alphabet. He also established his own record label, “Jamal Records”, and Mountain of Light Productions, and he donates a percentage of his projects’ proceeds to his Small Kindness charity, whose name is taken from the Qur’an.
On the occasion of the 2000 re-release of his Cat Stevens albums, Yusuf explained that he had stopped performing in English due to his misunderstanding of the Islamic faith. “This issue of music in Islam is not as cut-and-dried as I was led to believe … I relied on heresy [sic], that was perhaps my mistake.”
Yusuf has reflected that his decision to leave the Western pop music business was perhaps too quick with too little communication for his fans. For most, it was a surprise, and even his long-time guitarist, Alun Davies, said in later interviews that he hadn’t believed that his friend would actually go through with it, after his many forays into other religions throughout their relationship Yusuf himself has said the “cut” between his former life and his life as a Muslim might have been too quick, too severe, and that more people might have been better informed about Islam, and given an opportunity to better understand it, and himself, if he had simply removed those items that were considered harām, in his performances, allowing him to express himself musically and educate listeners through his music without violating any religious constraints.
In 2003, after repeated encouragement from within the Muslim world, Yusuf once again recorded “Peace Train” for a compilation CD, which also included performances by David Bowie and Paul McCartney. He performed “Wild World” in Nelson Mandela’s 46664 concert with his former session player Peter Gabriel, the first time he had publicly performed in English in 25 years. In December 2004, he and Ronan Keating released a new version of “Father and Son”: the song entered the charts at number two, behind Band Aid 20’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” They also produced a video of the pair walking between photographs of fathers and sons, while singing the song. The proceeds of “Father and Son” were donated to the Band Aid charity. Keating’s former group, Boyzone, had a hit with the song a decade earlier. As he had been persuaded before, Yusuf contributed to the song, because the proceeds were marked for charity.
On 21 April 2005 Yusuf gave a short talk before a scheduled musical performance in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on the anniversary of the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. He said:
There is a great deal of ignorance in the world about Islam today, and we hope to communicate with the help of something more refined than lectures and talks. Our recordings are particularly appealing to the young, having used songs as well as Qur’an verses with pleasing sound effects …
Yusuf observed that there are no real guidelines about instruments and no references about the business of music in the Qur’an, and that Muslim travellers first brought the guitar to Moorish Spain. He noted that Muhammad was fond of celebrations, as in the case of the birth of a child, or a traveller arriving after a long journey. Thus, Yusuf concluded that healthy entertainment was acceptable within limitations, and that he now felt that it was no sin to perform with the guitar. Music, he now felt, is uplifting to the soul; something sorely needed in troubled times. At that point, he was joined by several young male singers who sang backing vocals and played a drum, with Yusuf as lead singer and guitarist. They performed two songs, both half in Arabic, and half in English; “Tala’a Al-Badru Alayna”, an old song in Arabic which Islam recorded with a folk sound to it, and another song, “The Wind East and West”, which was newly written by Yusuf and featured a distinct R&B sound.
With this performance, Yusuf began slowly to integrate instruments into both older material from his Cat Stevens era (some with slight lyrical changes) and new songs, both those known to the Muslim communities around the world and some that have the same Western flair from before with a focus on new topics and another generation of listeners.
In a 2005 press release, he explained his revived recording career:
After I embraced Islam, many people told me to carry on composing and recording, but at the time I was hesitant, for fear that it might be for the wrong reasons. I felt unsure what the right course of action was. I guess it is only now, after all these years, that I’ve come to fully understand and appreciate what everyone has been asking of me. It’s as if I’ve come full circle; however, I have gathered a lot of knowledge on the subject in the meantime.
In early 2005, Yusuf released a new song, titled “Indian Ocean”, about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster. The song featured Indian composer/producer A. R. Rahman, a-ha keyboard player Magne Furuholmen and Travis drummer Neil Primrose. Proceeds of the single went to help orphans in Banda Aceh, one of the areas worst affected by the tsunami, through Yusuf’s Small Kindness charity. At first, the single was released only through several online music stores but later featured on the compilation album Cat Stevens: Gold. “I had to learn my faith and look after my family, and I had to make priorities. But now I’ve done it all and there’s a little space for me to fill in the universe of music again.”
On 28 May 2005, Yusuf delivered a keynote speech and performed at the Adopt-A-Minefield Gala in Düsseldorf. The Adopt-A-Minefield charity, under the patronage of Paul McCartney, works internationally to raise awareness and funds to clear landmines and rehabilitate landmine survivors. Yusuf attended as part of an honorary committee which also included George Martin, Richard Branson, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Klaus Voormann, Christopher Lee and others.
In mid-2005, Yusuf played guitar for the Dolly Parton album, Those Were the Days, on her version of his “Where Do the Children Play?” (Parton had also covered “Peace Train” a few years earlier.)
Yusuf has credited his then 21-year-old son Muhammad Islam, also a musician and artist, for his return to secular music, when the son brought a guitar back into the house, which Yusuf began playing. Muhammad’s professional name is Yoriyos and his debut album was released in February 2007. Yoriyos created the art on Yusuf’s album An Other Cup, something that Cat Stevens did for his own albums in the 1970s.
In May 2006, in anticipation of his forthcoming new pop album, the BBC1 programme Imagine aired a 49-minute documentary with Alan Yentob called Yusuf: The Artist formerly Known as Cat Stevens. This documentary film features rare audio and video clips from the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as an extensive interview with Yusuf, his brother David Gordon, several record executives, Bob Geldof, Dolly Parton, and others outlining his career as Cat Stevens, his conversion and emergence as Yusuf Islam, and his return to music in 2006. There are clips of him singing in the studio when he was recording An Other Cup as well as a few 2006 excerpts of him on guitar singing a few verses of Cat Stevens songs including “The Wind” and “On the Road to Find Out”.
In December 2006, Yusuf was one of the artists who performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, in honour of the prize winners, Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. He performed the songs “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)”, “Peace Train”, and “Heaven/Where True Love Goes”. He also gave a concert in New York City that month as a Jazz at Lincoln Center event, recorded and broadcast by KCRW-FM radio, along with an interview by Nic Harcourt. Accompanying him, as in the Cat Stevens days, was Alun Davies, on guitar and vocals.
2006–present: as Yusuf
2006–08: An Other Cup and appearances
In March 2006, Yusuf finished recording his first all-new pop album since 1978. The album, An Other Cup, was released internationally in November 2006 on his own label, Ya Records (distributed by Polydor Records in the UK, and internationally by Atlantic Records)—the 40th anniversary of his first album, Matthew and Son. An accompanying single, called “Heaven/Where True Love Goes”, was also released. The album was produced with Rick Nowels, who has worked with Dido and Rod Stewart. The performer is noted as “Yusuf”, with a cover label identifying him as “the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens”. The art on the album is credited to Yoriyos. Yusuf wrote all of the songs except “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, and recorded it in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Yusuf actively promoted this album, appearing on radio, television and in print interviews. In November 2006, he told the BBC, “It’s me, so it’s going to sound like that of course … This is the real thing … When my son brought the guitar back into the house, you know, that was the turning point. It opened a flood of, of new ideas and music which I think a lot of people would connect with.” Originally, he began to return only to his acoustic guitar as he had in the past, but his son encouraged him to “experiment”, which resulted in the purchase of a Stevie Ray Vaughan Fender Stratocaster in 2007.
Also in November 2006, Billboard magazine was curious as to why the artist is credited as just his first name, “Yusuf” rather than “Yusuf Islam”. His response was “Because ‘Islam’ doesn’t have to be sloganised. The second name is like the official tag, but you call a friend by their first name. It’s more intimate, and to me that’s the message of this record.” As for why the album sleeve says “the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens”, he responded, “That’s the tag with which most people are familiar; for recognition purposes I’m not averse to that. For a lot of people, it reminds them of something they want to hold on to. That name is part of my history and a lot of the things I dreamt about as Cat Stevens have come true as Yusuf Islam.”
Yusuf was asked by the Swiss periodical Das Magazin why the title of the album was An Other Cup, rather than “Another Cup”. The answer was that his breakthrough album, Tea for the Tillerman in 1970, was decorated with Yusuf’s painting of a peasant sitting down to a cup of steaming drink on the land. He commented that the two worlds “then, and now, are very different”. His new album shows a steaming cup alone on this cover. His answer was that this was actually an other cup; something different; a bridge between the East and West, which he explained was his own perceived role. He added that, through him, “Westerners might get a glimpse of the East, and Easterners, some understanding of the West. The cup, too, is important; it’s a meeting place, a thing meant to be shared.”
On CBS Sunday Morning in December 2006, he said, “You know, the cup is there to be filled … with whatever you want to fill it with. For those people looking for Cat Stevens, they’ll probably find him in this record. If you want to find [Yusuf] Islam, go a bit deeper, you’ll find him.” He has since described the album as being “over-produced” and refers to An Other Cup as being a necessary hurdle he had to overcome before he could release his new album, Roadsinger.
In April 2007, BBC1 broadcast a concert given at the Porchester Hall by Islam as part of BBC Sessions, his first live performance in London in 28 years (the previous one being the UNICEF “Year of the Child” concert in 1979). He played several new songs along with some old ones like “Father and Son”, “The Wind”, “Where Do the Children Play?”, “Don’t Be Shy”, “Wild World”, and “Peace Train”.
In July 2007, he performed at a concert in Bochum, Germany, in benefit of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Peace Centre in South Africa and the Milagro Foundation of Deborah and Carlos Santana. The audience included Nobel Laureates Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu and other prominent global figures. He later appeared as the final act in the German leg of Live Earth in Hamburg performing some classic Cat Stevens songs and more recent compositions reflecting his concern for peace and child welfare. His set included Stevie Wonder’s “Saturn”, “Peace Train”, “Where Do the Children Play?”, “Ruins”, and “Wild World”. He performed at the Peace One Day concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 21 September 2007. In 2008 Yusuf contributed the song “Edge of Existence” to the charity album Songs for Survival, in support of the indigenous rights organisation Survival International.
2008–14: Roadsinger, “My People” and tours
In January 2009, Yusuf released a single in aid of children in Gaza, a rendition of the George Harrison song, “The Day the World Gets Round”, along with the German bassist Klaus Voorman, who had formerly collaborated with The Beatles. To promote the new single, Voormann redesigned his famous Beatles Revolver album cover, drawing a picture of a young Cat Stevens along with himself and Harrison. Proceeds from the single were donated to charities and organisations including UNESCO, UNRWA, and the nonprofit group Save the Children, with the funds earmarked for Gaza children. Israeli Consul David Saranga criticised Yusuf for not dedicating the song to all of the children who are victims of the conflict, including Israeli children.
On 5 May 2009, Yusuf released Roadsinger, a new pop album recorded in 2008. The lead track, “Thinking ‘Bout You”, received its debut radio play on a BBC programme on 23 March 2009. Unlike An Other Cup, he promoted the new album with appearances on American television as well as in the UK. He appeared on The Chris Isaak Hour on the A&E network in April 2009, performing live versions of his new songs, “World O’Darkness”, “Boots and Sand”, and “Roadsinger”. On 13 May he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in Los Angeles, and on 14 May, on The Colbert Report in New York City, performing the title song from the Roadsinger album. On 15 May, he appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performing “Boots and Sand” and “Father and Son”. On 24 May he appeared on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, where he was interviewed and performed the title track of Roadsinger. On 15 August, he was one of many guests at Fairport Convention’s annual Fairport’s Cropredy Convention where he performed five songs accompanied by Alun Davies, with Fairport Convention as his backing band.
A world tour was announced on his web site to promote the new album. He was scheduled to perform at an invitation-only concert at New York City’s Highline Ballroom on 3 May 2009 and to go on to Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto, as well as some to-be-announced European venues. However, the New York appearance was postponed due to issues regarding his work visa. He appeared in May 2009 at Island Records’ 50th Anniversary concert in London. In November and December 2009, Yusuf undertook his “Guess I’ll Take My Time Tour” which also showcased his musical play Moonshadow. The tour took him to Dublin, where he had a mixed reception; subsequently he was well received in Birmingham and Liverpool, culminating in an emotional performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In June 2010 he toured Australia for the first time in 36 years, and New Zealand for the first time ever.
On 30 October 2010 Yusuf appeared at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s spoof Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC, singing alongside Ozzy Osbourne. Yusuf performed “Peace Train” and Ozzy performed “Crazy Train” at the same time, followed by The O’Jays performance of “Love Train”.
On 2 March 2011, Yusuf released his latest song, “My People”, as a free download available through his official website, as well as numerous other online outlets. Said to have been recorded at a studio located within a hundred yards of the site of the Berlin Wall, the song is inspired by a series of popular uprisings in the Arab world, known as the Arab Spring.
On 1 April 2011, he launched a new tour website (yusufinconcert.com) to commemorate his first European tour in over 36 years scheduled from 7 May to 2 June 2011. The ten-date tour visited Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and cities such as Stockholm, Hamburg, Oberhausen, Berlin, Munich, Rotterdam, Paris, Mannheim, Vienna and Brussels.
In May 2012, Moonshadow, a new musical featuring music from throughout his career opened at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, Australia. The show received mixed reviews and closed four weeks early.
In October 2013, Yusuf was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work under the Cat Stevens name (this was his second nomination – the first being an unsuccessful nomination in 2005). He was selected and was inducted by Art Garfunkel in April 2014 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, where he performed “Father and Son”, “Wild World”, and “Peace Train”. A record of his travel from Dubai to New York is captured in an episode of the National Geographic Channel television show Ultimate Airport Dubai (season 2, episode 6), first aired in China on 17 January 2015. In this episode he talks about his difficulty in entering the US.
2014–present: Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, “He Was Alone” and tours
On 15 September 2014, Yusuf announced the forthcoming release on 27 October 2014 of his new studio album, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, and two short tours: a November 2014 (9-date) Europe tour and a December 2014 (6-date) North America tour, the latter being his first one since 1976. On 4 December 2014, he played to his first public US audience since the 1970s at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia.
Yusuf performed two shows in early 2015: on 27 February at the Viña del Mar Festival, Quinta Vergara, Viña del Mar, Chile and on 22 April at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, area of Cardiff, Wales, UK.
On 1 June 2016, Yusuf shared a new song called “He Was Alone” and its corresponding video. Part of his newly launched fundraising campaign for child refugees, #YouAreNotAlone, the song was inspired by a trip to southern Turkey’s camps for Syrian refugees. He performed the song live for the first time in a special charity concert, his first show in more than a year, on 14 June 2016 at the Westminster Central Hall in London.
On 26 July 2016, Yusuf announced he would be part of the Global Citizen Festival held on 24 September 2016 in Central Park, New York, New York.
On 9 August 2016, Yusuf announced “A Cat’s Attic Tour”, his second North American tour since 1978, beginning on 12 September 2016 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto and ending on 7 October 2016 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. The string of 12 dates roughly coincides with the 50th anniversary of his first single, I Love My Dog, and would “feature a limited run of stripped down, introspective performances.” The tour included three shows in New York City (two shows at the Beacon Theatre and one show in Central Park at the Global Citizen Festival), his first shows in New York City since 1976. In keeping with his spirit of humanitarianism, he would be donating a portion of the revenue from each ticket sale towards his charity Small Kindness, as well as UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee in an effort to assist children affected by the current Syrian refugee crisis.