“I won’t lie”, says London-bred singer-songwriter Sami Yusuf. “This was a side project.”
We are talking about his new EP, aptly named ‘SAMi’, which takes him into familiar and yet uncharted territory. The album plays bridge to his British roots — he grew up in a borough in West London called Ealing — and his current star status. He is one of the best known Muslim performers in the UK with 34 million albums sold to date.
“My first album, ‘Al Mu’allim,’ was released in London [in 2003] and in many ways my story originate[d] in London and then it took off from there,” he explains. So it may seem like a no-brainer, going home and reflecting on his journey; using that as content for a new tune.
Except, that’s not what happened here.
“This album was made almost by accident,” he recalls, “because I had a friend who came over in 2017. We were working on another album and when he heard the material I had, which was recorded in Morocco the same year, he said, ‘Look, this is really great but why don’t we do a new album? Have you thought of something that explores your British roots?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, why don’t we do that?
The award-winning sounding-board he’s referring to is Will Knox, whom he calls “a very good songwriter.” They’ve been collaborators for about 10 years and have in common formative years populated by the sounds of London Bouroghs — Knox is from Hammersmith; “we are neighbours”.
The result is a Sufi-influenced six-song EP entirely in English, which is perfectly suited to “everyone”. Yusuf explains that his past work has been aimed at the Mena region and Southeast Asia; “I wouldn’t say not for English-speaking people, but it’s quite niche. It’s not really geared to the average Joe in a pub in London, for example.”
This EP, on the other hand, he calls “quite Western”. It’s in English for one thing; his past outings have seen an Arabic-English fusion of lyrics.
But that doesn’t mean fans will meet a new Sami, says the 38 year old. “The important thing is, it’s still me. The essence of the album, the actual substance of the album is very spiritual. But because it’s written in a way that can be understood at different levels, it becomes very accessible. It’s very relatable.”
The EP speaks of a world littered with fake news and terrible truths. “We live in an era of fake news, So many people have become agents of news. Anybody just posts anything and it becomes viral and it becomes true, and I think with what’s going on in the world and how we are bombarded with information.
The essence of the album, the actual substance of the album is very spiritual.
“This album is very metaphysical in its substance; it’s about transcendence; we don’t know what’s real anymore…this album is talking about truth in oneself that can be found. I know that can come across as a bit preachy but I believe much of what we are looking for is actually within. This album is really a journey to the soul, going inward,” he says.
Which is not to say that introspection comes without a price; sometimes, it can be the harbinger of pain too. When I ask the well-known humanitarian about his efforts to help people across the world, he’s quick to say, “I am not doing enough.”
He’s been working as the Global Ambassador Against Hunger, part of the United Nations World Food Programme, for four years. It’s a role he is passionate about. “We’ve got a billion people and they go to bed hungry and that’s just unacceptable. We have to remember that these are man-made problems and the important thing to also remember is that these are solvable. We can fix this,” he says. “We have goals for 2030; global goals; and I think we are on course to achieving that.”
Another man-made thorn in his side is social media. Tech, he says vociferously, can be dangerous. “I mean the whole debate of the internet and they say, you know, it shouldn’t be censored and all of that; I don’t know if it needs to be censored, but it needs to be regulated a bit more, because with the tap of a button, a six-seven-year-old kid can see the most obscene things — in many ways, you know, it takes away your innocence. So I think it just needs to be controlled.”
Over the weekend, Yusuf played at the ‘Sharjah Munshid’ — and it’s the sort of thing he calls a rare treat. “because I don’t perform so much. When I do perform, I have it filmed, I have it documented, I launch material, I do new stuff, arrange new music…I’m at a place where performing just to perform isn’t a thing for me,” he explains.
And perhaps the same can be said about his musical choices. ‘SAMi’ is a deep dive into emotion. “The first song is called ‘Shadowless’, and then after that it’s ‘Wanderer’; and after that ‘8’, which is actually ‘infinity’; after that it’s ‘Call My Name’, ‘Crazy’ and then ‘Grounded,’” he lists the numbers. As for what’s next, he’s got another album lined up for 2019.
The lyrics of one of Yusuf’s new songs go: “Love is a madness that never surrenders.”
And, for Sami, perhaps music is a truth that must be told.
Did you know?
Sami Yusuf played a part in the Golden-Globe award nominated movie the ‘Kite Runner’. Well, actually it was his song ‘Supplication’ that rippled through the Khaled Hosseini adaptation. His song ‘The Gift of Love’ also featured at the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week as the first interfaith anthem.
Singer-songwriter-composer Sami Yusuf has been keeping busy since he first stepped onto the music scene in 2003 with Al-Mu`allim. He has nine studio albums to his credit, which include My Ummah (2005); Wherever You Are (2010); Salaam (2012); The Centre (2014); Songs Of The Way (2015); 1001 World of Ibn-Al Haytham (2015); Barakah (2016) and SAMi - EP (2018).