It’s not easy trying to describe Sami Yusuf’s music. Three albums and more than 12 million copies later, the multifaceted British singer is still hard to slot. It’s spiritual but very au courant in a ‘Call Me Maybe’ kind of way. His lyrics speak of peace, of pure love and of hope. And his slick videos could rival any of Lady Gaga’s productions. OK, make that Justin Bieber’s.
When Yusuf launched his third album ‘Wherever You Are’ in 2010, he described his music as ‘Spirtique’ – “a sound which incorporates Western and Middle Eastern harmonics, underpinned by spirituality.”
The truth is, his music and multi-faith message with an Islamic tinge have struck a chord with fans around the world. And nine years after his debut album ‘Al-Mu’allim’, he’s still playing to sold-out venues, the last one in Doha in December.
“I am not a mainstream singer,” Yusuf says, speaking to tabloid! in Dubai before he jetted off to north America to promote his fourth album, ‘Salaam’. “I have had mainstream success, yes. But I wouldn’t know how to share the stage with Lady Gaga.”
“[The new album is] essentially a progression of ‘Wherever You Are’. It’s the same spirit. It’s outward multiplicity and inward unity. [It] has a perennial message. Because every one wants peace and the idea is to bring people together.
“I don’t want to melodramatise my album but these are the intentions. Because ultimately, there is that timeless truth. Every song has a story that ultimately connects back to that. We need to bring people closer together. Our differences should be celebrated, not looked down upon. We shouldn’t make everybody want to be like us.”
Yusuf -- who divides his time between London, where he shares a home with his wife Maryam, Cairo and the UAE -- says the turmoil in the region affected his writing while working on the album.
“[My last album] was made before the Arab Spring and I think the content, about betrayal and loneliness, is more apt for this time. It was also a healing process for me. I had some negative issues.
“But I deliberately didn’t want to go down that road. I wanted to give hope. People can’t live without hope. We have to believe things will get better. Being a cynic is easy. But that’s not an option because we can’t go down that route.”
‘It’s a Game’, the first single off ‘Salaam’, was released in October last year along with an animated video. The idea for the video was conceptualised in 2007, says Yusuf, in response to the controversial Danish cartoons, and that the message is still relevant today.
“The idea behind it is that when one faith is attacked, all faiths are unsafe,” he explains. “And we wanted to respond to satire through satire, intelligently.
“It’s quite symbolic and powerful. I’m a great believer of the basic unity of people. We’ve been challenged by the modern world and faiths need to unite – and react with intelligence and sensitivity.”
If his last album -- released by ETM International, with offices in Dubai -- introduced a new genre, he says he wants to take it to the next level with ‘Salaam’.
“I’m setting up my own record company called Andante Records. It’s more or less done but I’m working on the website and we will be launching it officially in the coming months.”
Through the new venture, Yusuf says he wants to also mentor budding musical talents.
“I want to support music, but only real music,” he says. “I’m not interested in mainstream stuff. For me mainstream denotes cheap and superficial and not so different or risk-taking.
“I want to give people a chance, to train them, so long as there is an underlying ‘Spiritique’ dimension. We want to celebrate the human spirit.”
Yusuf recently put this theory to test when he performed at the Katara cultural village amphiteatre in Qatar.
“We chose five people: Two were Qatari, one was Egyptian and one was from India. In the middle of the show, we invited them to sing with me and we performed classical, Middle Eastern Islamic sacred music It was beautiful.”
Another project Yusuf dedicates a lot of time to is the UN’s World Food Programme, for which he is a Celebrity Partner. He wrote a song called ‘Forgotten Promises’, which combines English, Arabic and Swahili, for the programme’s LiveFeed to support drought victims in the Horn of Africa. All proceeds from downloads goes directly to LiveFeed.
“I’m not Mother Teresa by any standard. I’m just a poor person, doing whatever I can,” he says. “I’m not someone who makes music for music sake. I make music, or try, in humble way, to do something that will bring people closer to the world of the spirit.
“Spirituality is not an abstract thing. It’s not some wishy-washy new age thing,” he adds. “For me, all the major religions are expressions of the same truth. They’re all expressions of the same one absolute metaphysical principle. Ultimately, if you go deep there is a truth, and that truth is what is important for me. So my music is to bring about those feelings, ideas and to somehow bring people closer through music.”
And that unifying power, even if not always explainable, is the best way to describe Sami Yusuf’s music.