We regularly interview inspirational people involved with Mosaic to find out why they got involved and their thoughts on our work. You can read all interviews in the Mosaic Q and A archive.
Why are you a Mosaic Ambassador?
I heard about Mosaic through my daughter who is an Associate. She runs my Foundation back in London and she became involved with Mosaic a few years ago through one of my very good friends, Shabir Randeree. She told me of the great work that Mosaic was doing and approached me to be an Ambassador. I think at that time they were working with our boys’ school, Brondesbury College, for the Enterprise Challenge. I especially liked the idea of the enterprise challenge and encouraging children to think for themselves.
I grew up in London in the fifties and sixties and attended St. Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School. It was very much like: ‘do what you are told and don’t ask questions’. I think back then people didn’t really focus too much on a holistic education or following your dreams. I’m not sure much has changed.
I am a creative person and I think its hugely important for kids. The most important thing is to ‘think’ creatively – you don’t have to be artistic at all. Just allow yourself the space to look at things differently. To question, to seek, to challenge yourself. I wrote a song called ‘But I Might Die Tonight’; it was me expressing the need to carve one’s own path in life and try to do what God put you on this earth for. Whatever skill or talent you have, you must work at it, it’s a form of worship to acknowledge what God has given you and to try to excel at it.
“I don’t want to work away
doing just what they all say,
work hard boy and you’ll find
someday you’ll have a job like mine”
Who inspired you when you were younger?
I was inspired by so many things. London was a great place growing up in the sixties. My playground was the West End and I was surrounded by bright lights and theatres, I would hang around stage doors. West Side Story had a big impact on me. It gave me a new vision of life. It’s such a timeless and great story. The music spoke to me.
How did you reach your goals of being a musician and singer?
That’s a big question. Ultimately nothing happens without the will of God. But of course you have to work hard to have a shot. God doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves. At first of course there were rejections and disappointment, but I persevered. And my big brother, David, helped me.
There is this great story back before I made it big, where he stood on top of a table in a restaurant in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark St), full of people in the music business and shouted: ‘Everybody quiet! I need somebody in here to give me a contact. I have a brother, he is a great singer, somebody needs to help me.’
It worked! I got an agent and a publishing deal out of it and it started me on my journey.
Of course it took a lot of hard work to be successful. When writing songs, I tried (and still do try) to cut out all the noise and just write what I really felt. I think that’s one of the reasons my songs really touched people. I was using my writing as a way to explore and question where I was in life and it was a way for me to search. I think that spoke to people and still resonates to this day.
My mother was very supportive too. She had a calmness and integrity about her – that may be because she was Swedish. I think that inspired me somewhat through all the chaos: just being centred.
I still have many goals though. There are a number of things I still want to do. A few years ago I was able to realise my dream of writing a musical, Moonshadow, based on my songs. It was a great experience. I was able to be creative in a different way: designing stage sets, writing a script and learning a new craft… it was exciting. Something I’d very much like to revisit again when the time is right, God willing.
Why is mentoring important?
I think for me the relevant question is: why is inspiration important? Mentoring suggests a certain rigidity, whereas ‘inspiration’ has an ephemeral quality to it. It allows for a certain flexibility – it focuses on guidelines rather than rules which let’s a person’s character shine through. So to that question, I think it is very important to have something to inspire. Whether it’s a person, a book or even an idea.
If you could give a 15-year old yourself 3 pieces of advice, what would they be?
If I use my lyrics it might go something like this:
“If you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
’cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are…”
“Don’t wear fear,
Or nobody will know you’re there…”
“Be like the light, in the shadows
Throw down your mask and be real…”
What was very important to me was to always be very protective of my conscious-soul; I never really sold out to anybody. So I think that’s an important piece of advice.
Last but not least, I’d say it’s important to be kind to people and to be truthful. My wife and I tried to teach that to our children. It was important to us that they had integrity and were kind-hearted. Having mercy in your heart keeps away a lot of bad things.
Why did you set up the schools connected with the Yusuf Islam Foundation?
Well it began with the birth of my first child, Hasanah. I wanted to teach her about what was important in life, to pass on a few lessons I’d learned. I wrote her a song A is for Allah, which became a hit in the Muslim world, but I needed to go further than that. I suddenly thought ‘Hang on, what school am I going to send her to?’ I had a job to teach my child not only to be academically successful, but how to live.
I was a proactive person and didn’t rely on others to do my job. So in 1983, I began a small school with the help of my wife and some good friends. We bought a house in Queen’s Park (London) and just began there. We didn’t know how successful it would be, the intention was to simply provide for my child. Alhamdulillah our schools have flourished and grown over the last 32 years. Since their first GCSEs we have been at the top of the examination league tables and haven’t really moved from that spot. I think it’s also because we try to give the kids a holistic education, to try to encourage them to think for themselves and to be creative and proactive and give them life skills.
I’m so moved when I go there and see the children happy and see the teachers and staff happy. It’s incredibly uplifting and humbling. I think it’s because we began with pure intentions. All of our success is by God’s grace, but you have to work hard yourself.
Why is giving back so important?
My father ran a restaurant in the West End called The Moulin Rouge. I was trained as a young boy to be a waiter and I learned very early on to serve the public. Later when I began singing, I found my songs were able to speak to people and that was very encouraging. Ultimately I think giving back to people is really giving back to yourself. The Quran mentions charity so frequently that it’s just unimaginable to think it can’t be a huge part of the transaction we call ‘life’.
When I was out there as Cat Stevens, I made several trips to Bangladesh and Africa as a Unicef goodwill ambassador. My final performance as Cat Stevens in fact was for a children’s benefit concert. And when I returned to music in 1997, it was in Sarajevo directly after the war in the Balkans. I sang to lift spirits. I couldn’t believe that we were witnessing another genocide. It was the 1990s! It was almost unthinkable and I felt I had a duty as an individual to do what I could. It’s one of the reasons I set up my own charity, Small Kindness. It’s not always necessary to make grand gestures; sometimes the smaller things can have a bigger impact. My main concern was, when giving to a charity: where was my money going? It was important that as a donor, 100% went to the needy. So that’s what we did, it’s what we still do. We take care of administration costs separately so that we can act with integrity and people can trust that their donations don’t go to overheads.
When are you back in the UK next?
I am back for the 5th June for an event for Small Kindness, An Evening with Yusuf Islam. I’m doing a sort of candid interview and I’ll be talking about my life growing up in London in the swinging sixties and seventies, and I’ll speak about my own personal spiritual journey. I think I have a few good stories and so it’ll be nice to share them. I don’t really do these types of events, so it’s something relatively unique. It’s going to be quite special because we are being creative with the idea of a candid interview. There will be a couple of surprises which is nice as it’s always good to move away from predictability.
You are now back to singing, after a long break, what has changed?
It became obvious to me, the need to communicate. There came a point when Muslims were getting such a bad name that I said: ‘Enough! I have to do something.’ This isn’t the Islam I know. There is so much need for the beautiful message of Islam to be heard. There exists a voiceless majority and I think I’m one voice to speak out. Many more are emerging, because people are tired of being spoken for, this is a good thing.
I was able to make life my art: in the past I had been singing about doing great things and changing the world, but the Quran said – to me – if you don’t change what’s within, you can’t change anything.
So after studying the issue of music in Islam at great length, and finding that actually there was a lot of room to use music for good, I decided I was going to use my voice to do just that. My book Why I Still Carry A Guitar, which I recently released, explains this journey very clearly. It’s fascinating.
“You’ve got to learn, to brighten up your ways
Kick out your dull padded life
There’s much to know, and no doors in space
They were only mirrors you imagined in your mind
Now that you’ve got no place to go
And you stand alone
Know that there’s just one place to be
And it’s in your soul, oh
Like drywood takes to fire the truth will come to you
Like streams that seek the ocean they will find ways through…”
What do you hope next for Mosaic?
Mosaic is doing meaningful work on a human level and that’s inspiring. I am pleased to be an Ambassador.
I think Mosaics work is a symbol of something bigger that’s happening out there. A shift in people’s mentality. Charity isn’t something that’s supposed to be performed once a year. It’s part of everyday life (to smile at someone is charity) – the Small Kindnesses that just add up. I think people are waking up to a different kind of giving. A giving that is proactive, that engages, it’s not passive. It’s not putting money in a collection box. Charity is giving up time for the benefit of someone else. That is a beautiful thing. As I mentioned earlier, when you give to someone else, you are really giving to yourself. It’s a blessing to be able to help others.
“And if you want to help your fellow man
You’d better start with what’s in your hand.”