Yusuf’s music has inspired millions of followers with his reflective and spiritual songwriting tendencies with the purpose and message of peace, happiness, mixed with his message of optimism.
Before He became Cat Stevens
Yusuf Islam was born on the 21st of July in 1948 to Stavros Georgiou and Ingrid Wickman. He is the youngest of three children. He has an older brother, David, and an older sister, Anita. He and his siblings grew up in the Soho district of London and lived in an apartment above the Moulin Rouge wherein his parents managed a restaurant. Yusuf’s parents divorced when he was eight years old, however, they continued to live in the apartment together and manage the restaurant.
The back streets, coffee lounges, and bars served as Yusuf’s backyard throughout his youth, and from these places, he would be exposed to the latest hit singles and live music performances from musicians and actors which echoed up to his bedroom window each night.
Yusuf began school at the St Joseph’s, a Roman Catholic school off Drury Lane, at the age of five. This was a departure for Yusuf’s family’s religious background since his father was a Greek Orthodox. However, the combination of these two religious influences aided him in developing a strong moral compass, whilst also keeping him from being exposed to the religion of Islam during his earlier years.
When Yusuf was 15 years old, he convinced his father to buy him a guitar for eight pounds, after hearing a Beatles album. From this point on, Yusuf found escapism and another world when writing his own songs. At the same time, he continued to follow his passion for painting and cartooning going on to attend Hammersmith Art College.
Yusuf would later say, “I had a certain dream and vision to be a painter and I turned into a painter of songs.” A talent that his family and friends quickly saw that separated him from others. Having his own world in their neighborhood in the city, Yusuf would climb up on the roof above his apartment and stare into the night sky contemplating, “Where does the night end?” Later, Yusuf attempted to form a band with some of his friends; however, Yusuf decided he would rather be a solo artist rather than being part of a band.
In 1964, Yusuf made his first public appearance, performing at the Black Horse Public House near his home. Yusuf is also studying at the Hammersmith Art College. After his brother David took a copy of Yusuf’s demo around to Denmark Street to try and impress some music people, he was given the opportunity to be auditioned by Mike Hurst of the band, The Springfield’s.
Cat Stevens Begins Penning Lyrics
Yusuf, at the time, was still passionate about his painting and cartooning; however, he began to devote more of his time to music and songwriting, having been given the opportunity to record his music with songs, such as “I Love my Dog” and “Portobello Road.” The producers Ardmore & Beechwood were so impressed that they decided to launch their Dream Label with Yusuf and he was promoted as Cat Stevens. His stage name he would later become world famous for, was decided on after he told Hurst that his girlfriend at art school told him that he has eyes like a cat. Hurst liked the play on words in the name and promoted him as Cat Stevens.
In 1966, “I Love my Dog” was played by pirate radio stations in London and with grassroots support, reached 28 on the UK Charts. His next song called “Matthew and Son” went up to number two, which gave him a windfall of cash up from only two pounds a week to over 300 pounds a night, as well as getting a following for being a top ten songwriter, with songs such as, “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun,” “Here Comes My Baby,” “The First Cut is the Deepest,” which was covered by Tina Turner and Rod Stewart.
In 1967, Cat Stevens, as he was then known, released his album “Matthew and Son,” which reached number seven on the UK music charts. With this came a demanding schedule of television shows, live appearances, and autograph signing events at music stores, as well as many hours locked away in recording studios.
A Brief Refrain from Singing
By the time Cat Stevens was 20 years old, he’d spread himself so thinly that he was hospitalized for three months after being diagnosed with a severe case of tuberculosis and a collapsed lung. His hectic schedule, rock and roll lifestyle, his meteoric rise to success, and the tension between himself and the Decca record label, eventually exhausted the young singer.
Cat Stevens’ artistic intent was also to write and to sing more mature songs; however, for continued record sales, Decca wanted him to continue to write pop songs for teenagers. These tensions put Cat Stevens on a downward spiral of depression and prompted him to take to alcohol and cigarette smoking of up to 30 cigarettes a day. He associated with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones’ band members. The following were recipes for disaster and the artistic genius finally felt its toll. He found himself burnt out and stressed to the point of self-harm.
Writing Folk Songs
After months in hospital and many more months convalescing—nearly a year in total—Cat Stevens had enough time to think things over. The time away from the industry he spent around other dying people in the hospital gave Cat Stevens the space, time, and perspective he needed for reflection and the opportunity to reevaluate his life and music.
“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."
This brought Cat Stevens to the genre of folk music, for which he became both comfortable and relaxed, sitting cross legged on the stage whilst plucking his guitar like other fellow folk blues artists. This wave of popular music was brought to the mainstream by bands and singers, such as the Seekers, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor.
Folk music audiences were growing in numbers as well as in popularity. Cat Stevens was also now sporting a beard as part of reinventing himself. Apart from his look, it was his profound musical transformation that resonated deeply and inspired whoever was following his music. Looking back, these deeply inspiring songs were seen as some of his greatest works and were as popular today as they were in the early 70s, being covered by popular young artists today.
During this time, the inner and more spiritual side of Cat Stevens was starting to become apparent in his music, paralleled with his discovery of Eastern religions. When he was interviewed by the Rolling Stone Magazine in 1973, Cat Stevens said:
“In the old days, I was more concerned with melody. Now it’s what I have to say. I do realise I am using more words. And sometimes I stop the melody; I stop singing… and make a statement.”
Cat Stevens began working with a new producer Paul Samwell Smith along with Alun Davies, John Ryan, Peter Gabriel, and Harvey Burns for his first rock album with intimate acoustic sounds called “Mona Bone Jakon.” The album had Cat Stevens doing many of the songs live and playing either his guitar or piano and its success was instant, rocketing up the US music charts to number eight. This was a first for Cat Stevens who had achieved heights of fame in the UK, but was still waiting for his first big break in the USA music charts.
Cat Stevens continued to write and sing songs, such as “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Wild World,” which propelled him to stardom in the US as his songs and albums achieved triple platinum sales.
His success went on, reaching superstardom between the years of 1970 and 1974 with songs “Moon Shadow,” “Peace Train,” “Morning Has Broken” and his album entitled “Catch Bull at Four” became number one on the US music charts for three weeks in 1972. He also wrote the music for the 1970s classic film, “Harold and Maude” with many tracks from his first three albums, including the songs, “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out.”
Inspiration Behind Father and Son and Wild World Lyrics
Father and Son was written by Yusuf before he was hospitalized. It was a song riddled with social message. It was written during the era of the Russian Revolution and it tells a story of a boy wanting to join the revolution but was discouraged by his father. But after he was hospitalized, it took on a new meaning, one that went beyond the 70s ambiance. It's also symbolic of the generation gap existing between the older and the younger generation. In the same decade, "Wild World" was composed by Yusuf as well which pretty much told of the "the sadness of leaving, and the anticipation of what lies beyond." Patti D'Arbanville was said to have inspired the song.
Other albums and songs he released would cement him as one of the world’s leading singer and songwriters of his generation, which further heightened his appeal to the folk music scene, exploding on the US West Coast, along with his signature t-shirt, jeans, and trimmed black beard, juxtaposed against the music industry pop–and–rock–cut and sharp sixties look, opened up his music to others also in search for meaning and purpose, especially on the West Coast of USA.
At one time, when Cat Stevens was interviewed about his appeal and success and asked to describe his music, he replied deeply that it was difficult to describe, staying, “I’m just like a mirror, and you see yourself in me.” At this time, Cat Stevens was also studying Zen Buddhism, numerology, astrology, along with vegetarianism, all which evident in the reflective and personal lyrics in his songwriting.
By 1972, Cat Stevens had further improved his musical talents by playing multiple instruments on his albums, including the Spanish guitar, piano, organ, drums, and the bass along with writing, composing, arranging, and singing his songs.
Discovering Worship Songs
By 1972, Cat Stevens had sold over 23 million records, however, his success and limelight pressed on him to move more and more into seclusion and become devoted to being on his own inward spiritual journey of purpose and search for the meaning of life.
In an effort to gain further inspiration for his music and songwriting, Cat Stevens travelled to Morocco and the markets of Marrakech. He recalled to a reporter his experience there:
“I heard singing, he recalls, and will never forget: I asked, what kind of music is that? And they told me, that’s music for God. I’d never heard anything like that before in my life. I’ve heard of music for praise, for applause, for money, but this was music seeking no reward except from God. What a wonderful statement."
In 1973, Cat Stevens released his next album entitled “Foreigner,” reflecting on how he perceived himself in light of social alienation while living the nomadic life of a rock star—shuttling in and out of hotels, doing stadium events, riding limousines night after night months on end. That sort of life inspired songs, such as “Another Saturday Night,” a cover of the song “Sam Cooke,” and his 1974 album, “Buddha and the Chocolate Box,” which achieved US platinum sales and became number one on the Canadian music charts.
In 1975, for tax minimization reasons, Cat Stevens moved to Rio de Janeiro. His life became fragmented again with busy media and touring schedules and he would return home to see his family between concerts, all the while supporting UNICEF, along with other charities and organizations.
The combination of his philosophy of music as a vehicle for making the world a better place rather than a money–making machine and his touring commitments along with his inner journey of spirituality led Cat Stevens to have the persona of someone who was able to produce mega despite being humanly fragile and somewhat mysterious. In conclusion to this, he was said to have told a reporter
“Eat, drink and be merry. The problem was that I had eaten, I had drunk I wasn’t merry."
Cat Stevens becomes Yusuf Islam
A monumental life changing event was to occur for Cat Stevens in 1976 when he was swimming in the waves of Malibu Beach. Whilst swimming, he was taken by the currents off the beach and was kept from reaching the shore. In the cold and strong currents, after 30 minutes of attempt to get back ashore, it dawned on him that he could barely stay afloat. Realizing he was losing his battle and drowning, he called to God, praying “Oh God! If you save me I will work for you” and miraculously, the tide swiftly changed and a small wave out of nowhere lifted him and aided him in swimming back to shore. This event and God’s miracle in answering his prayer not only reaffirmed his faith in God but also was to be one of the major catalysts for the decision he would soon make.
When his brother David later gave him a book, The Koran, Cat Stevens said he felt his faith revealed to him and provided the answers he had been looking for: “It was the timeless nature of the message, the words all seemed strangely familiar yet so unlike anything I had ever read before.” Although this was the first time Cat Stevens had started to learn and apply the lessons of Islam to his life, for a couple of years prior to his near drowning, he was already in a deep spiritual connection with God and had cut down on his drinking and attending rock star parties.
By 1977, Cat Steven’s retreated from the international music industry completely. In a public statement, he announced he was fully embracing Islam, he also would cease to play music (although he was still contracted to deliver one more album entitled “Back To Earth” in 1978), and he would change his name to Yusuf Islam. His decision to convert and cease music left both the music industry and his fans confused and dismayed, although family members were relieved and fully supportive of his spiritual decision and conviction to his faith.
Yusuf said that “The moment I became a Muslim, I found peace.” He also had an arranged marriage and a son they called Hassanah. From that point on, after leaving the music world, he turned his life toward education, opening a primary school in London called Islamic Primary. Later, his school would become the first government funded Muslim School in England in 1993.
In 1984, Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam, reemerged into the public limelight not for his music but for his humanitarian and charity, helping to establish Muslim Aid, in protest against the African famine. As of today, nearly 100% of his royalties from his music was donated to humanitarian charities, which upheld education and fundraising for the needy in the western and the developing world. His United Nations–registered charity Small Kindness provides humanitarian relief and social and educational programs to orphans in Indonesia, Iraq, the Balkans, and other countries throughout the world.
In 1989, Yusuf Islam again found himself to be the public’s topic of conversation after he gave a controversial address to students at Kingston University in London. Yusuf was asked by reporters about his views of the Islamic clerics who declared fatwa for the death of Salman Rushdie after publishing his book the “Satanic Verses.”
The media reported Yusuf’s support for the fatwa, albeit Yusuf refusing to make a statement, as he had only claimed giving Rushdie legal Islamic punishment for blasphemy. Later, Yusuf said he regretted the comments and claimed that those reporters inaccurately delivered the news. This controversy around the Satanic Verses and the understandings of the Prophet Muhammad exposed Yusuf on how the media extremists on both sides seem to exaggerate their messages. However, Yusuf pointed out that Islam itself is a word derived from the word peace, and that it’s the heart and soul of God’s religion that he has always followed.
First Spoken Album as a Muslim
In 1995, after eighteen years of silence as a musician, he returned to the music studio to create his spoken word album on his own label Mountain of Light. The album was entitled “The Life of the Last Prophet.” This album was a combination of both poetry and singing of the Islamic world, filled with rhythm and a joyful voice. To encourage his fans and music listeners after the genocide in Bosnia, he composed another album for charity fundraising, dedicating it to the children of Sarajevo and Dunblane.
Based on these events, Yusuf realized how important his talents could be to educate others, and provide inspiration to the youth of the world. So in 2000, his wrote an encyclopedic project entitled “A is for Allah,” which was based on lullaby songs he wrote for his daughter in 1981.
Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Yusuf Islam made the following press release statement, denouncing the attacks:
“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.”
In 2001, Yusuf relocated his home and office to Dubai, impressed by its futuristic views, tolerant society, and its Islamic culture base. At this time, his son also came to him showing off his new possession—a guitar along with his desire to learn how to play. Yusuf, reflecting deeply as well as joking, said:
“So I was there with the guitar, the guitar and I and we had this standoff, but then one of us had to make the first move. So I did, I hadn’t picked up a guitar for twenty five years...and then I started to play and it all just came back to naturally.”
After many prayers and spiritual times of reflection and searching, he reached the conclusion that banning the instrument actually failed to meet Islamic Law’s requirements for unquestioning acceptance. Further, to his understanding, he wrote an article that explained his opinions and how the evidence allowed for different views on this issue—stating the Koran doesn’t ever actually mention the word music or instruments. So the objective of branding music as disliked or forbidden was based on juristic interpretation (like sex drugs, rock & roll for a moral good for society), yet most of his lyrics explored paths of peace and spiritual understanding. This was all the evidence Yusuf needed to conclude his return to writing, making, and singing music.
Yusuf Gives Back
This event allowed Yusuf to fully support his son’s own ambition to make an album of his own songs and Yusuf, through his connections, arranged the album to be recorded in South Africa.
Yusuf later went on to play and take part in various charity concerts around the globe, including Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Aids benefit concert in 2003. In 2003, Yusuf also received the World Social Award for his humanitarian efforts around the globe. In 2004, he also performed at the United Nations Voice Concert at London’s Albert Hall.
Later in 2004, Yusuf was also honored with the Man of Peace Award, which was presented to him by a committee of Nobel Peace Laureates.
Later in 2004, Yusuf traveled to the US when invited to Nashville to meet Dolly Parton after she had recorded Peace Train several years earlier, as they were to collaborate on another album. Surprisingly and surreally upon his arrival to the USA, for no official reason, (later it was revealed his name was on a no fly list) Yusuf was deported back to the UK. After investigations were done the following day, it was reported that the US Office of Homeland Security claimed concerns that he “may have ties to potential terrorist related activities” since the Israeli government had deported him in 2000 for providing funding to the Palestinian organization Hamas. The allegations were denied by Yusuf.
Yusuf requested removal of his name as it may have been mistaken identification for another man (sharing Muslim names is common) and that he himself was not suspected of being a terrorist supporter. Since then, Yusuf has flown several times to the US without incident. He later went on to record a song about the incident in 2008 called “Boots and Sand” with Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, and Terry Sylvester.
In 2005, Yusuf performed at a concert in Jakarta, Indonesia to raise money for the victims of the Boxing 2004 Day Tsunami. This was his first official song, which he wrote and recorded in twenty six years.
In 2005, Yusuf was also invited to assist the UK Home Office in an effort to help the government tackle extremism and disaffection amongst the Muslim youth in England. Doing so, he advised the government to review their foreign dealings and also adopt a more inclusive view related to historical contributions of the Muslim countries to western civilization through their educational, scientific, and cultural influences dating back as far as the Ottoman Empire and influence in Spain. This role earned Yusuf an honorary doctorate from the University of Gloucestershire for education and humanitarian relief.
Ivor Novello Awardee for Outstanding Song Collection
In 2007, Yusuf received the Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Song Collection as well as another honorary doctorate from the University of Exeter for his contributions and peaceful efforts to improve Islamic understanding between western and Islamic cultures.
Since 2007, Yusuf has gone on to perform at concerts such as in the Porchester Hall, in Germany, for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s peace Centre in South Africa, the Milagro Foundation for Deborah and Carlos Santana, and Live Earth in Hamburg.
In 2008, Yusuf won substantial undisclosed damages, winning a case of defamation against the World Entertainment News Network, following a false rumor that their media reporter promoted allegiants that Yusuf would not speak to unveiled women with the exception of his wife. One hundred percent of the money from this lawsuit was donated to Yusuf's Small Kindness Charity.
In 2009, Yusuf performed at Island Records’ 50th Anniversary concert in London.
In 2011, Yusuf released “My People” a free downloadable song from his website along with announcing a world tour. He performed in countries including Germany, France, Austria, and Belgium
In 2012, “Moon Shadow,” the musical opened in Melbourne Australia. It was basically a musical story about a young man and his struggle against darkness and the search for everlasting happiness.
The return of Yusuf Islam to the music industry has seen him come full circle in his career. His profound and powerful messages of inspiration by simply using language and music as a powerful medium for enlightenment and change while on the search for peace and happiness, has touched millions of people across the globe; however, this has taken faith, commitment, and courage in standing for one’s own personal beliefs, to rise above the expectations of others.
The final words we will leave you from this extraordinary man, Yusuf Islam:
“I never wanted to get involved in politics because that essentially separates people; whereas music has the power to unify, and is so much easier for me than to give a lecture.”
At this, he smiles knowingly: “You can argue with a philosopher, but you can’t argue with a good song. And I think I’ve got a few good songs.”
- 1970: Mona Bone Jakon. US Gold, Tea for the Tillerman. US: Triple Platinum
- 1971: Teaser and the Firecat. UK Gold, US Triple Platinum. Peace Train reaches US No. 1, Canada No. 3
- 1972: Catch Bull at Four, US Platinum. Morning Has Broken, US No. 1, Canada No. 4.
- 1973: Foreigner. UK Gold & US Gold
- 1974: Buddha and the Chocolate Box. UK Gold, US Platinum. Oh Very Young, US No. 2. Another Saturday Night, Canada No. 1
- 1975: Numbers, Canada Gold, US Gold. Greatest Hits US Quadruple Platinum
- 1977: Izitso, Canada Gold, UK Silver and US Gold
- 1984: Footsteps in the Dark: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, US Gold
- 1985: Classics, Volume 24, US Gold
- 1999: Remember Cat Stevens - The Ultimate Collection, Australia 5 times Platinum
- 2000: The Very Best of Cat Stevens, US Gold, Canada Platinum
- 2006: An Other Cup, UK Gold, Germany Platinum
Humanitarian Awards & Music Awards
- 2003: Received the World Social Award for humanitarian relief work helping children and victims of war.
- 2004: Awarded Man of Peace Award for dedication to promote peace, the reconciliation of people and to condemn terrorism.
- 2005: Receives honorary Doctorate by the University of Gloucestershire for services to education and humanitarian relief
- 2005: Hall of Fame inductee, Songwriter of the Year and Song of the Year for First Cut is the Deepest.
- 2006: Recognized as one of 100 Best Living Songwriters by Paste Magazine. Ranked 49.
- 2007: Awarded the Mediterranean Prize for Peace for the work done to increase peace in the world, Honorary Doctorate from the University of Exeter in recognition of his humanitarian work and improving understanding between Islamic and Western cultures. Awarded German ECHO special award for life achievements as musician and ambassador between cultures
- 2008: Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductee
- 2009: Receives the German Sustainability Award for Special Achievement