The singer-songwriter now known as Yusuf Cat Stevens has spoken of the pain of his decision to leave music behind in 1977, when he first converted to Islam, and of the difficulty of being used as a representative of an entire faith.
“It was a hard tug. I felt a responsibility to my fans, but I would have been a hypocrite. I needed to get real. So I stopped singing and started taking action with what I now believed,” he said. The singer, who first performed as Cat Stevens, adopted the name Yusuf Islam when he changed faith. He now uses both first names.
Stevens said he had originally wanted to serve as a bridge between two great cultures, yet, while Islam welcomed its famous convert, western audiences were hostile. “On the other side, people said, ‘He is a bit of a traitor’. He has ‘turned Turk’, if you like. So I was often used as a bit of a spokesman, and I was useful for certain occasions.”
The 72-year-old British musician, still internationally famous for songs such as Father and Son, The First Cut is the Deepest, Moonshadow and Wild World, said he had hoped fans would understand that he felt he had found something more important than music, but he was wrong.
“I thought, ‘Everybody should get this’, but it didn’t work out quite like that. Everyone wanted me to keep on making music.” Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Sunday, the singer, who was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London’s Soho to a Greek Cypriot father and a Swedish mother, also talked about the joy he felt when he decided to pick up his guitar again after 20 years.
“It was absolute magic. Having laid myself fallow for two decades, I was absolutely flowing with ideas. I knew it was right.”
One of the most upsetting times for Stevens, he reveals, was his portrayal as a supporter of the Iranian fatwa that forced the novelist Salman Rushdie into hiding in 1989.
“I was certainly not prepared or equipped to deal with sharp-toothed journalists,” he said. “I was cleverly framed by certain questions. I never supported the fatwa. I had to live through that.”
In a candid discussion about the impact of the fame that came to him 50 years ago with the release of the acclaimed album Tea for the Tillerman, Stevens recalled the stage fright he felt before going on in front of a large crowd, and of the dubious help he received from fellow performer Engelbert Humperdinck.
“I was very frightened,” he said. “Then Engelbert turned me on to a horrible concoction of brandy and port. You just had to have one glass of that.”
The spiritual journey that led to Islam began with a serious bout of tuberculosis in his teens. In hospital in Midhurst in Sussex for three months, he started to read Buddhist literature. A few years later, his brother gave him a Qur’an and the Muslim teachings, alongside an episode in which he nearly drowned while swimming in the sea off Malibu, this took him to the point of conversion to Islam. “I would never have picked up a Qur’an. But it became the gateway. After a year I could not hold myself back. I had to bow down.”
Stevens emphasised the importance music has in his life once more. “It is a mystical thing still. It is something that permeates our emotion, our soul, sometimes our intellect. Our body moves to it. I didn’t know where I was going but music helped me to get there.”
Writing a popular song in his youth, Stevens admitted, was a conscious process. “I knew when I was writing a hit, and I was excited for other people to hear it. You have to be a fan of your own music, a fan of yourself, in a way.”