Still from MajiKat DVD
Yusuf Islam, known to millions as the British singer/songwriter and pop star Cat Stevens, has reconciled himself to his music. A long, personal journey led him to a small stage in NYC last night for the private screening for the worldwide release of his new DVD, Cat Stevens: MajiKat: Earth Tour 1976.
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Not long after the MajiKat tour, Cat Stevens walked away from the music business and stardom, embraced Islam, and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. He shunned his pop star life, including those magical songs that captured the hearts of millions of fans and inspired many to embark on their own artistic journeys. So many of us loved that music, and it felt as if he were rejecting us, too. Photo: Promotional poster for Cat Stevens: MajiKat DVD
Yusuf's new life, largely hidden from public view, was subject to speculation and at times, derision. Some thought he had become a monk, others thought he'd gone crazy, many were just plain mad that the star whom they had embraced could abandon everyone so swiftly and so completely. But Yusuf Islam did not become a monk or a cleric. He did not retreat to live alone on top of a mountaintop in some exotic land. He did not stop living life, and once was quoted in an interview as saying, "I wanted to stop singing about life and start having a life." Yusuf started living a different kind of life from that of a pop star, one in which he found meaning, substance, and direction through his newfound faith in Islam.
Yusuf Islam at reception prior to screening
Yusuf currently lives in London, is married and raising a family of five children. He founded four schools in Britain for Muslim children so Muslim families can educate their children following their cultural and religious practices. He owns a Muslim-friendly hotel in London. He also founded a charity organization, Small Kindnesses, to rescue war orphans in countries like Kosovo, Bosnia, and recently, in Iraq. It is with Small Kindnesses that the screening opened.
Noel J. Brown, President & CEO of Friends of the United Nations, welcomed the 90 or so Eagle Rock Entertainment staff, distributors, journalists, photographers and assorted associates to the screening. He informed us that today was also the launch of the United States branch of Small Kindnesses, a charity that has been endorsed by the United Nations. In his eloquent speech, Mr. Brown spoke of the great work that Small Kindnesses does, and the wonderful contributions that Yusuf Islam makes in the lives of some of our most helpless world citizens: war orphans.
Following Mr. Brown, Yusuf's right hand man, Mohammed Kahn, spoke with a trembling voice of his experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo, of the helpless children and families... and of meeting a man called Yusuf Islam, who came over from Britain to help. Mohammed didn't know of Yusuf's former life, had never heard of Cat Stevens. When he learned of the former Cat Stevens and heard his music, Mohammed said, "I didn't see a different heart in Cat Stevens than the one I know in Yusuf Islam." When it came to helping victims of tragedy, Yusuf "didn't just sing about it he acted on it."
Paul Hoeffel with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations came onstage to describe how Yusuf had come to the UN a few years ago about Small Kindnesses and his interest in forming a partnership with the UN to work with war orphans. Mr. Hoeffel explained that the UN works with thousands of nongovernmental organizations, large and small, to help with crises and disaster relief. The smaller organizations often have specialized, grassroots knowledge so critical to successful operations in countries at war.
Calling disaster relief a "growth industry" because of the many conflicts around the world, he said that the UN depends on organizations like Small Kindnesses to create a network of aid and assistance. He called upon the creative community to participate, to help. He said that the UN and its network of charity organizations are looking for people who care, and suggested that people like Yusuf Islam can bring the creative community together to lend a hand.
Yusuf Islam at screening, holding his walking stick
At this point, Mohammed came back onto stage to introduce a man who was a hero to him from a completely different time, place, and world than for those of us in the audience who only know Cat Stevens. He asked Yusuf Islam to come to the stage. A slim, slightly hunched, middle-aged man in a light gray suit, rimless glasses and a wooden walking stick walked onto the stage. There he stood, with a neatly trimmed full beard and closely cut hair, both salt and pepper, a gentle smile and those dark, dancing, intense Cat Stevens eyes ... Despite his modest manner, this was a man completely at home on the stage, completely home with leadership. The baritone voice spoke softly ...
The DVD project "is a combination of where I was and where I am ..." he began. "My music was a gift," he said, " and I hope it weighs in my good deeds ..." Yusuf held out his right hand, as if weighing his songs in the scale of righteousness. "I've heard stories of how my music has helped people ... even stopped suicides ..." he looked down. "This gift was given to me." It became clear to me at that moment that Yusuf Islam has finally brought his long private journey from stardom to rejection to reconciliation to a close. He has found the common ground that acknowledges the gift of his art, the gift of his faith, and his desire to live a life of value.
Yusuf founded Small Kindnesses because he wanted to "do something in a practical level." The Small Kindnesses logo flashed on the screen, a photo of a precious young girl waiving. "This is a photo of a girl in Kosovo. She was hiding," he said. His camera captured her when she came out of hiding for one brief moment to waive. The screen was then filled with images of children, all orphans, saved by Small Kindnesses, smiling for the camera. Then there were images of refugee families who found help and solace with Small Kindnesses. Speaking softly over the powerful images, Yusuf explained that they serve orphans, families, and also now provide education for young women and girls to learn skilled occupations.
Yusuf Islam speaks with Mike Carden, Eagle Rock Entertainment
The photo of the young girl came back onto the screen and faded, and Yusuf asked Mike Carden, President North American Operations / Executive VP Eagle Rock Entertainment, to join him. We learned that Mr. Carden was not only the man behind this DVD project, but also is one of the special people who have adopted orphans, as well. A visibly moved Mr. Carden told us that he adopted two children and is in the processes of adopting his third, to the applause of the audience. He thanked the audience for coming to the screening, and for supporting the release of the "Cat Stevens: MajiKat: Earth Tour 1976 DVD. Realistically, at this point in the evening they could have showed me just about anything and it wouldn't have mattered, because I was so moved by what I had just witnessed. And then the show began.
I'd never seen Cat Stevens perform live. I'll not go into any details about the performances on the DVD (we'll leave that to the DVD review), but I will say that I literally had to stop myself from clapping after each song! Cat Stevens earned the love of his fans. Hearing those songs brought goose bumps, remembering the melodies, those singable, wonderful melodies! Interspersed between performances, Yusuf Islam speaks about his career, his albums, his music, his life. And hearing the lyrics anew, in light of what we saw and heard ... I just can't explain what it was like. As I listened to the lyrics, I thought of the man who stood before us, weighing the value of those songs in his hand.
Eric de Fontenay, Publisher and Anne Freeman, Senior Editor, MusicDish
What is the meaning of art? What is the value of what we do as artists, songwriters, and musicians? Those are questions that Yusuf Islam wrestled with, and each of us wrestles with. Why was I gifted with the desire to create music? What are the responsibilities of my gift?
I want to personally thank Yusuf Islam for bringing his personal struggle and journey to our attention through the Cat Stevens: MajiKat: Earth Tour 1976 DVD. He reminded me that who I am as a creative being is just as important as who I am in every other aspect of my life. Yusuf Islam has a story to tell that is important to us the creative community. Listen to his story, and then think about your own.
Research Assistant: The Singing Rebel