This spec documentary treatment was written for Radical Media in 2013.
On July 21, 2013, Yusuf Islam turned sixty-five – according to the solar calendar. On the Islamic lunar calendar, he turned sixty-seven.
Yusuf has long straddled two worlds, sometimes working to reconcile them, sometimes working to keep them apart. His latest project, the musical Moonshadow, attempts both. Part autobiography, part fantasy, part Steven Georgiou, part Cat Stevens, part Yusuf Islam, the musical reflects the yearning and searching that is Steven and Yusuf.
Born under a full moon on July 21, 1948, Steven Demetre Georgiou was raised in a culturally robust part of London known for its theaters, strip clubs, music stores, and cinemas. From an early age, Steven was interested in the arts. A solitary individual, the “artist boy” often retreated to the rooftop above the family restaurant and flat in London’s theater district. There he could hear strains of music performed in venues up and down Denmark Street while musing about the stars above. “Where does the night end?” he asked.
But the solitary boy was also a talented enough artist that he became a popular singer and songwriter while still in his teens. Producer Mike Hurst was impressed with his work and helped him produce a demo.
Before the religious conversion that yielded the name Yusuf Islam, Steven Demetre Georgiou was Cat Stevens, a pop star with a folk heart. He adopted the name in 1965 – ‘everyone likes cats, right? Maybe they will like me, too.’ With Hurst’s help Cat Stevens landed a record deal and his first album, Matthew and Son was a success. But Stevens was not entirely comfortable with life as a star, preferring quiet rooms to personal appearances. His predilection for acoustic guitar did not sit well with his record company, just as much as his grueling schedule and hard living did not sit well with his penchant for inwardness. He was famous, but he wanted solitude. He lived in a world of appearance, but he wanted Truth. Drugs, alcohol, and the life of a pop-rock star eventually made him sick enough to land in the hospital.
After nearly dying from tuberculosis before age twenty, the already contemplative Cat Stevens became increasingly introspective. Yearning for meaning became an active searching for a spiritual home. That search led him away from the Christian traditions of his youth – his father’s Greek Orthodoxy and mother’s Swedish Baptism – toward Eastern mysticism and traditions like Buddhism. After hearing the Islamic call to prayer during a trip to Morocco, Stevens became intrigued by the idea of “music for God.” Then, when his brother gave him a copy of the Qur’an, he found his answer. By 1977, at age 29, Cat Stevens converted to Islam.
Inspired by the Qur’an’s story of Joseph, Stevens adopted the name, Yusuf. It is the culmination of a spiritual quest, but also the beginning of a life devoted to God, and the beginning of learning a new way of being in the world. Through this devotion emerged musical, educational, and philanthropic endeavors that defines his faith. Still, he has struggled to reconcile features of his life that seem at odds with each other. He is a Muslim in the West, having chosen the youngest of the Abrahamic traditions as the one that explains everything in and outside the world, the body and the soul, the finite and infinite, good and evil, light and darkness, peace and strife, leaving home and returning. He is a living legend, whose songs, such as “Peace Train,” “Matthew and Son,” “The First Cut is the Deepest,” and “Wild World,” ask difficult questions cloaked in music as sophisticated as it is accessible. For decades, as he struggled with what his faith demanded – was music haram, forbidden entirely, or just certain types? – he did not perform music from his Cat Stevens library. With a worldwide fan base and more than 60 million records sold, there was no small amount of pressure to continue performing.
The process of developing and producingMoonshadow, which opened in Melbourne, Australia in July 2012, is the framework within which this documentary of contrasts and complements is told. The musical, a first for Islam, tells the story of a musician searching for light in darkness. As with all his work, there is the surface telling, and then there are the underlying layers of meaning. These can be connected to various features of Yusuf’s life, including his upbringing in the West End of London; his early fascination with art and music; his extraordinary success as a musician; how his decision to convert to Islam was derided in the press – and how he responded to it; his controversial remarks made about the fatwa on Salman Rushdie; life as a Muslim after 9/11; his decision to sing “Peace Train” a capellaafter 9/11; his first mainstream album after a period of producing only religiously-themed music; and his longstanding philanthropic and educational endeavors.
Each of these features is interesting in itself, and considerable time could be devoted to any one of them. For example, the heartfelt struggle to understand what is haramand what is halal, or permitted, is of interest to any religious person – certainly in the Abrahamic traditions. For Yusuf to turn away from the music and stories that contributed to the ‘what-it-is-to-be’ of at least one generation reflects the significance of his religious devotion – as does his candor in explaining the tribulations involved in getting wrong expressions of that devotion, as happened when he commented on the Salman Rushdie fatwaor concluded that his decision to withdraw from the Western music scene was not communicated clearly to fans who felt a genuine connection to the artist they knew as Cat Stevens.
The clash of cultures – even within a single society or across fairly homogenous societies – reaps confusion. Confusion is a rupture of the understanding, a discomfiting condition from which one wants to escape. Instead, however, the direction of motion should be towardthe center of that confusion, for there alone is the source and the only hope for resolution, reconciliation, and recognition. Although Yusuf has not actively courted confusion on the public stage, his spiritual quest has brought him into conflict with social expectation. And although it appears that he ran away from societal norms when he converted to Islam, there is just as much reason to believe that he was moving toward the center of his new faith. Indeed, he emerged from his period of a sort of self-imposed exile a more complete man; the rupture mended.
He has said, “I learn the meanings of my songs late.” This is because, like all great art, these meanings yield to the interpretations of the young man, the man in middle age, and the man closer to the end of his life than the beginning. The meaning of great art is not static – it searches with us.
Yusuf’s charitable and educational projects are expressions of both his religious commitment and his lifelong concern with the meaning of things. “Where does the night end?” The question Steven Georgiou asked as a boy is apropos of this concern, as it is a theme of Moonshadow. And like all good questions, this story does not have a single answer.