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Cat in the bag

Music | Yusuf's new album is generic enough to make him popular

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

Not since Prince became "the Artist Formerly Known As Prince" has a recording artist's nomenclature posed as big a challenge as Yusuf's.

Who? Yusuf-aka Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, aka Steven Georgiou (his birth name). He made news recently by releasing Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night) (YA/Universal), his second pop album since devoting himself to the Muslim faith 30 years ago.

In part because it sounds like any other Cat Stevens album and in part because it's fairly dull, one suspects that the positive press it has received has less to do with its music than with the media's desire to highlight a positive Muslim role model. And, especially when compared with Muslims calling for Israel's elimination or the right to slap their wives, Yusuf fits the bill.

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But he didn't always. When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of the novelist Salman Rushdie in 1988, Yusuf made fatwa-friendly-sounding statements that might have gone unnoticed except that, according to the media template of the time, Rushdie was the hero and his persecutors were the villains.

So despite Yusuf's insistence that he was merely explaining the fatwa concept, his statements were widely reported and his name became mud. Radio stations stopped playing Cat Stevens songs. 10,000 Maniacs deleted their version of his "Peace Train" from new pressings of their 1987 album In My Tribe. Yusuf was, in effect, "Carrie Prejeaned" but with no Donald Trump to stand up for him.

But now "moderate" Muslims are in, and the Yusuf of Roadsinger is as moderate as they come. So generically "spiritual" are his songs (no mentions of Allah, the Quran, or any other Muslim specifics) that if he's not careful he might be mistaken for a "Contemporary Christian" trying to cross over.

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