A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Muslim
While many artists feel the Internet to be a threat to their livelihoods, Maher Zain, a Swedish singer of Lebanese origin, regards it as a blessing. He said that, as an Islamic singer, online word of mouth had been instrumental in helping him penetrate the mainstream music industry.
“People are very scared,” he said during a round-table interview with the Indonesian media on Friday. “They won’t play ‘Insha Allah’ or ‘The Chosen One’ on mainstream channels like MTV.”
“Insha Allah” (“God Willing”) and “The Chosen One” are two singles from Zain’s debut album, “Thank You Allah,” which was released in Europe and the Middle East in November 2009.
Zain’s popularity skyrocketed after he made a Facebook page and put his music videos on YouTube. Within a year and a half of going online, Zain had become the first Muslim musician to reach two million fans on Facebook and his videos had garnered more than eight million views on YouTube.
The Internet also helped make him very popular in Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, despite the fact that he had no promotional campaigns in the region. His Indonesian fan-club page on Facebook has more than 10,000 followers.
Last week, the 29-year-old visited Indonesia. While here, Zain collaborated with Andi Fadly Arifuddin, lead singer of the popular pop/rock group Padi, to create Indonesian versions of his songs “Insha Allah” and “For the Rest of My Life.”
“I am honored to have worked with Fadly,” the Swedish singer said. “I think our voices matched.”
“Thank You Allah” is a religious album featuring 13 tracks filled with Zain’s expressions of gratitude toward God and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as his reflections of life as a Muslim. Zain also shows his support for the Palestinians in his song “Palestine Will Be Free.”
Most of his songs are in English, although his words of praise toward the divine are spoken in Arabic. Although he is only fluent in Swedish, English and Arabic, Zain likes to re-arrange his songs in other languages.
“Insha Allah,” for example, has been released in French, Arabic, Turkish, Malay and now Indonesian. Another of his songs, “Allahi Allah Kiya Karo” (“Continuously Saying Allah”), is sung entirely in Urdu.
Generally wearing casual clothes, Zain does not have the overtly religious appearance often associated with Muslim musicians. He said that his choice of attire was purposeful.
“The way I dress, Insha Allah, is a way of showing that people can be good Muslims no matter how they look,” he said.
As a Muslim who grew up in an Arabic family living in a secular Western society, Zain said the gulf between the two worlds often made things difficult for him growing up. He portrays his struggle to find his identity in “Insha Allah.”
“What’s written in the song truly happened to me,” he said. “I was lost and confused, because I tried to fit in somewhere I didn’t belong.”
Before he was a singer, Zain worked as a music producer in New York. Despite landing a job with a prominent producer, RedOne, he said he never felt comfortable in the Big Apple’s music scene. He decided to quit and pursue a career as a singer, a job that would allow him to express his true identity.
Plus, he figured Muslims needed entertainment as well. “We [Muslims] are not a boring people, you know. We don’t just sit and pray,” he said.
When Zain contacted British-based Awakening Records to talk about the possibility of producing an album, he said he already knew that he wanted to do more than just make music.
“I want to make music because I want to send a message,” Zain said.
Having recently become the father of a baby girl, he said he wanted young people to have more musical options.
He is now working on his second album, which is scheduled for release at the end of October. He said the songs would cover his thoughts and feeling about being a Muslim, as well as touching on such ideas as independence and anti-terrorism.
In March, he released a single, titled “Freedom,” which was inspired by the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.
“I believe that if you want to speak to the world, you make a song,” he said.
“People would rather to listen to songs than screams.”
Report Lisa Siregar
‘Thank You Allah’
Distributed by Sony Music Indonesia