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Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

October 16, 2013  |  3:07pm
Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

This morning, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees were announced, most of the attention centered on Nirvana and N.W.A. making the list in their first year of eligibility. But toward the bottom, my eye caught a name that threw me for a loop: Cat Stevens.

It wasn’t strange that Cat Stevens was nominated, of course. In the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the British singer/songwriter released 11 studio albums full of iconic music that still earns him more than $1 million annually. Four of them went platinum in the U.S. (oddly, he always had more success in the States), and a Greatest Hits record from 1975 was a multi-platinum hit. Two of his singles, “Peace Train” and “Morning Has Broken,” reached #1 in America, while others like “Wild World” and “Father and Son” are still radio staples 40 years later. He deserved to be nominated, and he probably deserves to be voted in.

His accolades are a given. What struck me as odd, though, was the name itself: “Cat Stevens.” On one hand, it makes sense to honor the performer’s stage name. It was his choice to adopt the alias—he was born in London as Steven Demetre Georgiou, to a Greek-Cypriot father and a Swedish mother—and there’s nothing unique about that. On the other hand, Cat Stevens converted to Islam in December 1977, and changed his name to “Yusuf Islam” on July 4 of 1978. He released one more album under the name Cat Stevens in December (his father died the same day it was released), but he wouldn’t tour to support it. After one last charity concert in 1979, he stopped performing for 25 years.

But the story doesn’t end there. First, let’s consider the fact that the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens has released two albums as Yusuf Islam in the past decade. Both did well, with 2006’s An Other Cup reaching certified Gold status in the U.K. and platinum in Germany. (America was no longer quite so receptive, no doubt due to his religion and a few controversial incidents, but both albums still cracked the Billboard Top 60). Islam, nee Stevens, is still performing, and he’s still the same man.

Why, then, was he nominated only as Cat Stevens? Does the award not apply to his later incarnation? Is it meant for a persona that’s frozen in time, and never evolved beyond 1978? Are the last two albums meant to be viewed as the work of an altogether different artist? The boxer Muhammad Ali started his career as Cassius Clay before his own conversion to Islam, and although the change was met with considerable animosity in Vietnam-era America, it was ultimately accepted, and Ali is now looked at as a hero. He’s in both the International and World Boxing Hall of Fames, and he was inducted as Muhammad Ali in both places.

The only explanation that makes sense is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is considering only the music from the “Cat Stevens era,” 1967-1978. But that just makes the whole thing even more bizarre. Would that standard apply for any other solo artist? Linda Ronstadt was also nominated this year, and I doubt anyone told her that only her platinum albums from the ‘70s and ‘80s were considered. A Hall of Fame nomination, by definition, takes an entire career into account. By singling out the name Cat Stevens, and ignoring everything the same individual has done since, they’re more or less pretending Yusuf Islam doesn’t exist.

And let’s face it, Yusuf Islam isn’t exactly Linda Ronstadt. He’s not even Muhammad Ali. While Ali went to prison for evading the Vietnam draft for religious reasons, his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, and the war itself has since been viewed as a black eye for America. Ali came down on the right side of history, and while he endured abuse in the process, he emerged as a figure so beloved that he was chosen to light the Olympic torch at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

Unlike Ali, Islam has continually found himself on the wrong side of American and British interests. Our nations’ complicated relationship with the Islamic religion can be viewed in microcosm through Yusuf Islam, who has been involved in several high-profile incidents that painted him in a negative light. In 1989, speaking before students at Kingston University in London, he addressed the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on British author Salman Rushdie in no uncertain terms: “He must be killed,” said Islam. “The Qur’an makes it clear—if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.” On a television program a few days later, he reiterated that stance and said that if he saw Rushdie on his doorstep, he’d call someone who could hurt him. And while he later tried to back off and argue that he didn’t support vigilantism, the damage was done and many Westerners saw him, perhaps correctly, as a violent extremist.

After the 9/11 attacks, Islam released a statement expressing his horror at the act and his sympathy for the victims, but America wasn’t exactly receptive at that moment, and a far bigger splash was made three years later, when Islam was prevented from entering the U.S. by Homeland Security. Rumors swirled that he may have donated money to Hamas, though he denied it and was allowed to enter the U.S. in 2006 with no explanation for the previous refusal. Meanwhile, his feud with Rushdie continued, and even Jon Stewart, after appearing with Islam at a 2010 rally in D.C., later said after a phone call with Rushdie that he regretted appearing with the singer. (The Atlantic chronicled the history of the Rushdie-Islam feud in 2010.)

There’s a massive amount of gray area regarding Islam’s life since his conversion, and on a personal level, his comments about Rushdie turn my stomach. But as he continues to perform, and we consider his legacy as the pop star Cat Stevens, we need to come to terms with his conversion and everything subsequent. By nominating “Cat Stevens,” without any reference to Yusuf Islam (the performer and person), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is essentially choosing to pause his personal history in 1978. The impulse is understandable, since the ensuing years contain some uncomfortable realities, but that doesn’t justify an enforced ignorance. (They recognize his conversion in their write-up, but at that point, three clicks away, it’s almost a footnote.) Ignoring the Yusuf Islam era does a disservice to him, his fans, and the Hall of Fame itself.

Stevens was nominated once before, in 2005, but he didn’t make the cut. And it’s doubtful he’ll make it this year, either; if the Hall of Fame doesn’t want to consider the full narrative of Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam, why nominate him in the first place? As some kind of concession to a great artist they never intend to admit? In that case, it’s a meaningless gesture. Induction is a lifetime achievement award, and by sidestepping the controversial name, they’ve ignored the second half of the story.

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