We, in Al Rasub felt honored for the given opportunity to interview a versatile and multi-talented celebrity, international soulful singer (Nasheed Industry), graphic designer, writer and producer… no one else but MR KHALEEL MUHAMMAD! Here it goes…
Al Rasub: Out of the limelight, how would you describe yourself? As a typical person? Can you tell us some basic information about you, such as when and where you were born and which country you are based in now? Your education?
No, in all humility I wouldn’t describe myself as a typical person. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunities and do things and go places most people haven’t. In fact from an early age I could feel a type of energy inside me which has never left me. It’s driven to try my hand at so many things and have been successful at them. People often marvel at what I have been able to achieve over such a short space of time. I’ve had the will, energy and drive despite my humble beginnings to do some really scary things. To say I am blessed is an understatement and I’m extremely very grateful for that!
When I think about my life before I wrote books and performed internationally, it was very different. I was born and raised in London, England, the last of six children. My parents were from Kingston Jamaica in the Caribbean, with the fact that my mother was half Chinese to add to the mix. As a child growing up in North West London, I encountered racism, poverty and an unremarkable education. The only thing I seemed to be good at was drawing, so I pursued that and branched out into painting. It was soon after gaining a diploma in interior design that I carried out my first freelance airbrush illustration for a small video production company in Wembley. I have not stopped since then but in fact have found other meaningful expressions for my skills.
Al Rasub: When did you start getting into music and who is your biggest influence?
My experience with singing began way back in 1982 when a close childhood friend of mine, Longsy D, wanted to secure a recording deal. He had written a few songs but couldn’t sing them himself so when he heard me singing he asked me whether I would sing lead vocals on his songs. I was totally surprised that anyone could think I actually had a good voice. Singing in the shower is one thing but singing live on stage? I didn’t think it was for me but after pondering on it I thought the idea sounded like fun! It was then that I got my first taste of recording studios, song writing and the turbulent world of the music business – which I hated!
In terms of influences: Although I grew up listening to reggae artists like Bob Marley, U-Roy and Dennis Brown, my real influences didn’t come about until my brother started playing American artists like Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and British pop stars like, Queen and Elton John. Later, I got into George Duke, Maxwell, Eric Benet, Gil Scott and Eryka Badu. But I have also been blessed to grow up and work with successful British artists such as Ronnie Jordan, Longsy D and Andrew Roachford. Later, after I stared my career in the Muslim community I wasblessed enough to rub shoulders with the likes of Zain Bhikha, Dawuod Wharnsby Ali and of course Yusuf Islam for whom I worked as graphic designer and backing vocalist for three years! It was an invaluable learning curve that gave me the push to try my hand in other creative fields like writing and producing my own songs, scripts and audio documentaries. So you see, influences abound!
Al Rasub: On your albums “Heaven” and “Dhikr of Life”, what is/are your favorite songs and do you compose songs as well?
My favorites on my first album are Heaven, Follow Muhammad and ‘Bilal: Son of Africa’. In fact the album Heaven was a grand experiment for me because, as any artist will tell you, it takes a while to discover your artistic ‘voice’. Also, when you consider the cultural climate back in early 2000’s, music (piano, guitars etc) where very much frowned upon, so I had to create my songs (nasheeds) without musical instruments. It was, of course, a great challenge all the same. By the time I came around to recording ‘Dhikr of Life’ I had a better idea of who I was and what I wanted to say. My best tracks from that album are ‘Blessed Mustafa’, ‘I Believe’, ‘Long ago’ and ‘Subhannallah’!
I have been writing songs before I converted to Islam in 1992, in fact some of my songs were also ‘converted’ and appeared in ‘Heaven’ as part of the album. ‘Bilal: Son of Africa’ was once a song talking about partying! In general my songs take a long time to come together, so I have always been an admire of great lyricists who seem to have a magic pen. Me? I have to work at it!
Al Rasub: Do you have a song that represents forgiveness and mercy in Islam? Can you share it with our readers? The thought behind the song?
The title track of ‘Heaven’ is one of my most powerful songs. I was motivated to write this song because as a non-Muslim I was absolute petrified as to what would happen to me after I died. I would actually lie awake at night scared of death! Discovering Islam and the Mercy and Grace of God was like being embraced in a security blanket. Like-wise the song ‘I Believe’, which talks about the redemptive and transforming power of Islam, is very personal to me. Both songs are a very human sigh of relief at the conviction of salvation.
I have a new song I’m working on for the new album ‘I.Belong’ called ‘This is Islam’ which is an anthem and response to the bad press Muslims and Islam has received since 9/11. It’s a song that states in no uncertain terms; ‘…Islam is all about peace! Terrorism it doesn’t teach. It’s all about love, family and charity and praying to one God!’ I’m very excited about this song and I’m looking forwards to filming a moving music video for it!
Al Rasub: When you were 10 yrs old, what did you aspire to be?
That’s an easy question to answer! When I was ten I aspired to be a superhero! I remember my brothers and I read American comics until we were cross-eyed! We even made our own costumes! Thor, Spider-Man, Hulk and the Fantastic Four were our favorites. Music or the desire to be a singer or dancer was never a major factor in our lives save for the records my brother would blast full volume every day. No, superheroes were our real passion. In fact my love for superheroes was the whole reason I got into design and illustration in the first place because I wanted to bring them to life and drawing them seemed the most natural way to do that. The desire just grew and grew as I experimented with paints, airbrush and now Photoshop etc. It’s been a long love affair that is far from over when you consider one of my long standing projects is an action adventure story called The5ive,which is like a modern Power Rangers but a Muslim version with spills chills, espionage and some incredible hi-tech gadgets kids will drool over!
Al Rasub: Do you have non-Muslim audience in your live performances? If yes, do you get any feedback from them?
I have performed for many many non-Muslims over the last ten years but the best response has always been from children and young people! Whether Muslim or non-Muslim, I have found that songs and crowd participation through my songs is a sure way to engage the youth and the language barrier is no barrier at all! I delivered performances 4 years running to raise funds for the UK charity Red Nose Dayat assemblies and concerts in schools. In fact I had individual students (99% non-Muslim) write letters requesting I perform for them again! I think part of what I bring to the dialogue of civilizations is that: 1) I don’t look like your stereotypical Muslim, thus breaking that stereotype 2) Kids love the interaction of my performances with its modern beats and sounds 3) Music is a great means of bridge building that transcends languages and culture 4) kids have told me I’m ‘cool’ (laughs). So, yes over the years I have had a terrific relationship with positive feedback from non-Muslim audiences, and I look forwards many more years like that.
Al Rasub: Who is your ideal person that inspires you?
Someone who finds themselves battered and bruised by the seas and storms of life but still goes on. Who looks death in the eyes and puts their trust in God! Names like Malcolm X, Dr Martin Luther King jr, Nelson Mandela and Prophet Muhammad come to mind. But that by no means marginalizes the millions of people worldwide working to improve the lives of others on a daily basis. This is something I am very conscience of – that we do not need to be ‘star’ or millionaire or politician to strive in the face of hardships. I truly believe heroes are born every minute and most of the greatest heroic deeds will never see the light of day! So, to those people, I tip my hat!
Al Rasub: During your live performances, what motivates you to let your audience relate to whatever songs and teachings you want to say?
For me performing live is all about the interaction and crowd participation. I dare say have made a unique name for myself with my playful antics of throwing out sweets, flowers and even toys into the audience! You see for me performing is not just about me singing at an audience, it’s about us sharing the experience and the message. It’s about joining in to make the song or message better by adding their voice and feelings to it. That way the song becomes organic and can actually sound different depending on the audiences’ participation and mood. I never totally feel the song unless I can feel something coming back from the audience. Over the years from as far as Canada, Chicago to France, South Africa and Germany, my audiences have all brought something unique to my songs. It’s an amazing feeling!
Al Rasub: Among all your achievements which one are you proudest of?
Now that’s a tough question! I should tell you that when I was first offered a recording deal I turned it down. I didn’t want the responsibility of representing Islam with all my faults as a human being. It was too big for me. I knew that whether I liked it or not, the moment I walked on that stage I would be seen as a role model and an example! That’s heavy! It took some soul-searching to finally agree to it. To make sure I wasn’t doing it for fame or to indulge my ego. It had to be for the right reasons – and that is to serve the Muslim community!
I think it’s fair to say I’ve had more than my fair share of blessings and achievements. I write books, deliver workshops to young minds, sing songs to thousands of people all over the world and each one has its own special reward. You see, for me, my life in the last ten years has been about contributing to human civilization in my own small way so when I get an email from a child thanking me for writing ‘Muslim All-Stars’ I feel vindicated. The instant buzz you get on stage when you seem to have the audience in the palm of your hands is indescribable! To see the ‘light’ turn on in the eyes of a youth during one of my workshops is priceless! The ability to address millions of people via songs and videos, even though initially I didn’t want to record albums and videos, is daunting. So, I guess I really don’t have answer for that question! Sorry (laughs).
Al Rasub: How do you see yourself 10 years from now, as a celebrity and a normal person?
Whatever it is I’ll be doing it will be as a normal person doing interesting and creative things – I hope (laughs). I think I’ll be dedicating myself to writing as I have a bunch of stories I’d like to tell. I mean, I’ll be too old to be jumping up and down on the stage like I do now, so yes, a more laid back position in the community I think would suit me. And of course I’d still like to be offering advice and pointers to the next generation to coming up as I have done as a panelist judge for a number of nasheed competitions in the UK. If I can impart some of what I have learnt during my time ‘in the spot light’ I think it will helpful. There are lots of pitfalls and negative mindsets an artist who takes to the stage is in danger of falling into –I just hope I can assist in some way to avert some of that.
Al Rasub: What message would you like to impart to our readers?
My whole life is the message boiled down into three words: make a difference! Leave traces of your passing that will benefit others not yet born. The world is about to face some very challenging times in the next few years that might see the global landscape change beyond all recognition but the question is: what are we doing to improve the lives of others? Our life span as humans is so short so my philosophy has always been to do as much good as possible before we cast off this mortal coil. No good deed is wasted, no kind word, no small act of charity! If we can look back and say we have done more good than bad – then I think that would have been a life worth living and my life would have had some meaning!
For more about Mr. Khaleel Muhammad, you can visit this links: