Sami Yusuf vs. Awakening Records: A Story of Integrity vs. Commercialism

Assalamu ‘alaykum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakaatuh

Al Ain, 1 June 2024 | Okay, looking at the title, it looks like a heavy discussion. Yupz, that’s right, I’m going to talk a heavy one, which is about Sami Yusuf, yes, our favorite musician, with his former label, Awakening Records. Looking at the title above, I will discuss about the conflict that often occurs in the music industry, the conflict between the idealism of artists against commercialization by labels. Relax, this blog is not an academic journal, but it will attach a lot of evidence to shed a light on old conflicts that may have been closed by both sides. I will only use public data as evidence on this blog, because private data such as a contract between the two parties is not something I can expose without permission. Okay, let’s get straight to it.

Who is Sami Yusuf?

Do I need to tell you about him? Well, fine, I will tell you, especially for those of you who don’t know “In short, he’s a megastar” (BBC Newsnight, 2015). Sami Yusuf is a British composer, musician, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist. He was born in Tehran, July 20, 1980, to an Azerbaijani family. His grandfather was from Baku, who fled there when the Bolshevic army annexed Azerbaijan. He was born as Siamak Berenjan (BBC Persian, 2015; Awakening, 2003), he is the son of Babak Radmanesh (Andante, 2012) an Iranian musician of Azeri descent. At the age of three, Sami Yusuf, was taken to London because his parents were under political pressure in Iran.

He grew up in an environment that was very all in with music and spirituality. By his father, he was taught various traditional musical instruments including (but not limited to) Tonbak, Tanbur, Tar, and of course Piano. Since childhood, he has gained a lot of understanding about music directly from his closest family. But in his admiration he is for Bach (Riz Khan, 2009).

As he was about to complete his law education, in early 2003, his childhood friend, Bara Kherigi, held discussions with him that eventually led to an opportunity and made way for the release of his debut album, Al Mu’allim (2003) (Awakening, 2014). Shortly after, in early 2004, sales of CD albums Al Mu’allim reached 30,000 copies (Awakening, 2014). The album was also a success in Egypt, where the music video Al Mu’allim broadcast on several Egyptian TVs which made him instantly a new sensation.

And in 2005, his second album entitled My Ummah (2005) released. On this album, Sami Yusuf said that his view on this album is as an album that focuses on humanity. Also with the use of many elements of modern music, this album received greater reception than previous albums. The album was also released in a percussion version for audiences who disagreed on the use of music (Awakening, 2014).

In 2007, Sami Yusuf performed in front of 10,000 people at Wembley Arena in London at a fundraising concert for victims in Darfur, Sudan. The concert also featured Danish boyband Outlandish, who had previously recorded together for the song “Try Not To Cry” On the Album “My Ummah” (2005). The concert earned £2.2 million.

In late 2008, due to ideological, contractual, and financial conflicts, Sami Yusuf decided to leave Awakening Records. He then took a short break, eventually founding Andante Studios and signing with ETM International in 2009 which eventually led to the release of his fourth album, “Wherever You Are” (2010) in October 2010.

Through his own label, Andante Records (2014, switching from ETM International), Sami Yusuf has released his own albums including: The Centre (2014), Songs of the Way Vol.1 (2015), Barakah (2016), and a mini-album SAMi (2018). Some of these albums trended on iTunes within days of their release. In his independent works at Andante Records, he moved to bring traditional music to life and in his own musical philosophy, Spiritique.

Who is Awakening Records?

Awakening Records is an international music label founded in 2003, with a mission to produce and promote Islamic music that can inspire and strengthen Muslim identity around the world. Based in the UK, Awakening Records has become one of the leading music labels in the Islamic music genre, focusing on positive messages and religious values.

Awakening Records was founded by Sharif Hassan Al-Banna and his friends who had a vision to create music that not only entertains but also provides religious inspiration. They want to provide a cultural alternative to the global Muslim community, which often feels underrepresented in the mainstream music industry.

Over the years, Awakening Records has signed with a number of well-known artists in the Islamic music genre. Some of the artists who have been signed to this label include Sami Yusuf, Maher Zain, Mesut Kurtis, Hamza Namira, Harris J, and Raef among others. Awakening Records is known for their high production quality and professional approach in promoting their artists.

Despite the controversy, Awakening Records remains a major force in the Islamic music industry. They have helped elevate Islamic music to an international level, with songs translated into various languages and concerts held in various countries. The label has also contributed to increased awareness and acceptance of Islamic music among a wider audience.

Background of Sami Yusuf vs Awakening Records

The main context of this section is from Sami Yusuf’s ideological dispute with Awakening Records, as well as regarding the contract that Sami Yusuf signed early in his career with Awakening in 2003, including a 5-album contract with Awakening Records.

2006-2008 – Breakup and shipwreck of a ship that has been built together.

Seeing the pattern of success of Sami Yusuf, Awakening planned for Sami Yusuf to release his third studio album. Looking at the track record available in the public sources, the name of the third album was first mentioned on Sami Yusuf’s old website, SamiYusuf.com, as “Without You” in June 2008. Which at the same time, maybe the conflict between the two sides has sharpened.

In Sami Yusuf’s interview with Daoud Yusuf on the program “BICARA“, the beginning of this conflict when Sami Yusuf revealed that his music had been too closed to one (Muslim) community, to which Awakening Records officials cynically responded that business-term, Sami Yusuf’s intention to release inclusive music would be risky from a business point of view.

Sami Yusuf, by Awakening Records, is heavily geared towards the Muslim community market. It is difficult to know when the dispute began, but Sami Yusuf, in the same interview revealed that this is a 6-year-old issue (counting from the interview conducted in July/August 2012, then approximately the incident occurred in 2006).

Also quote The Awakening Book, (2004), in 2004-2008, Awakening has held 250 concerts in 30 different countries of which most of them are Sami Yusuf’s concerts. Some of these concerts include, quoting from SamiYusuf.com old website, concerts were held in England, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, Canada, Algeria, and many others.

At the end of 2008, Sami Yusuf decided to leave Awakening Records due to the sharpening of discord between them.

2009 – Release of “Without You

In January 2009, Awakening Records released Sami Yusuf’s third album, entitled “Without You”. The album contains 11 songs with a total duration of 37 minutes 44 seconds. Instead of being greeted with excitement, the album attracted controversy.

            Sami Yusuf in a statement on his new official website, SamiYusufOfficial.com, stated:

“I realize that this will be welcome news for many people, but my loyal supporters need to know that this album release is NOT taking place with my blessing OR my consent!”

Sami Yusuf (SamiYusufOfficial.com, 2009)

In a statement he wrote on his new website, he said that the album “Without You” contains audio leaked by “Third Parties” to Awakening Records. In a statement in his video, Sami Yusuf said he never gave them the recordings, which later became the album “Without You“. In his statement, he gave examples of some tracks from the demo he had with the version released by Awakening, to provide proof that the audios on the album “Without You” were not the high-quality official audio he wanted and had.

Sami Yusuf also said in the statement that for the past year, he had tried to resolve his dispute with Awakening, but failed to reach an agreement, and decided to leave Awakening at the end of 2008. (SamiYusufOfficial, 2009). In the same statement, Sami Yusuf called on his fans to boycott album sales of ”Without You”. He also called on his fans to be willing to wait for the “third” album he was working on that he said was of better quality, for which he gave his blessing to the album he was working on.

In response to Sami Yusuf’s allegations and calls for a boycott from him, Awakening wrote a press statement on their official website that read:

Without You Album Release and Awakening Records

19th January 2009

It has come to the attention of Awakening Records that there are certain rumours and statements circulating claiming that Sami Yusuf has left Awakening Records and that Awakening Records is releasing Without You – the third album of Sami Yusuf – without his approval and that the album merely consists of demos. Awakening Records has so far taken careful steps to not publicly disclose any information or discuss the matter in order to minimise any harm to Sami Yusuf, his fan base or even Awakening Records itself. However, Awakening Records would like to clarify that:

1. Awakening Records is a reputable worldwide company and takes every measure to ensure that it has full rights to release a product and deliver it to the highest quality. It will not jeopardise its relationship with its partners, artists, customers, investors and supporters by releasing a product that it has no right to release.

2. Awakening Records has produced pioneering Islamic music albums since 2003 to provide an alternative cultural vision for the global Muslim community. In this effort, it identified, supported, supervised and managed the work of Sami Yusuf since May 2003.

3. First and foremost by God’s grace, then through the gifted talent of Sami Yusuf and with huge investment and tremendously hard work undertaken by Awakening Records, Sami Yusuf is now a household name across the global Muslim community inspiring millions of Muslim youth to be proud of their faith and identity.

4. Sami Yusuf is signed exclusively to Awakening Records for five albums. Awakening Records has previously released two albums – Al-Muallim and My Ummah and the third album Without You was released on Monday 12th of January 2009. Under the current agreements, all recordings are exclusively owned by Awakening Records.

5. Awakening Records has made substantial payments to Sami Yusuf for the third album which was due for release in August 2008 – as advertised on www.samiyusuf.com since May 2008 – and has full exclusive rights to release and distribute the album worldwide. Any other individual or company releasing any of Sami Yusuf’s music albums or works can only do so by infringing the copyrights held by Awakening Records.

6. The third album is a complete and high quality album. It consists of 11 professionally recorded studio tracks owned by Awakening Records. All of the songs were composed, arranged and recorded by Sami Yusuf and so were all the vocals without exception.

7. Due to some internal contractual disputes – primarily resulting from third party interferences – Awakening Records had initially decided to postpone the release of the album till the outstanding matters were resolved.

8. It now seems that the dispute will take longer than expected to resolve and thus Awakening Records has decided to release the third album whilst other outstanding contractual issues are resolved. It is not in the interest of Awakening Records or Sami Yusuf to continue to put all work on hold indefinitely.

9. The matter is not in the courts as claimed but is currently being dealt with by lawyers representing Sami Yusuf and Awakening Records.

10. It has further come to the attention of Awakening Records that certain people are taking this opportunity to spread false information and rumours about Awakening Records and Sami Yusuf. Despite what is happening, Awakening Records holds Sami Yusuf in high esteem and is proud to have him as one of its artists. We urge people to refrain from spreading uncorroborated and partial information that only harms Sami Yusuf and Awakening Records.

11. The relationship between Awakening Records and Sami Yusuf is not merely contractual. All the directors of Awakening Records without exception are close personal friends of Sami Yusuf and hence the matter is very delicate, sensitive and complicated.

12. The issue is best left to be sorted out by Awakening Records, Sami Yusuf and their respective lawyers. Awakening Records is not willing to engage in gossip about its artists. Such action is not only unethical but also un-Islamic. Awakening Records has no intention to make this matter a public debacle and will thus issue no further statements.

Although contractual disputes are the norm in the ‘music industry’, it is unfortunate and it deeply saddens us that it has come to this. However, we are hopeful that matters will be resolved amicably and as swiftly as possible. In the meantime, enjoy the creative brilliance of Sami Yusuf’s long awaited third album, which can be purchased from www.awakeningstore.com, iTunes and music stores worldwide. Awakening Records is donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the album to Islamic Relief’s Gaza Appeal.

Awakening Records

19th January 2009

Awakening Records, Awakening.org/Records, 2009

In essence, the above statement contains the following:

On January 19, 2009, Awakening Records released a statement regarding Sami Yusuf’s third album, Without You. There were rumors that the album was released without Yusuf’s consent and contained only demos, but Awakening confirmed that they had the full rights to release the album. The album consists of 11 professionally recorded tracks and all compositions and vocals performed by Yusuf. Yusuf’s exclusive contract with Awakening covers five albums and they have made substantial payments for these albums. Awakening acknowledged that there was a contract dispute being handled by each party’s lawyers, but they decided to release the album because they did not want to delay work any longer. Awakening also asked that there be no spread of false information that could harm both parties. Despite this dispute, Awakening still respects Sami Yusuf and hopes that this matter can be resolved peacefully.

2009 – Blocking of “You Came To Me” Music Video by Awakening

On August 21, 2009, Sami Yusuf through his new label contract, ETM International, released his first independent music video, the music video “You Came To Me” on ETM International’s YouTube channel. Unfortunately within a few days, Awakening made a copyright claim on the video.

            In its official response, ETM International wrote:

ETM International responds to the removal of “You Came To Me”

In response to Awakening’s recent statement proclaiming Sami Yusuf’s contractual obligations to Awakening, ETM International contends that based upon expert legal advice this contract is invalid and unenforceable, which is why Sami Yusuf is pursuing, and will continue to pursue his career away from Awakening.

ETM International Team

ETM International, ETMInternational.com, 2009

It is understood that the reason Awakening blocked the music video “You Came To Me” is a matter of Sami Yusuf’s contractual problems with Awakening which includes a 5 studio album deal signed by Sami Yusuf at the beginning of his career. The team from ETM as a representative of Sami Yusuf has also consulted this matter with legal experts and stated that the Awakening contract is invalid and can no longer be enforced.

Blocking on music videos”You Came To Me” was lifted in March 2010, and the music video is available again be enjoyed on ETM International’s YouTube channel.

2017-2021

During this period, both Sami Yusuf’s side (represented by Andante Records) and Awakening attacked copyright claims against each other. For example, on July 3, 2018, Sami Yusuf posted on Twitter:

He complained about Awakening claiming copyright on several of Sami Yusuf’s music videos on YouTube (both through his own official channel and the channel of his label, Andante Records). In the screenshot shared by Sami Yusuf, it can be seen that YouTube is still deciding that the claims from Awakening are valid.

Also the most extreme was when Andante Records released the music video of Sami Yusuf’s live performance at Dubai Opera, performing his most famous song, Hasbi Rabbi. It is known that the music video had been watched by 77 million views before finally being blocked from YouTube by Awakening until today (at the time of writing, June 1, 2024).

In the following years, Awakening under the new parent, Deventi Group, they released several compilation albums, the series “The Best of Islamic Music” which began in 2019 with the release of Vol. 4 of the compilation series of albums. For an overview, this compilation album is a curated compilation by Awakening Records, about famous songs in the Islamic music industry, which does prioritize its own releases. But it does not rule out the possibility of Awakening licensing songs from other labels to be featured in this compilation album series. Returning to Vol. 4 of the compilation, Awakening Records included 2 songs by Sami Yusuf, namely “Hasbi Rabbi” and “Ya Mustafa“.

Although there has been no reaction from Sami Yusuf regarding the release, it does not mean that Awakening can release their compilation arbitrarily. Awakening continued to release the compilation album until finally at its peak, in the occassion of Eid al-Fitr, Awakening released the video lyrics of the song Sami Yusuf “Eid Song“, which later led to the release of the compilation album “The Eid Album” (2020).

The video had aired for several months afterwards, until finally around mid-2021, ICE SERVICE, a copyright agency based in the UK blocked Awakening videos related to Sami Yusuf. Sami Yusuf, through his official Instagram account, implicitly complained about Awakening re-releasing his songs in compilation albums without his permission, and called on his fans to only listen to music released by himself (Via Andante Records).

It is not publicly known what happened behind the scenes between Sami Yusuf’s side and Awakening Records. However, Awakening has set ‘private’ all Sami Yusuf videos from its official channel and stopped re-releasing Sami Yusuf’s songs in their compilations.

Conflict Analysis

The protracted conflict between Sami Yusuf vs Awakening has many sides that can be discussed. As you have read above, all summaries of their conflicts, there are many aspects that are important to consider in looking at this conflict:

  • Contractual & Legal

Taking from Awakening’s press release, we can see that Awakening has argument  basis based on a contractual agreement between Sami Yusuf and Awakening Records at the beginning of Sami Yusuf’s career. The most highlighted contractual between them was the contract to run records for 5 studio albums. Sami Yusuf is known (officially) to have released two albums through Awakening, namely Al Mu’allim in 2003, and My Ummah in 2005. The fate of Without You if viewed from a contractual perspective, then Awakening legally released the album, although with the quality of the album that was not too pleasing to the ear. (If the contractual claims of Awakening are true)

However, on Sami Yusuf’s side, he as the composer of his music has legal rights to the compositions he writes, including those he recorded and released through Awakening Records. Therefore, Sami Yusuf has a legal basis to question the release of his music that was released without his permission.

  • Ethical

Sami Yusuf is known as a very idealistic musician and has a strong stance. This can be seen from his release pattern after leaving Awakening, which is more focused on spiritual aspects, and lately more focused on traditional music. This can be reflected when he was interviewed by Daoud Yousef on the BICARA program where Sami Yusuf when asked about Muslim musicians to penetrate the Chinese market, he said that he revealed that his music (at that time) was exclusive to the Muslim community, and expressed that he wanted to be more inclusive in his musical approach. The cynical Awakening executive towards Sami Yusuf’s complaint said his approach was too risky from a business perspective. It can be seen that the root cause of both sides is ideological disputes. Sami Yusuf is a spiritualist, while Awakening is a business entity. Even if viewed from the perspective of Marxism, Awakening through its business model commodifies culture, especially religion. Then there are ethical issues that surround Awakening.

Personal Views & Theoretical Analysis of Awakening Records Business Practices

From the blogs I’ve written before, I’m implicitly critiquing how culture is commodified by industry, including by the industry I’m currently in, music. But now I will give my own personal views on the case of religious commodification by Awakening Records.

I observed over the past few years how Awakening Records marketed their music to the Muslim community. I will focus on what I have directly observed. In Occupied West Papua as well as in Indonesia, in the Muslim community, Awakening artists, especially Maher Zain, are framed as Islamic singer. Even in the most extreme case is to associate Maher Zain as “Sholawatan” in full term.

Audiences interpret Maher Zain’s music as an “Islamic” or “Sholawatan” artist as a result of various factors. One of them is how the media frames him in his music.

But, before continuing, I will provide additional context regarding what I will discuss. Awakening Records, in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore has a partnership with Jakarta-based promoter DNA Production, led by Rina Novita. DNA takes care of all the logistics when Awakening artists visit the region. Also, they took care of licensing agreements from Awakening Records to local labels for distribution in the regional marketing region. Also several times, considering that DNA Production is a production house, they have worked on TV shows featuring Awakening artists at these events. The most prominent examples are: Drama Series “Insha Allah Ada Jalan” (2012) on SCTV, “Salam” (2016) on RCTI, “The Journey of a Backpacker” (2016-2019) on KompasTV (2016) and Trans7 (2017-2019), and “Kun Anta” on MNCTV.

From some examples of TV programs above, it can be found that the thematic of these DNA programs are religious, associating Awakening artists thickly with one religion, namely Islam.

Looking back at the early years of Maher Zain’s career in Indonesia, Maher Zain by several TV that broadcast his concerts (either live or taping), often aired these concerts at times associated with Islam, most often the month of Ramadan.

In online media, it is also reflected that one or several, journalists emphasize rhetorical and thematic regarding religion. Also to add proximity to Indonesian audiences, journalists use the rhetoric of Maher Zain’s love for Indonesia.

In terms of audiences, especially prosumers, those who lack understanding, regarding copyright ethics, they often publish content related to Maher Zain like this:

By number of views Unauthorized videos, this kind of thing, let alone coupled with the low copyright awareness especially to Indonesian, it can be said that Maher Zain has been framed by the public as a “religious” and even “sholawatan” singer.

I don’t mind with Maher Zain’s music or himself. Instead, I respect him as one of the secondary inspirations of my personal music. In fact, I collected 4 albums from Maher Zain. When I myself listen to his song, I see the content and substance of the song, not just the thematic way the media frames the song. What I have a problem with is that the framing of the media is directing Maher Zain in a particular box, which is to highlight religious themes in Maher’s music.

From the phenomena I mentioned above, this can be drawn:

Awakening in Commodification of Religion

Michael York’s (2001) article discusses how the New Age movement represented a response to the decline of traditional religion in the West and how spirituality became a tradable commodity in the free market. In the context of Awakening, the company uses similar principles by commodifying religious music and their artists, such as Maher Zain. The music and content they produce becomes merchandise that is marketed not only for spiritual purposes but also as consumer products that can increase popularity and income (York, 2001).

Indonesian Online Media and Religious Rhetoric

Journalists in Indonesian online media often use rhetoric that emphasizes religious themes to attract audiences. One of the strategies used is to highlight Maher Zain’s love for Indonesia. This is done to create emotional closeness between the artist and the audience, making the content more relatable and engaging. This approach reflects how spirituality and religion can be repackaged and presented to meet market needs and media consumption, a form of commodification discussed by York in the context of the New Age movement (York, 2001).

TV Programs Starring Awakening Artists

TV programs starring Maher Zain and other Awakening artists often carry strong religious themes. They are explicitly associated with Islam, reinforcing their religious identity in the eyes of the audience. This reflects the process of commodification of spirituality described by York, in which spiritual elements are integrated in popular media to increase commercial appeal and relevance (York, 2001).

Maher Zain’s Ramadan Concert

The concerts of Maher Zain and other Awakening artists broadcast on Indonesian TV during Ramadan are concrete examples of the commodification of religion in the media. By airing these concerts during the holy month of Ramadan, TV stations take advantage of a time when audiences are more likely to engage in religious activities. It combines spirituality with marketing strategies, in keeping with the phenomenon described by York about how spiritual elements are used for commercial purposes in the context of the New Age movement (York, 2001).

This ethical aspect of religious commodification has been the subject of criticism. I argue that reducing religion to a mere commercial tool, which in turn undermines the integrity and meaning of religious teachings themselves. Critics also highlight how capitalism tends to commodify all aspects of life, including spirituality, which in turn undermines the authenticity and values that religion is supposed to uphold.

Conclusion

Of the many things I have described above, many things are highlighted. Looking at the example of the outbreak of Sami Yusuf from Awakening in 2008, the phenomenon of religious commodification that Awakening continues to do, and how the media framed Maher Zain, can be concluded many things.

About how capitalism has changed the way people view cultural products. In the perspective of capitalism, especially in the music industry, the integrity of these cultural products is worn away and the cultural products are merely ordinary commodity without any profound substance about the agency of each work. Sami Yusuf himself expressed concern that in this case, Awakening Records, prioritizes numbers to measure the level of success of artists and their work. He also revealed that especially in the context of music and Islam, considering the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ  regarding music, he said that music in Islam should be observed with caution. (Yousuf, 2012)

My personal view of these phenomena is that when something that is supposed to be sacred, i.e. spiritual, religious, and cultural is made a commodity, a merchandise, though not explicitly, in this case Awakening slightly avoids being too associated with Islam, is damaging the substance and individual ideology of a piece of music.

I don’t want to comment much on the legal issue between Sami Yusuf vs. Awakening Records, because I understand I’m not a legal expert, but I have outlined a few views above. I see this case from the perspective of a substantial ideological dispute between Sami Yusuf and Awakening Records, which I am deeply concerned about and reflect on the larger phenomenon of religious commodification in the entire music industry.

I think that’s all I can write about this very protracted case. I have no intention of opening up old wounds, but from this case example, I hope that we can all reflect on ourselves and society on how we view the culture and industry that reddens it. Apologies if there are wrong words or things that are not pleasing to this long article that I wrote. There is no ivory that does not crack. Wa Bil Taufiq wal Hidayah, Hasbi Rabbi Jalallah.

Wa Assalamu ‘Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakaatuh    

Further Reading:

York, M. (2001). New Age commodification and appropriation of spirituality. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 16(3), 361-372. doi:10.1080/13537900120077177

Diana Susanti