By Fatima Khonat
So there we were, doing all those laborious tasks the Editor had demanded us to do when only one of the most talented Nasheed artists walked into the media room. Hearts pulsing and trying to keep the ecstatic smiles hidden of our faces we managed to grab a few words with him...without leaving him thinking of The Revival team as freaks.
Before you start reading through Mr Bhikha’s words of wisdom, it’d probably be wise of you to know a few things about him. Well, he was born in 1974 in Pretoria, South Africa where he started singing from a young age, though entertaining family and friends was as far as he went. In 1994, he entered a singing competition on a local radio station. From thousands of entries, he won the competition. This success led to his first album, 'A Way of Life' (1994). It soon became a roaring success amongst the South African Muslim community. So, the married father of two, followed with other albums such as ‘Fortunate is He’ (1997).
And now to the much anticipated question time with Zain Bhikha...
You have had a lot of success in the past few years. And as we all know you’re a worldwide Nasheed artist. But what inspired you to go down this path? Is it something you always wanted to do?
Literally, it kind of happened by mistake. I use to love singing ever since I was a young boy. And just when I finished high school I had a bearing incident in my life; I lost a very close friend of mine. And that was the first kind of turning point in my life. Mortalities are brought face to face and you start thinking well I am going to die so what’s the purpose of living? And what are we suppose to do with our time here? And that’s when I started pouring myself into song writing because that is all I knew ever since I was young. And Alhamdulillah I wrote two very simple songs about Islam; very basic songs about the oneness of god, about Eid, Deen and about what a grateful God we have. And then I think the real breakthrough came in 1999 when Yusuf Islam came across one of my tapes and invited me to London to record. So I think that was the real turning point.
Do you try to convey any particular message through your Nasheeds to the audience?
I don’t have any particular message I want to deliver. I don’t want to preach to them; I ain't no preacher. I am simply conveying to them my thoughts, feelings and emotions which is what people relate to. I hope, reflecting on my music, I have encouraged more young people to use the medium of music or even other creative sources like poetry, creative writing, short stories, stuff like that to voice their thoughts, emotions and feelings and let themselves be heard.
A lot of the youth would love to be following the path you chose to walk. But their parents may not necessarily see it as a conventional way to go about things. How did your parents react to what you chose to do?
Alhamdulillah I think I was very luck that my parents always encouraged me. I think if it wasn’t for them pushing me I wouldn't have really bothered. They really encouraged me to use my creativity to do something positive. And that was important. But something I would say to any young person is that even if it’s not music, choose something creative. There is creativity in us all. We just need to start to tap into it. Be aware of the inspiration around us; from a little insect to a beautiful sunrise it can be an inspiration leading you to write about the greatness of the creator. Using creative ways to relate an emotion is more powerful than conventional methods of communication. So I think for especially young people trying to find their voice, they should use poetry, song even if it is for themselves.
In South Africa we've been running workshops especially the workshops we arranged for fifteen high schools across the country; it’s amazing what young people were able to write from their hearts. So what I would say is write but most importantly write from your heart. Because that is what art is all about. It takes a piece of your soul and you put it out for the world to see, and you say this is who I am.
It seems your son is following in his father’s footsteps. But it’s not quite the same style of music as yours... he seems to have found his own voice influenced by hip-hop and rap. Did you have any reservations regarding this?
He also grew up in an environment where there were a lot of songs. And when we were doing some of the earlier albums ‘I Look I See’ and ‘Our World’ we were looking for young people... and you know Alhamdulillah he came out and actually Yusuf Islam said ‘Why don’t you use your son more?’ but I wasn’t quite sure. I had my reservations about his voice. It was only when we were doing ‘Allah Knows’ that he had just turned thirteen and he didn’t want to do the kind of songs I was looking at. So I asked, ‘Well what kind of songs do you want to do?’ And he goes, ‘he wants to do raps!’ so I said, ‘okay I’ll try my best’. So Alhamdulillah we got Abdul Malik from Native Deen to work with him and they wrote a fantastic song about drugs and you know that’s really the prophetic art of communication - the way of the Prophet (pbuh). He didn’t change his message but changed the delivery of his message to suite the audience. And that’s important. You know it’s gotta be applicable. It’s gotta be appealing. And I encourage him to do that.
He’s writing a lot of new songs now. He’s only fifteen so Alhamdulillah... I am encouraging him to write from the heart because I think if you put a young person up on stage to be a role model it is much more powerful than someone like me who is older so people can relate to him and say ‘If he's doing it then why can’t I do it?’ And that’s important. We need to have younger people as role models especially in the Muslim world. And that’s what I am encouraging him to do Inshallah.
What answer do you have to people who criticise what you do with regards to music being forbidden in Islam and stuff?
Well firstly I respect all opinions; I’ve been doing Islamic songs for close to fifteen years now. And the one thing that I do know is that this is a very cloudy topic; it’s not clear. It’s something that has various different opinions across the globe and I respect somebody who chooses an opinion. But I also have my viewpoint and Alhamdulillah I have seen the results and the effects it has especially on young people who are most vulnerable when it comes to music especially negatively. So to provide something positive for them Inshallah will... well, what can I say I’ve seen the results. I have no qualms about what I am doing. I just hope that Inshallah Allah Ta'ala always keeps my intentions clean you know. But I respect people who have different opinions.
So what advice would you give to the Muslim youth out there who want to be the next ‘Zain Bhikha’ or ‘Dawud Wharnsby’?
My first piece of advice and probably the most important is something that Yusuf Islam gave me which is: ‘Don’t give up your day job! Do this as a means of a fashion. Don’t do this as a living.’ Because it will always influence you, and perhaps take you in a different direction. Rather do it as a hobby, keep your job and your income from a living point of you separate, because that really keeps the passion going and you do it because you love it.
The second thing, importantly, is giving a piece of your soul a piece of yourself. You know sometimes you might be writing a song and you think who’s going to listen to this song, it’s about me? However, whilst people may not associate with your circumstances it’s the emotion that binds us all as human beings. You might have a story, a unique story, about your life that might not happen to somebody else but they would associate with your emotions. And that’s what I mean by binding us all as human beings. And that’s what I think the beauty of art is. When somebody gives me a CD I ask, ‘Is this you? Or somebody else? Because I want to hear what you want to say.’
So you must have a lot of faith within yourself to do what you do. There is a lot of insecurity amongst Muslims, a lack of belief?
I think as long you’re honest it is ok. Honest enough to show that you don’t have the answers. You don’t know everything and you're just a normal person like everybody else, going through life, trying to figure things out as you go along. These are the thoughts you’re having and you write it down. The other thing is nobody likes to be preached to especially young people. You know, they hate to be preached to, they get preached to all the time, at school, at home so when they listen to songs they use it as an outlet as a source of social interaction. You watch young people, I watch my son when he gets together with his friends and one of the first few things that comes up is songs...Which new song they’ve got... and they start exchanging songs on their phones... So we need to be aware of this by utilising the medium correctly. I would say to any budding artist out there when you’re putting out anything be it a poem, a song or a story make sure it’s a piece of you and not somebody else.
Well, there you have it folks. A Nasheed artist whose made it to the top with his feet still on the ground. It would be wise to take his advice on board... and maybe in the not so distant future our voice can be heard by thousands of listeners across the globe just like his…