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“Sometimes our most destructive moments and greatest tragedies end up becoming our triumphs.”
Indie folk singer-songwriter Yusif Refae is discussing his upcoming release. The project is ambitious: he plans to release a song or two per month over a 3-year period through his YouTube channel. Yusif produced and recorded half of the songs in Kuwait, performing all drums, bass, guitars, percussion, keyboards, and vocals single-handedly. The other half of the tracks were recorded in conjunction with producer Michael James in LA and musicians in a make-shift Seattle basement studio.
At his new private recording studio in Kuwait, where he has lived since 2016, Yusif takes us into his musical journey. Going solo, it seems, is not only a necessity but a way of life for Yusif.
“I've never really known where home is,” he admits.
The story begins in 1990. Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. An American woman has recently married a Kuwaiti man and is living in Kuwait with her toddler. In the midst of a war zone, she escapes with her child, fleeing the devastation to Seattle, where she will be separated from her husband for over a year.
Yusif retraces his sense of cultural ambiguity growing up: “My grandmother said I had an accent when we landed in Seattle. Well, it didn’t take me long to forget my Arabic and lose that accent.
“I basically grew up American. I didn’t fit in. My name was goofy. Friday prayers were mandatory at The Islamic School. At that age you don’t know who you are yet.”
The rift the Gulf War created between Yusif and his father was only the beginning of their conflict. The tension created by cultural differences and the decision of whether to live in Seattle or Kuwait, nearly destroyed the family.
When Yusif’s father returned to Seattle, he noticed his son eating pork: “He saw me eating pork chops and got so mad he put his suitcases out in the street for a night and threatened divorce.”
Pork is forbidden in Islam. He pauses and continues, “I think he was upset with how American I was becoming.”
When Yusif also failed to relearn Arabic in Seattle his father subjected him to psychological torment. He remembers, “My dad blamed me because I lost my Arabic. Said I didn’t try hard enough. I remember being ten, living in Seattle. I wasn’t allowed to speak English in the house for an entire week. Neither was mom. And not in a fun way. In an abusive way. I barely spoke that week.”
Ironically, Yusif now speaks nearly fluent Arabic with co-workers daily at a public music college in Kuwait. After the war ended, Yusif’s father began living and working in Kuwait, visiting the family only once a year. From the emotional void left by his father’s absence, the gift of music presented itself to the confused teenager. In middle school Yusif learned to read music and played viola and piano in the school orchestra.
Regarding his musical ability Yusif says, “I wasn’t encouraged. Some Islamists forbid music. Somebody brought a Kris Kross record to the Islamic School of Seattle. So they taught me music is the devil. Forbidden. I wanted out. I pestered my parents. They let me go to public school for junior high. That’s when the music hit me.”
“I was nerdy. I went to a mostly-black middle school so I got into rap and soul. I was kissing girls. That would’ve been impossible in Kuwait.” He laughs and pauses to reflect, as if to imagine what his life might have been like had he remained on this course.”
Instead, in 1999 the family sold everything, including their house, and moved to Kuwait, where there would be no more music lessons, no more chasing girls. There, he would be bullied in high school for embracing his American heritage and retreat into himself as classmates berated him.
Yusif explains, “If your father’s Kuwaiti, you’re Kuwaiti. It’s totally patriarchal. Mom doesn’t count. I didn’t get that back then. So I got bullied and picked on for insisting I wasn’t just Kuwaiti. Kids would say, ‘No you’re not. Your dad is Kuwaiti so you’re Kuwaiti.’ I didn’t really understand that. By the time I got it, the damage had been done.”
In Kuwait, Yusif taught himself to play guitar and started writing songs and poems to vent his frustrations. Depression, alienation, and the search for home were common themes in his early writing. “Kids ganged up on me, picked fights, harassed me en masse. Dozens of people shouting and jeering on a daily basis. I ignored them. I probably should’ve let the anger out more than I did,” he admits.
Sometimes Yusif vented in destructive ways. He brewed wine in his close and got caught growing marijuana plants twice. He stole his parents’ wine and became addicted to hashish and dealt it. And he started kissing more girls.
“My parents used to brew wine while I was in high school, and it was kind of a dark time in my life," he recalls. "I’d steal their rancid, disgusting homemade wine, and I’d go to the desert with friends, make campfires, smoke hash, play songs, chase girls. I wanted more. I had to get out.”
Kuwait is a dry state. The simple fact is that Yusif just didn't adhere to Kuwaiti norms and ideals. More than once his dad caught him in his room, fornicating with girls, which led to huge fights.
“It's very taboo in Kuwaiti society to have premarital sex,” he informs. “Or maybe it’s just a taboo to get caught.”
He laughs and continues, “If anybody finds out, the girl's and dad’s reputations both get tarnished. The family name is damaged as well. So they’d want revenge on my dad.”
The fights with his father furthered his unhappiness in Kuwait. The isolation he was feeling at school was growing deeper and stronger at home. With one foot in both cultures, he persuaded his parents to let him return to Seattle to live with his grandparents.
Once in Seattle, it didn't go well. Isolated and depressed, he resorted more to drugs and alcohol. Unable to get into high school due to red tape, he went to community college, with hardly a friend in the world. There he discovered grunge, Nirvana and Soundgarden. Songs like "Fell On Black Days" really spoke to him.
Later on, he graduated high school at the American School of Kuwait and earned a B.A. in English from Johns Hopkins University, where he also studied music theory and composition at the Peabody Institute. Graduating in 2008, he headed back to Seattle.
He packed everything into a hand-me-down 1987 Honda Accord and embarked on a solo cross-country trek from Baltimore, Maryland to Seattle. Playing the local open mic circuit, he became a regular on the burgeoning Seattle folk-pop scene from 2008 to 2012.
After building performance chops and writing hundreds of songs, Yusif was ready to enter the studio in 2010. He began working on his first and eponymous album at Orbit Audio in Pioneer Square with producer Joe Reineke. Utilizing friends and studio musicians he made the record before he had a band.
“I did it backwards,” he laughs. “I did a record and tried to put a band around it. It didn’t really work,” he adds. It took some time to get comfortable performing with a group.
He describes this adjustment period: “I had a number of drummers and guitar players at first. A band is an amorphous, elastic thing. It’s hard to keep it together.”
After a slew of gigs up and down the west coast in 2012 with a four-piece ensemble ended in chaos, tension, and confusion, Yusif decided to simplify the live performance and take his acoustic-based music national.
“It became too much to manage. When you’re starting out you don’t have any money. We couldn’t do hotels. We pitched a tent and built campfires. The other guys saw me getting paid. But they didn’t see the gas bills, the parking tickets, all the expenses. I was actually taking a loss.”
“I pared it down to an acoustic duo. Performing became fun again. Travelling got easier. We started playing festivals, beer gardens, backyard-type things,” Yusif recalls.
The indie folk artist spent most of 2012 and the first part of 2013 on the road promoting the first album, performing over 300 events in 37 states, including at Austin’s SXSW festival and a Washington, DC hurricane party in the middle of Superstorm Sandy.
Barry St. Vitus of Blurt described the release tellingly: “Despite all the setbacks in his early life, Yusif has emerged from the other side, wiser, free-spirited and triumphant.” Huffington Post said the album was, “Written from the viewpoint of someone actually affected by war.”
Yusif adds, “Life on the road in America is incredible. I mean, it wasn’t glamorous, don’t get me wrong. I was living off Ramen shrimp noodles, sleeping on cockroach-infested Philly floors, logging tens of thousands of miles behind the wheel. I think that’s just something every performer has to go through. But to be on the road, playing music every night. Doing it. It’s hard to describe that feeling.” After spending most of 2013 in Seattle, the duo relocated to Los Angeles, where there were more struggles in store.
“I started working with producer Michael James and moved to LA. Through the tours, I’d had this girl with me. She started as a back-up singer. I didn’t want a relationship. Wasn’t interested. But you spend time together on the road. In LA we started fooling around. Playing house. We did some performances but it wasn’t the same. The passion for music gave way to relationship drama and arguments and I turned back to drugs.”
At one point the duo lived in the Crenshaw neighborhood on a block locals refer to only as, ‘The Jungle.’ Yusif continues, “That was another dark time. The area was so dangerous Pizza Hut wouldn’t deliver to us. Police helicopters hovered outside our window at 3AM. People got shot. It was a real wake-up call. I had to get out of that situation.”
By 2015, Yusif had recorded over 20 new songs. After Yusif got clean again, the duo relocated to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they did a series of promotional Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic tours.
Yusif explains the curious decision: “Harrisburg is centrally located for touring. I was inspired by Jim Croce. It worked for a while. But we ended up weekend warriors. We lost the spark of the road. Drama got in the way. And that really ended it. The break-up was inevitable,” he adds.
As 2016 began, Yusif was uncertain. Alone and lost, he returned to drugs again, which precluded the release of new music—two albums’ worth. He decided to spend the winter in Kuwait regrouping with family.
“I had sworn off Kuwait. Then in 2014 my grandmother died. When I visited, Kuwait had changed. It wasn’t the place I grew up. There was music and dancing. I meant to stay six weeks and spent four months.”
There Yusif met his wife at a rooftop concert in Kuwait. The singer recalls, “I’d reconnected with an old friend from high school and he invited me to this rooftop concert. And there was this girl.”
Only, Yusif was scheduled to return to Pennsylvania in 10 days.
“I’d already extended my ticket once. I couldn’t extend it again. I hadn’t intended to relocate to Kuwait. But I’d sold my house in Pennsylvania. I was returning to a minivan and a storage locker,” Yusif intimates.
Life came full circle for Yusif when he returned to Harrisburg. Retracing the route he’d previously taken in 2008, he made another cross-country trek to Seattle.
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“Seattle has always felt like home to me. But so has Kuwait. It’s something I’m figuring out.” That summer, Yusif lived in his van. He recalls, “I had this idea to camp in the van in the city. I was free to do it. It’s actually pretty liberating being mobile. The hardest thing to figure out was: ‘Where do I pee in the morning?’ I almost pooped my pants a couple times trying to get to a public toilet. I had a gym membership, but that was blocks away. Finally I decided: let’s try Kuwait. Let’s see if that feels like home. Because this sure doesn’t.”
In late 2016 the artist sold his van and moved to Kuwait, where he began teaching music and English at a music college. In 2017 he got married. Although his material troubles had ended, the struggles with his father and his sense of cultural discontinuity and displacement continued.
Yusif’s father disapproved of the marriage initially: “In Kuwaiti culture, marriage is a familial thing. Traditionally, I should ask my dad to speak to her dad. Then they pow-wow, bargain on a dowry price. It’s sort of like horse-trading.”
“My wife has a Filipino mother. In Kuwait, Filipinos, Indians, and other Asians are looked down upon. Kuwaiti women who marry non-Kuwaiti men lose everything financially. Their children are half-citizens. My wife’s dad is Kuwaiti, but my dad still wouldn't accept her, because her mom is Filipino.”
His wife’s status as a Shia Muslim of Iranian heritage was also a source of familial conflict, given that Yusif’s family is of Sunni Muslim origin. His family was absent at both the civil ceremony as well as the wedding party.
“My dad has come around recently, though, with the birth of our son. Life is getting better,” he admits. In 2018 the couple welcomed their first child, son Ryan. Through it all, Yusif has emerged the consummate family man.
“I just want the best for my son. Now I know what’s important in life. I don’t care if he speaks English, Arabic, Tagalog, Farsi, or none of the above. It doesn’t matter. I want him to know he doesn’t have to face his demons alone. That I’ll be there to face them with him. I want him to know where home is: wherever I am.”