When Usama Syed was young, he asked that God grant him the ability to make a difference in people's lives. "I don't know what skill I'll have, or what talent, but just give me something that can help," he prayed.
As open-ended as his request was, Usama didn't anticipate the God-given talent he'd receive would be music. Nonetheless, since 2016 he's quickly become a popular musician, whose faith-based work has been streamed 30 million times and resonated deeply with music fans and those who share his Muslim faith.
Performing and releasing music under the stage name Siedd, his YouTube channel has 149,000 subscribers and his music videos have accumulated millions of views – including his biggest hit, "Back to You," with 6.7 million alone. On Spotify, he has 55,000 listeners who enjoy his music, including his debut album Journey, which was released in January 2021.
Looking back at his rapid success – and a life spread across Pakistan, Mississauga, and Thunder Bay – he still can't quite believe this is where he's landed. "I definitely never imagined it," Usama says.
The Making of a Musician
As a child, Usama was an unlikely candidate to be a musician one day. Growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, after moving there from Pakistan, he was shy and prone to drifting off in his own world. Finding a sense of belonging, a purpose, wasn't always easy for him. It became more difficult when in 2008, at the age of 14, his family followed his Lakehead University bound brother to Thunder Bay.
"For any 14 year old, it's like you're leaving everything," Usama says.
The comfort of friends, memories, and extended family were all left behind, and Usama would need something to anchor himself again. He found it in music. It began with a habit of singing offhandedly to himself while walking home from school but blossomed into enough of an interest that he longed for a guitar.
No one in the family was musically inclined, or fully understood where Usama's interest had come from, but his oldest brother decided to kindle his budding passion and bought Usama a guitar.
Usama wasted no time. He devoured music theory and fundamentals. He deconstructed the songwriting of famous musicians – Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran – to reverse engineer how they worked. He strengthened his singing voice with vocal training courses online. When he discovered the digital audio software FL Studio, he applied everything he was learning to create his own music.
In high school, he would often come home, have dinner, then record, mix, and master songs until midnight.
All you would hear is beats upstairs, recalls his brother, Abdullah Syed.
Usama made music mostly for himself, but there was sometimes foreshadowing of how he would use it to affect others. Once, Abdullah recalls the family having an argument. Usama recorded it, went to his room to make a remix out of it, then came back and played it for his family.
"Everybody was angry, but once they listened to it, everybody was laughing," Abdullah says.
Pushed by invested music teachers, Usama began performing, tentatively emerging from his shell, getting past nerves and hesitancy, and sharing his music with the world. He joined a choir. He sang Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" at family and friends' concerts. He entered Thunder Bay's High School Idol competition, making it to the finals with songs like Bruno Mars' "Talking to the Moon."
While his confidence and talent grew, Usama didn't see music as much of a career option.
"It was just one of those dreams that you have," he says.
Instead, he knew his family expected him to choose one of three paths – doctor, lawyer, engineer. He enrolled in Lakehead University to become an engineer.
A Life at the Crossroads
Although Usama meant to maintain music as a hobby, he was still curious to see what releasing his music would be like. In 2016, at the age of 21, he quietly posted some of his music on Instagram. Nervous, he didn't tell any friends.
"People know you in a certain way, but they don't know these other aspects of your personality," he says. "I was a bit afraid."
Praise began coming in as the music seemed to connect with people from all over the world, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom. He then decided to post his music on YouTube. At first, viewership was small in number – roughly 30 views a month – but huge in its effect on Usama.
"That was very big for me, because I thought, 'Wow, there's five people that love my song.'"
Momentum began to build with performances at his mosque, weddings, and concerts at local art museums and cultural halls. He continued posting roughly five videos a year on YouTube, growing his online following – especially among those who share his
devotion to Islam.
If there's a single thread that runs through everything, it's faith, Usama says.
Faith is, partly, what drove him to music. He wanted to create religious music he wished he had when he was young. In Islam, music takes many forms. Instruments are often avoided, and music takes the form of singing hymns acapella. For someone like Usama, growing up in Western culture with Ne-Yo and Bruno Mars, traditional Islamic music could feel inaccessible.
"We didn't have many options in the faith world of music that we could relate to," he says.
Among his early works are cover songs – like Shawn Mendes' "Mercy" or Coldplay and The Chainsmokers' "Someone Just Like This" – with changed lyrics to reflect on God's influence on love and failure. Subsequent songs also get to the profound roots of the good and the bad of being alive.
"Everybody feels broken at times. Everybody has felt loss. Everybody has felt happiness to some degree. All of these things are those human emotions everybody can relate to," Usama says.
As his brother, Abdullah, succinctly describes Usama's music: "It's not about just the world or your desires. It also should be about your soul itself."
A Powerful Voice
Usama considers the creation of his music as thoughtfully as he does its message. In order to reach even those for whom songs made with instruments are prohibited, all his music is made by digitally mixing vocalizations and hand claps. He starts his process first with lyrics – drawn from lines saved in hundreds of Google Doc pages – and a rough acapella beat.
Then he creates sounds by recording himself beatboxing or clapping, then turns those sounds into beats. After that, a time-consuming production process begins as he layers his self-created sounds into what will become a song's background music. One song can take up to eight weeks of 12-hour days, much of it like a highly technical puzzle.
The engineering degree he earned at Lakehead in 2019 comes in unexpectedly handy then.
"Engineering turned me into a good problem solver," Usama says. "In engineering, when you were given a problem to solve, you try one way and it doesn't work. So, you use another equation, and it doesn't work either. But you keep doing it."
The amount of time spent producing his music, as well as his increasing financial success, led to a critical moment. Should he do music full time? He discussed it with his family and asked, "Do you think I'm making a dumb decision?"
They didn't, and he began quickly approaching music as not just a passion, but a career. "If I do want to do this full time, I have to think about the business side as well," Usama says. "You have to be able to sustain your living."
He created Makkah Records, a record label and content creation company that will broaden his revenue streams by offering acapella content for companies, organizations, and charities. He hasn't lost sight, however, of giving to others. He'll use Makkah Records to help other artists, like him, who can sing but don't know how to produce their own work.
After using lockdowns in 2020 to finish his first album, Journey, he's working on new material he hopes will continue to connect with old and new fans alike. He even aspires to create material that will reach a more universal audience, while still being anchored in the roots of his beliefs.
"For me, faith-based music is any music that aligns with my values as a Muslim," he says.
He's already seen how his values can resonate deeply with his fans. Users on YouTube have told him his songs changed their lives. Touring in Australia or the United Kingdom, he's seen people ranging from 13-year-olds to 60-year-olds with tears in their eyes as they sing along during a concert.
"That was the biggest eye-opener for me. How could something I wrote all alone in Thunder Bay, as a 20-year-old student, be affecting this person?" he wonders, perhaps forgetting what he prayed for all those years ago.