Ashley Chin, also known as Muslim Belal, is a well-established performer, actor and film director who is known by Muslims worldwide for his journey to Islam which he shares with the youth through inspirational talks.
Ashley sat down with Halimat Shode from TBMT-UK to talk about his path from street life to practicing Islam, and the many lessons learned along the way.
Salam Alaikum brother, thanks so much for sitting down with me. Can you tell our audience a bit about yourself?
My birth name is Ashley Chin. My parents are Caribbean; my Grandad’s mixed with Chinese, that’s where the Chin comes from.
I converted to Islam at 19 years old and was given the name Belal. They must have seen I was a black boy and thought that Belal would be a good name to give to me!
I also chose the name Muslim on the day because I found it nice and thought it was nice to have it available on the day. So I put the two together and called myself Muslim Belal.
I have a career history in music, films, poetry, charity work and youth work.
Your career is very multi-faceted; was that something that naturally occurred or did you feel like it was something you needed to do to evolve and stay relevant and strong as an artist?
To be honest, I had no ambition, no passion and no desire to stay strong as an artist. Before becoming Muslim, I was achieving a lot of things but I wasn’t finding that much happiness and contentment. I found peace in the religion which is why I converted. I thought it would make my life more peaceful; living in a country where no one sees you, knows you and you can just chill, pray and remember God. It definitely wasn’t about getting on stages and being some celebrity in the Muslim world; that’s not what I was trying to be.
I was asked to perform a poem about my story to Islam. I didn’t want that position or platform but because it was my local Imam, I said yes and it was an okay experience. Due to doing something I was talented at, I got asked to do it again and again – like a Domino effect.
One performance I did was posted on YouTube and from that I was asked to perform at various venues. To this day it has always happened like that; I have never done it for myself.
Have you ever wanted to stop performing?
Religion and stardom for me don’t mix. When you come into the religion, it’s about modesty, humility. The meaning of “Muslim” is “Slave of Allah”, so how can the two be on the same level?
I wanted to stop at one point as I was getting too popular – a girl asked me to autograph her arm and that was my turning point.
But my teacher said to me “You’ve won the hearts and ears of so many youngsters. I don’t think you should neglect them, just know your message.”
So I continued.
If people weren’t asking you to perform, what do you think you would be doing now?
I think it’s guided by Allah, because I didn’t know what I would do. Most of the things I was doing to earn money weren’t permissible. The ways that I knew to earn money that weren’t criminal activities were putting me in the limelight – like making films.
I no longer wanted to be in the limelight and also didn’t want to do any criminal activities. So I went to Egypt and said to myself, “Let me focus on Allah” and let Him guide my daily affairs.
This led to me getting paid for my performances, and then getting booked all over the world – from Australia to Malaysia to Pakistan.
I ask Allah if it’s good for me, to keep it, and if not, to take it away.
You have a strong youth fan base and you also do youth work; do you see yourself as a role model for young people or do you feel like it’s a label that has been put onto you?
It’s definitely a label that’s been put onto me. I can’t be a role model because you don’t choose to be one. People make you role models, so I can’t say that I am one. I’m just doing me and being honest. What you see is what you get.
If youngsters that come from my troubled background, people with no hope, no education, from rough areas, involved in crime, can look at me and see me as an example, travelling the world and producing films coming from the same place as them; if they want to take it as inspiration, all praise to God. But I don’t classify myself as a role model.
So professionally, you started off acting, then you went into filmmaking. What inspired you to go into it?
I was broke on a council estate in South London and there were advertisements for a film in Angel Town, Brixton about eight young black kids who were unruly in a children’s home and hard to handle. They wanted to be authentic and give the kids in the local area a chance in to audition for the eight roles. At the time there was nothing like this. This was not the days of Kidulthood, YouTube or So Solid Crew; this was 1998 and nothing like this existed. The only things we saw on television was a show called Desmonds and The Real McCoy.
There were over 1000 kids there for the audition. From a young age, I’ve entertained people and so in that moment I rose to the occasion. They kept calling me back until I was one of the eight to get picked. From there, I went on to do many more films.
After doing quite a few of these films, I felt like there wasn’t any depth to these characters. I wanted to show what can go on inside the mind of a criminal.
This led me to make a film called Victim, which is about a criminal who is a victim of his upbringing and circumstances. I wanted to give the audience an insight into his life. Seeing that there are better stories that need to be told inspired me to write and produce films.
Are there any obstacles that you have faced as a filmmaker?
I didn’t face any obstacles because that’s my mind-set. I’m not the type to wait around to get knocked back by film studios, so my first film was written in a way that could be self-funded. Following that was a film screening in which we invited down the press, bloggers, radio hosts, presenters and distributors.
When they finished watching it, the distributors asked who was distributing the film. We took the best offer for distribution and within a few months it was out in the cinema, posters were up in Oxford Street and everyone was thinking “How did you do that? You’re from the hood.”
But I’m a hustler, how am I going to not know how to hustle this?
Then it was sold to Sky, various airlines and Netflix. I knew once I did that, people would ask when the next film is out, because I showed them what I could do.
You have to work first and then they’ll want to work with you.
What happens is that people have an idea that they’re trying to get out and they act as if they can’t do it without someone helping them. When they don’t receive that help, they call it hurdles and obstacles. When the reality is you’re expecting too much from people.
You have recently founded ABC Life, a global youth charity dedicated to youth across the world facilitating their development in various areas of their lives; what was the process in establishing it?
Whilst I was speaking at a conference in Malaysia, a man approached me and told me that he lived in a village an hour and a half away from the venue. He had schoolkids that would benefit from me talking to them but didn’t have the money to pay me. I told him it’s cool, that I have a couple of free days and I’ll come down to the school.
There were about 50 kids. It was an intimate gathering in which I spoke to them, and the impact it had on them was amazing. Leaving that poor little village in Malaysia, I thought to myself that it was the best part of my trip. That was a deeper experience for me than the thousands I spoke to at the conference.
I thought to myself how those people in the village would never have been able to afford to bring anyone, only the big establishments. But I wanted to do the work for the people that needed it most, so that’s when I started the ABC brand so that I could get external funding and I could choose where I go to work.
Then a good friend of mine, Abu Bakr Islam, wanted to do a similar project called ‘Spot’ in Gambia where he’s from. So we collaborated, his brand Roadside2Islam and my brand ABC Life to create the organisation.
The first step was to going to Gambia together to assess the situation. We thought that rather than donating to orphanages and charities where we wouldn’t see where the money goes, we would buy our own land and at least we know what we’re doing.
After only setting up last year, the mosque is nearly complete, the orphanage will be built soon and the school is currently being built only with raising a little over £100,000.
Do you have projects that you’re currently working on?
I’ve nearly finished writing my first book which will be published, and then turned into a film.
After completing the orphanage in Gambia, I’ll just be living and enjoying a simple life.