Picture this: it’s 2016. I’m scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard at 2AM on a school night, as usual. Among the photos of inspirational quotes, white models and stylised flowers appears a GIF of Usher with a hijabi. Intrigued, I paused and hit the video link, only to see a woman in a turban taking the lead on the song. The R&B icon was only ‘featuring’. My jaw dropped.
Her name was Yuna.
I had never seen a Muslim woman artist that was the lead, ever. Not in movies, not in books, and certainly not in music. The industry was still adjusting to new female rappers. I hadn’t felt a sense of enlightenment in discovering Muslim representation since Janet Jackson’s apparent conversion to Islam was smeared all over headlines earlier that year. I immediately followed Yuna and deep-dived into a melodic journey as she dropped her album Chapters a few months later.
Crush by Yuna featuring Usher immediately became my anthem as I dealt with the heavy transition into my freshman year of college. It was around that time that new artists began to emerge as mainstream media took a shift in becoming more inclusive.
Yuna had already established herself in her home country of Malaysia after writing hit EPs in the early 2010s. As she grew in popularity, she went further by signing to major record labels in the US, allowing her to reach international audiences. Most musicians will tell you that their dreams are to dominate the industry and fall into the glamorous world of pop. Yuna, on the other hand, just wants the world to truly recognize her talent.
Making it onto Billboard’s Top 10 R&B Albums in 2016, among many other achievements, Yuna is more than just the token hijabi in the music industry. Since representation is crucial in deconstructing societal norms, oftentimes Muslim creatives are pigeonholed into being “groundbreakers”, Muslims that dismantle stereotypes and set new standards. However for Yuna, she is more than a category. Her talents exceed her identity as a “Muslim singer.”
By daring to exist outside of the mold, she reflects an authenticity that is evident in her work, and takes on a new meaning of representation. Being an icon in Malaysia while working with high profile artists like Jhené Aiko, Tyler, the Creator and G-Eazy – she embodies versatility and brings a fresh voice to the scene.
After recently leaving Los Angeles, Yuna began to shed her skin, leaving her record label behind and going independent. Her latest single “Stay Where You Are” is the first release since her album Rogue dropped last year.
The music video was shot entirely on an iPhone 11 during quarantine at Yuna’s home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and also features some of her fans’ submissions; friends like the musicians MadeinTYO and Jay Park, and Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad make special appearances throughout.
Although stationed in Malaysia, Yuna stays on the forefront of pushing for social justice – she recently sent proceeds of her music video to NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, in an effort to help against racial injustices in the United States.
Muslim sat down with Yuna for an exclusive interview after leaving her record label, going independent, and moving back to Malaysia with her family. We discussed her relationship with identity, her experiences in the music industry and what it means for her to give something back.
You recently broke out of your contract and became fully independent, congratulations! How is that, do you feel free? What led to this decision?
YUNA: You know, like, it’s actually a really good thing when you get signed to a record label, it means you’re doing something right. Your music is being heard, and people are actually paying attention to you and giving you the opportunity to make the music and for me, Malaysian Muslim girls sometimes don’t come by like that.
This is an exciting moment for me, I have full control. There’s definitely that feeling of being liberated in a way that you know now you don’t have deadlines, or that you can actually earn a huge portion and it’s yours.
As a woman in the industry – as a Malaysian hijab-wearing Muslim woman – do you find yourself facing particular challenges?
YUNA: Regardless, even if you’re like an amazingly talented pop star and look like Dua Lipa – it is gonna be tough. It was tough in the beginning trying to break away from that stereotype.
Wearing the hijab – I didn’t like the fact that I had a label. I was always the “Muslim singer” and I’m more than that. It’s more than just me being Muslim. I really want you to focus on my music and work. I understand representation is everything these days, but at the same time, you have to recognize the talents and the skills that I’ve worked on. Like, for so long it was really hard to get here.
In the beginning people wanted me to change the way I look, or change the way I think or the things I sing about.
I kept hearing “if you want to be a singer, you got to take off the hijab,” and this is before leaving the country and going to the US. This was like, in my country, in my city. I was told that by people from the label, “Oh, you know, this is how you got to look” – and it’s just ridiculous to me.
You have a huge presence and fanbase in Malaysia. As a Malaysian-Muslim do you find yourself feeling under pressure for having to embody a perfect representation for your community?
YUNA: Oh, yeah! In the beginning, I had to deal with a lot of pressure – Malaysia is so close knit as a community. Everybody knows everybody so people would go to my mother and say, “do you know what your daughter is doing online?”
As I grow older, I realized that you know what, like, nothing I do is going to please everyone. Someone will find something that’s wrong with you, you know? So I decided to not fall into that feeling of being pressured. Especially not being pressured into being someone that I’m not.
You achieved so much with your music, what would you say was your biggest accomplishment?
YUNA: I think my biggest accomplishment is taking that first step going to Los Angeles for myself as a female and that is still my biggest accomplishment. I think, like, it was the first real time that I really felt like, “wow, I made it.” No one knew that I could do it. Not even me.
That was the turning point in my life. I think, like, when I got on that plane, flew out to LA I was a different person, the old Yuna was gone.
I just have to ask – how was it working with big names like G-Eazy and Usher? We have never seen such a prominent Muslim musician able to reach as far as you have within the music industry, how has your experience been?
YUNA: It’s really cool. Every morning I wake up, I know who I am. I’m a Muslim singer-songwriter who works in the music industry. I pray, fast and partake in Ramadan – that’s a part of me. But at the same time when I go into the studio, I meet people who are huge artists or huge producers that people can’t even dream of working with. They’re awesome people and they don’t treat me differently. I don’t treat them differently either. Like I see them as an artist as well. So, when we work together, it’s amazing. I don’t know how I got here, but I feel like this is meant for me. I don’t know how to explain it. So I just take it day by day and be very thankful and grateful for the opportunity.
How has it been being an artist during this pandemic? Were you able to work?
YUNA: Well, I’ve started teaching music classes. My husband [Adam Sinclair] and I started this online learning platform because we were just like, we need to do something local to inspire people who want to be more creative.
During this time when it’s difficult for someone like me to be creative, I think, to give something back, like just do something for other people, really helps. I feel like that’s a better thing to do right now. Of course, I would love to be able to release more music in the future, but I think now that we’re just at home, it’s a really nice thing to be able to teach every weekend. I’m actually like a teacher – I like all the slides and everything! It’s kind of fun.
So you just released your latest hit, “Stay Where You Are” and by the time this feature is out, your music video will be going live – Can you tell us a little bit about it?
This is my first independent release and we didn’t even plan to release the song! I played it on my piano and decided to post that video in March. So I posted that knowing, these are the kinds of things that independent artists can do now. It’s really exciting for me to just play unreleased songs like that randomly.
So I played it and people reacted to it.They connected to it and really loved the song. I told myself, you know what, I think this is something that more people would want to listen to during this time, we should release the song immediately – so that was it. I just felt that it’s a beautiful song and the message of the song – a lot of people can relate to it right now. Not just like staying where you are as in staying at home, but to stay lovely, stay positive.
People are going through some really, really difficult moments in their lives and I just want something uplifting that I can share with the world.
Tell me about this music video! How was the process creating it? – I noticed it involves people from all over the world holding signs that say “Stay Where You Are” – Where did the idea come from?
YUNA: I work with my husband a lot. We would always brainstorm ideas for music videos. He’s a director, he shot a lot of my music videos and for this one, we were just like, I don’t know what to do. It was my manager who said, “Hey, why don’t you get your fans included in this? It could be a song where everyone joins in and you have a lot of fans who would definitely want to be part of it.”
I knew straight away, that was it. It’s also a nice way to celebrate my first indie track and get everyone involved.
What are you working on currently? Do you have any exciting news for our readers?
YUNA: I think now I’m just focusing on releasing singles. I’m currently back home in Malaysia. I’ve been writing, working on projects and staying with my family.
I’ve been traveling and working nonstop before. I haven’t had a proper vacation in 10 years. So this is definitely the rest that I needed, so I’m just gonna see this moment as a blessing.
Do you have any words of wisdom or messages you’d like to share with our young Muslim audience?
Wow, you know, just please be proud of yourself. I think that’s the most important thing. I always try to tell my Malaysian Muslim girls like… I feel as though they’re very timid. They’re very shy. So, I’m always like, “go slowly. If you have a dream, you’re good enough. You can do it and don’t listen to anything that’s trying to pull you down.”
Like, don’t let life pull you down and just be proud of who you are. Be proud of your roots, be proud of your identities.
Sometimes in life, you’re gonna come across people who will make you question your values because of the way you look or the way you do things or what you believe in, what you practice. But no. You know yourself, so just be you. Always believe in yourself. There’s gonna be a lot of people who are going to tell you no – just keep on going.