How Hijabi Pop Star Shila Amzah Broke China
Occasionally someone enters the public eye who breaks every stereotype going. Gen.T honouree Shila Amzah is one of them. The multi-lingual Malay pop-star wears a hijab, speaks fluent Mandarin and has beaten all odds to become one of the most successful female pop-stars in China.
Today, she has over 2.4 million Weibo followers and can sing in 10 languages—but a decade ago, international agents were sceptical of her reach. Reality television has been a friend to Amzah, whose full name is NurShahila binti Amir Amzah. Her extraordinary life in the spotlight began when she was just 10 years old, when she took second prize in the Bintang Kecil talent show in Malaysia.
This was followed by similar success on the beloved One in a Million show, once she hit her teens. By then she had the singing (and the winning) bug. By 2013, aged just 23, she had scooped up prizes in numerous awards shows including Asian Wave and I Am A Singer.
What’s the secret to her success? Partly that she can straddle international borders and opposing cultures, thanks to her talent for singing in English, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Tamil, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Italian. But mostly it’s her voice, which is cool, clear and powerful—hitting every note with ease and making any listener feel the emotion in her words.
Her success in China has become legendary within the music industry. It is a country that is often difficult for foreign artists to break into, particularly veiled, Muslim women, who only learned Mandarin as an adult.
“I won’t say I am successful at all, but I do feel I have been very fortunate to be accepted by the Chinese audience in a big way,” she says, almost too modestly. “I mean not just being accepted as a singer, but also accepting me as who I am, the way I dress, my religious beliefs, and my identity. I always believed that music can unify the world and I really feel it’s true whenever I perform in China—there is a strange energy that takes me to another level and allows me to showcase myself and my feelings in a spiritual way via my songs.”
As one of a small number of internationally recognised hijabi pop-stars, Amzah is paving the way for Muslim women who have often been marginalised in the entertainment industry. But the group is growing, as Muslim fashion starts dominating the luxury world and stars such as Yuna and Noor Tagouri, who both wear the veil, move into the spotlight.
“I think most people would think wearing a hijab would affect my career and make it inflexible,” says Amzah. “This is true in a sense, but it would be more relevant if I was shooting a movie and playing a woman who doesn’t wear the hijab. However in music I don’t think it impacts me at all, and if it does, it has probably helped me become an icon. Being referred to as ‘the singer who wears the hijab and speaks Mandarin’ is a good way to get people to learn your name and listen to your music.”
Amzah has been such an important representative for Malaysia abroad that she has recently been asked to become an official ambassador for the country. And as a signifier of her national treasure status at home, she has also been asked to do the voice-over of Princess Jasmine in the Malay version of Aladdin. Given her two biggest fan bases are in Malaysia and China, she understandably spends a lot of her time shuttling between the two. But does she find a marked difference in how she is received in both countries?
“Oh yes, they are very different indeed,” she says with a laugh. “Malaysian fans are usually quiet but supportive of me in a discreet way: not expressing their passion too much in public, but messaging me in private instead. Chinese fans however are a lot more proactive in expressing their feelings and approach me in public to have a chat, and of course take a couple of selfies, which I enjoy too.”
I always had a belief that music can unify the world and I really feel it’s true whenever I perform in China—there is a strange energy that takes me to another level and allows me to showcase myself and my feelings in a spiritual way via my songs
— Shila Amzah
In 2015, she relocated to Hong Kong, partly because it made sense geographically and partly because it was easy for her entourage to navigate as English speakers. “I love it there,” she says. “There are limited Halal restaurants in Hong Kong, so I cooked a lot and the wet markets are so nice: I found lots of ingredients I thought would be tricky to get out of Malaysia. Hong Kong is a great inspiration for my music, and I worked with remarkable musicians and producers out there, such as the legendary drummer and music producer Jun Kung, and talented singer Khalil Fong, both of whom wrote a song for me that won a handful of awards in China.”
One of Amzah’s most notable qualities is how modest she is the face of her overwhelming international success. This is a woman who has sung for President Xi Jinping and who won best female artist at the China Pioneer Awards and the Metro Mandarin Hits awards for the song Goodbye Not Goodbye—the piece of music she is referencing above. Temporarily living in London with her husband, Malaysian financier Haris Idraki Elias, and their new baby, she also seems content with briefly stepping back from the spotlight.
“The most important thing my dad ever taught me was to be a diva on stage for sure, but that off-stage we are all equal and that I must be humble," she says. "I really took that on board and made it my life motto.”