Malaysian Musician Yuna On Overcoming Prejudice And Stereotypes To Make An Impact
It was 2009 when 23-year-old law student Yunalis Mat Zara’ai—now better known as Yuna—knew that she had to face the music. She needed to come clean to her parents that not only was she, in the singer-songwriter’s own words, “jamming with the boys”, but she also had a substantial following on her MySpace with her own music, and had been performing her songs live over the past six months.
She grins when she recalls the moment she spilled the beans. After telling her parents that she was doing gigs in the local indie scene, the first thing her father had asked her was, “What’s a gig?”
Deciding there and then that she’d show them, Yuna invited her parents to watch her perform at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac). “They were so surprised,” says Yuna. “I remember my dad asking me things like, ‘You wrote these songs? Without help? With the guitar that you just bought over a year ago?’ And I had to keep telling him that, yes, those were actually songs I wrote myself and no, they weren’t cover songs!”
Originally, being a musician was never on the cards for Yuna, who had intended to follow in her father’s footsteps after graduating—Yuna's father is a former legal advisor and a judicial commissioner in high court. But that one night performing in front of her parents set ablaze what initially began as a quiet passion for music.
“I was a fish out of water when I first started out in the local indie scene. I didn’t know what to do, who to talk to or where to go, but I lucked out when I found people who believed in me and my music. Early on, my mum and I would drive all over KL to go to all these auditions, like any talent competitions we could find in malls."
“Then, when I started my own band, I asked my bandmates if they were cool with performing with a tudung girl [a Malay word referring to her headscarf], because at the time there wasn’t anyone in the scene that looked like me. So it was a weird thing people fixated on. But all they said was, ‘Look, you make amazing music and we’re happy to be here. These songs are awesome!’”
As an Asian artist, you know you have to work twice as hard when you’re a minority in an entertainment industry that’s not your home-base, more so in the US
A year later, Yuna had two EPs under her name and had established her own independent label, Yuna Room Records, alongside her manager Cheq Wawa. She was determined to carve out a space for herself after having one too many labels refusing to sign her in unless she removed her hijab or sang Malay songs exclusively. Despite debuting with a bang by winning four major honours at the Anugerah Industri Muzik, the biggest music awards ceremony in Malaysia, including Best New Artiste and Best Local English Song for Deeper Conversation, Yuna admitted to feeling stifled, saying she had reached as far as the “ceiling” went in Malaysia, and that the people in charge of said ceiling weren’t letting her break it.
“It’s the same old song and dance that applies to almost every other woman in any kind of industry,” she says. “I was scared to speak up at the time because I was so young, and when you’re a young woman in the music industry who’s pretty good at what you do, there’s bound to be people who aren’t too happy about that.”
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When asked about how she spent the first half of the decade in the US after getting signed to one of its bigger labels, Yuna gives a wry smile. “You know, it’s funny. Just two days ago my husband, Adam (a filmmaker who had directed some of her music videos), asked me something similar,” she says. “Three years into our marriage and he asks, ‘How did you do it? What was going through your mind when you took the leap to fly to the States?’”
“I told him that I wasn’t thinking,” she laughs. “I just knew this was something I needed to do. I needed to try it out at least, and even if there was going to be a bad outcome, so what? I had nothing to lose at that point. I mean, of course there was bound to be pressure from all sides, especially when you consider the fact that I was this 20-something Muslim girl from Southeast Asia who wore the hijab. And Hollywood has a pretty mean streak too—I remember asking around about visas, or even just pointers, but nothing turned out, even from the Malaysians who resided there. It sucked, and I didn’t want to be like that.”
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Today, after achieving a lot of success in the field—collaborating with musicians such as Pharrell Williams—the musician finds herself coming full circle, having officially re-opened the doors to her own label last year, 11 years since its inception.
Wanting to cultivate homegrown talent, Yuna is now backing two artists who have signed to her label. She hopes that her own experience will play a part in changing the mindsets of younger Malaysians who don’t think they have a chance of pursuing a career in music elsewhere.
“We have a surplus of talent in Malaysia that sound amazing but aren’t able to grow, even back home,” she says. “And as an Asian artist, you know you have to work twice as hard when you’re a minority in an entertainment industry that’s not your home-base, more so in the US. I know from personal experience that it’s definitely frustrating when you’re stonewalled at every turn, so I try my best to help the Southeast Asian creatives who need a friend to talk to when they’re in the States. Now that I actually have a voice, platforms like Yuna Room Records or even social media allow me to reach out to people, whether it’s to educate or inform them.
“So for me, the challenge right now is how I can contribute more, back home and out there, you know? Change is coming, and people are excited about the Asian music scene right now—I want to be a part of that shift.”
See more honourees in the Entertainment category of the Gen.T List.