Cover Yuna wears outfit by Innai Red and jewellery by Bulgari

The award-winning singer-songwriter's musical journey proves that taking a chance on one’s self and going all in is all you need to realise a faraway dream

It was 2009 when 23-year-old law student Yunalis Mat Zara’ai—who is more famously known as Yuna today—knew that she had to face the music eventually: 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 at the time with her own music, and was 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!”

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Contrary to what some may think, however, being a musician was never in the cards for Yuna, who had fully intended to follow in her father’s footsteps after graduating, as the man himself was once a former legal advisor and a judicial commissioner in high court—but after that one night at KLPac, it only seemed to 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 mom and I would drive all over KL to go to all these auditions, like any talent competitions we could find in malls. My dad, who’s a fan of rock ‘n’ roll and plays the guitar—which, by the way,” gesturing suddenly towards the four guitars that were proudly displayed behind her, “that black one you see? The one without strings? That’s my dad’s. He’s had it ever since I was a baby.

“Then, when I started my own band, I asked my bandmates if they were cool with performing with a tudung girl, 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!’”

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Fast forward a year later, not only does Yuna have two EPs under her name but she also 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. Even after debuting with a bang by acquiring four major honours at the Anugerah Industri Muzik (the biggest music awards ceremony in Malaysia) for Best New Artiste and Best Local English Song for Deeper Conversation, Yuna admitted to feeling stifled as she felt as though 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. So, if you can’t beat them or join them, the musician surmised, you make your own team.

“It’s the same old song and dance that applies to almost every other woman in any kind of industry,” she muses. “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 on to one of its bigger labels, Yuna gives a wry smile. “You know, it’s funny, just two days ago my husband, Adam (a local 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.”

Between juggling odd jobs and doing countless shows to continue her musical career in the States, Yuna was relentless in her creative pursuit, becoming the chart-topping powerhouse that she is today, and has worked with internationally acclaimed artistes such as Pharrell Williams, G-Eazy, Tyler, The Creator, Little Simz and Pink Sweat$.

Today, the musician finds herself coming full circle, having officially re-opened the doors to her own label last year, 11 years since its inception and 113 songs to her name, including the ones she’d written at 14 years old. Being grounded for the past year-and-a-half hasn’t stopped her from creating music either; wanting to further cultivate homegrown talent as well as her own, Yuna decided to groom two artistes that have signed under her label and hopes that her own experience will play a part in changing the mindsets of younger Malaysians who don’t think they have a chance at 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 artiste, 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 too.”

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  • PhotographyEric Chow
  • StylingColin Sim
  • Make-UpCat Yong
  • JewelleryBulgari