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 Shila, 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 artistes 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, Shila 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 musician Yuna and journalist Noor Tagouri move into the spotlight.