Interview: YUNA, Malaysian Singer-Songwriter

By Siddiq Ather

yunaAn artist whose sound has been likened to a clash between Mary Poppins and Coldplay, Yunalis Zarai, known to many by the name YUNA, is a Muslim artist from Malaysia who has become a rising star, gaining monumental acclaim, winning awards for Best Song and Best Musical Artist in Malaysia. She has begun touring and performing in the United States, singing songs in English and Malaysian, whilst sporting a stellar hijab (tudung) style at each occasion. Yuna started out as a local internet sensation and has now reached the level of international recognition.

1. Can you describe the community you grew up in?

I grew up mostly in Subang Jaya, it’s a small urban area in the Klang Valley (which is close to Kuala Lumpur city). I grew up being around a lot of Malays, Chinese, and Indian friends. It’s just like any other normal urban town; kids would go to malls, be “fashionable”, and watch movies, so I grew up as a normal kid. I have a conservative Malay Muslim family and I went to religious classes as a kid: reciting the Quran, learning how to pray, and the basics about Islam. At the same my family was pretty open to other things as long as they were not detrimental to our beliefs.

2. What inspired you to pursue your passion of singing, and what drives you to continue?

I’ve always been a fan of music, and my parents grew up being involved in music; my dad used to be in a band and my mom sings a little bit. I grew up listening to music that my dad would put on the radio; we would sing together.

3. How has your experience being one of the few hijab-wearing Muslim artists out there been?

It’s been amazing. I never thought in a million years I would be where I am now, pursuing music has always been my dream. When I was 13, I dreamt of playing the guitar and writing my own music. When I was 19, and I actually could, I dreamt of being able to play my music on the local radio. At 21, when I finally did, I dreamt of going to the States and pursuing my musical career – at 24, I played my first American show at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2010, in Austin, Texas. And the beautiful thing about it all is, I did all that with just being myself (of course, I experimented with my hijab fashion, another passion of mine!) but Alhamdulillah, it’s amazing how I have the best job in world right now -making people happy with my music.

4. How has touring internationally adjusted your perspective on Islam and the variety Muslims?

It’s an amazing experience, obviously. I never really put much thought into it when I’m performing. I’m not that kind of person who is over-analytical and becomes paranoid about everything -especially after 9/11, it’s kind of tricky to get people to see the real you as a musician. But, it’s also tricky when facing Muslims, in Malaysia, where 70% of the people there are Malay Muslims, what I’m doing, in the early stages where I was just about to come out with my music, was pretty shocking; I’ve gotten a lot of different views from people, some negative and some positive. But Alhamdulillah, all of that has taught me more about my own religion, and what I want to do with my life.

5. How do you feel the Muslim community in Malaysia varies with the Muslim community in the states?

There’s not much of a difference. I was around the Muslim community in the states and it felt just like home.

6. Was there ever any tension between your faith and your profession as a musical artist?

Never. I’ve found peace and balance in both aspects. Being an artist does not stop me from practicing my faith. I don’t like to see it as something “difficult”. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

7. What is one of your favorite quotations, by whom, and why?

I have one that I really like but it’s from a book. “ ‘If you believe’, he shouted to them, ‘clap your hands; don’t let Tink die. Some clapped. Some didn’t. A few little beasts hissed. The clapping stopped suddenly….but already Tink was saved… “- Peter Pan by JM Barrie. I fell in love with this quote after I read it. It shows that if you believe in something – anything – it will come to live, it will be a part of you forever.

2011_02_19_Yuna03-18. When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up, and as time passed, how did you actually find the career you wanted to pursue?

I always thought I was going to be a lawyer ever since I was a kid. I went to Law school. My whole life I was shaped into getting into the profession, but then, in my final semester I failed one subject and had to repeat a whole semester doing just one subject. As a result, I had a lot of free time, I had sort of gotten myself into the local music industry already, and things were going well for me!  My parents were very supportive, so I decided to carry on with it. I graduated by the way. So it’s all good. School is cool, kids!!

9. What is IAMJETFUEL, and what do you think about the feasibility of a fusion between the worlds of Islam and Fashion?

IAMJETFUEL Shop is an independent boutique I started last year because I had a lot of people asking where I got my clothes from. Many of my fans in Malaysia were actually looking for the jackets, scarves, shirts that I was wearing. It was a fun project for me. I love it! Personally, when it comes to Islam and Fashion, it is feasible especially when it comes to covered/modest fashion. I mean, of course it’s appropriate because, as normal human beings, I think everybody wants to look presentable, to look good- no matter what religion, or race.

10. What is your album called, what is it about, and when does it come out?

My EP will be out on March 15 2011; it’s called Decorate. One of the songs in the EP is called Decorate, and it’s one of my favourites, so I didn’t think that long to pick a title for the EP. My EP is a mixture of what I used to be, and what I am now, so there’s a nice balance to it. You would know what Yuna was all about 5 years ago, and what Yuna is today.


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