Growing up, Yuna the honey-voiced songstress had few role models in music. “I couldn’t relate to those American girls with blue eyes because I don’t have blue eyes,” she says. But the lack of a blueprint gave her the freedom to do her own thing and let her use her creativity to build a unique career far beyond the boundaries of Kedah, her home town in Malaysia. Yuna began writing songs at the age of 14 and hit it big on MySpace, leading to a recording deal, making music with Pharrell Williams, nominations for MTV Iggy awards, rave reviews by music critics and even by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. While in Hong Kong for Clockenflap and the intimate Mo Bar Unplugged concert at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel, Yuna chatted with #legend about her unconventional rise to stardom, her reaction to being a fashion icon and standing up for her faith.
Did you have anyone that you looked up to when you were younger?
I think, Jennifer Lopez. She is such a sexy person. The reason why I felt like I could relate to this person is because we have the same skin colour. She’s tanned and I’m tanned. I couldn’t relate to those American girls with blue eyes because I don’t have blue eyes and I would look at Jennifer Lopez and just be, like, oh my gosh, I love her. She sings, she dances, she acts, she tries a little bit of everything. And she looks so good.
You worked with Usher on your single Crush. What was that experience like?
It was awesome because I’ve been a fan of his since I was a girl. I grew up listening to his music and I think he’s so talented. He’s been in the music industry for so long and he’s still out there performing, staying relevant. How does he do it? Making music was just one part of it, but there’s a bigger thing surrounding it: the friendship.
Did you ask him, “How do you do it?”
You can just see it in the way he works. You just learn that from his work ethic. He’s at the top of his game. Growing up, I never heard anything bad about him. He’s always been a clean slate.
You are a style icon noted for your more conservative fashions.
It’s great because it changes mindsets. For example, in the Western world, people think that women who cover up are oppressed and they’re, like, “Why are you doing this? It’s okay, wear the bikini.” But for me, I’m like, “Why are all these people telling girls what to wear? Girls should be comfortable [enough] not to [have to] live up to other people’s standards in how they should be”. I just do my own thing. I guess it’s important to show that to the younger girls, because they think, “If I was a singer, I’d have to be this sex symbol”. But they look at me and see it doesn’t have to be that way. They can just do music. When I see Adele, I see her as just this confident person who doesn’t have to do anything. Her concerts are just of her standing and singing – that’s it. And people go crazy.
A big reason for your conservative dressing is because of your faith. How does that influence your public persona?
You have to be responsible for something. A lot of people feel like having absolute freedom as the thing. But so what? It’s nice to have something to hold onto as part of your identity. I feel very comfortable saying no to certain things. It sets you apart from other people and, with me, I’m very open about it because I wear the headscarf. I don’t want to run away from it. I’m a Muslim girl and I sing. I embraced modesty when I was 20 and the same year I discovered I could write music. I love both. So I just decided to do both. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I think this is me, and I think people are getting it now. It’s not an easy path, but it’s mine and that means more than anything else.
What made Chapters different from your previous music?
Being in Los Angeles for a while helped me create the album. When I was first starting out, there were two sides to my album: the folksy Yuna and the urban pop Yuna. For this album, we decided, let’s just take this urban contemporary thing and just roll with it. It’s a fun album, it’s new and something I’ve never done before. I’m really proud of it.
Any words of advice to other young girls out there who hear your music and want to grow up into an artist?
Don’t sacrifice your identity for the entertainment industry. I feel, like, you see that a lot. A lot of the social media now are teaching girls to be very insecure about themselves. And, to me, if you want to get into the entertainment industry, just focus on your craft and don’t worry about your image. Don’t forgo everything that is special about you for fame. Hang on to your values, your dignity, your family and your identity. Those are the things that will be with you forever.