Yuna is Not Just an Asian Musician
Being an Asian musician is something else.
First of all, let’s try to understand the kind of Asian musician that I am. I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Growing up Malaysian is interesting; my family members were conservative Malay Muslims, but I grew up in a diverse community as a young child. My nanny was a wonderful Indian lady, my best friend was Chinese. Malaysia is a huge melting pot of different races living together and I was right in the middle of it enjoying the mixed culture, food, music and art.
I was also raised as a Malay Muslim by parents who love music — particularly American music. Dad loves playing the guitar and Mom loves singing. At a very early age I was already listening to whatever my dad would listen to, like Roxette or the Scorpions. My cousins and I would sprawl out in front of my grandmother’s black and white TV, eating “ice cream pop” (basically frozen Fanta) and watching Bollywood movies on hot afternoons.
As a kid, my family moved around a lot, so I got to experience both city and small town living. Growing up close to Kuala Lumpur, I was exposed to R&B and the local hip-hop scene, and when we moved to a small town in Perlis, the kids there would listen to old-school ‘90s Malay pop rock and balada music, also known as “rock kapak.” We would often have karaoke sessions at the nearest city singing these songs.
My late grandfather used to sit on the front porch in our village on not-so-quiet evenings (the jungle and everything in it is very loud) and hum traditional Malay melodies or recite the Quran, followed by a call to prayer from a mosque next door to us. To this day, this is all still vividly clear in my mind. Music, in every form, shape and sound, has been a huge part of my life.
Fast forward years later, and I got signed to a major label in the U.S. Coming to the U.S. was a huge step. Applying for an artist visa was fun; I asked a friend about getting an artist visa and he said, “Basically you just have to prove to the U.S. that you are the best in whatever you’re doing in your home country.” By this point, I had already won music awards back in Malaysia, run my own record label, appeared on multiple magazines and TV networks — and I was ready to spread my wings. “OK, this I can do,” I thought. I felt like I had accomplished everything possible in the Malaysian music industry.
But America was a different thing. I thought I could blend in easily, but I couldn’t help feeling like an outsider in this industry. America has a way of doing that to you very easily. Whether I’m ordering coffee or working in a studio with people, I still feel a little out of place once in a while. There are moments, being an Asian musician, I have to admit, I do think of these things — like if I were American, I would have grown up spending time in old record stores going through vinyl and listened to all of Quincy Jones’ records. I could’ve spit some bars. Or maybe if I grew up experiencing winter, I could write the most magical, almost ghoulish songs and be the female version of Sigur Rós.
But I was from a developing country in Southeast Asia. My musical experience was a little different; every kid strives to be a lawyer or a doctor. Music class in school was limited to clapping the castanets and learning how to play “My Heart Will Go On” on the recorder. My way of getting new music was rushing to the radio and hitting the record button on the boombox when an obscure song came on that I wanted to listen to over and over again. In year five (I was 11) the school principal yelled at me in front of the whole school after I gave them my best Hanson performance ever.
Maybe I did feel a little intimidated by the American music industry; for years my biggest struggle has been to find what my brand is. Whenever I do an interview I’m frequently labeled as an “Asian artist” or “Muslim artist.” Yes, I am these things, but I want people to care about the music I make. I refuse to be a gimmick in the music industry.
A local music blog in Malaysia criticized me once saying that my mediocrity is limitless. If I never had the hijab on or if I wasn’t open about being Muslim, I wouldn’t have received the attention or the amount of success that I have today. To them I’m not great, I’m just lucky and often given the chance because “I’m special.” So — even these guys, Pitchfork-wannabe Malaysians — think that I’m a joke. Does America think I’m a joke, too?
I guess in my world there are going be a lot of people who would think you’re just a big joke, and then there are some who will truly love you and support your work. I moved to L.A. at a great time, a time when America was ready for a wave of Asian artists making contemporary Pop/R&B music. When I finally arrived I felt the love and support coming from Asian American artists and fans. I naturally found myself easily working with amazing artists like Jhené Aiko, Miyavi, Epik High and more.
On tour, Asian American fans would fill up the space, buy my merch and really take the time to talk to me; I guess representation is important. People needed to see someone coming from a similar Asian family background make it in the music industry. Suddenly I didn’t see being Malaysian as a disadvantage, I saw myself repping the whole of the Asian American community, and I was (and still am) proud of it.
Surely it took some time to realize, but I am a Malaysian Muslim American musician, and, most importantly, I am Yuna. Whatever music I make all came from afternoon Bollywood movies, classic Malay poetry, neon karaoke boxes, “rock kapak,” a call to prayer from a mosque — and the world will have no choice but to accept me just the way I am.
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