You have to have a purpose, as a woman.
Malaysia’s music industry timeline can be divided into two periods: Before Yuna and After Yuna. The 30-year-old, whose full name is Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, isn’t the first young Malaysian woman to strum a guitar and sing original love songs on stage, or the first to move to the United States to try to make it big. But she is the first to do it in a hijab.
Yuna’s insistence on keeping her hair covered (these days, she’s more likely to wrap her hair in a turban) and her ambition in pursuing a very public image have made her a symbol of empowerment and a role model for young women, as well as a fashion icon. Last year, “Crush,” Yuna’s duet with American R&B singer Usher, peaked at Number 3 on the Billboard Adult R&B Chart and reached 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She also runs her own fashion business, November Culture.
Yuna is one of the young media influencers featured in the Innovation Group’s report: “The New Muslimah: Southeast Asia focus.” We caught up with her to ask about her relationship with her fans.
Do you see yourself as a role model for young women?
I hope so! I feel like as a woman, you can’t say no to that. I know my mom is a role model to a lot of her students and myself, so I hope to be just as strong and smart as she is. You have to have a purpose as a woman, so it’s nice when you work really hard and you try your best to be a good person, and people aspire to be just like you.
Your song “Rescue” is about a woman who doesn’t need rescuing. Fans have described this as a song about “Girl Power.” Do you consciously write songs about empowerment and personal independence?
Sometimes I do. When I walk into the studio and I feel good—for example, when I wrote Rescue—I felt like, yes, let’s write an anthem today! It was for my friends back home. They’re the bravest strongest women I know, so I wanted to write something about them.
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How do you hope to inspire your fans? (Chase their dreams? Build a career beyond Malaysia? Live life on their own terms?)
I think maybe, to just have their own identity. I always tell them to go after their dreams, but the dreams mustn’t be something out of fantasy, you know? It has to be realistic—they have to put in real work into it. And travel the world. There’s so much to see and so much to learn. I like to tell the younger kids to widen their horizons.
Are you a brand ambassador or have you appeared in ads for any brands? Which ones?
Well, I have worked with SK-II for 3 years now and they’re amazing! I also worked with Samsung in the past.
Download “The New Muslimah: Southeast Asia focus” for more case studies.