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‘I know who I am’: Yuna on creating music, art and pride in her Asian-Muslim culture

todayJanuary 24, 2023

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Courtesy of the artist

Yuna is a multi-faceted singer, songwriter and creative. The past few years have been a whirlwind of travel, bonding with family and *almost* moving back home to Malaysia. You might know Yuna from her hit song “Crush” featuring Usher, or as an artist who proudly wears her hijab when she performs. 

Honest and gracious in our conversation, Yuna talked about her faith, and how her Muslim heritage influences her daily life. She also reminisced about collaborating with other artists and performing in one of Milwaukee’s popular live concert venues. All of Yuna’s worlds collide and live together, beautifully, on her latest album, Y5, which is out now.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Anthony Foster: I want to start off by saying thank you again. I’m very appreciative if you can’t tell. But right now we starting to get into the early parts of winter here in Wisconsin. The weather isn’t that great, but you’ve performed in Wisconsin before in Milwaukee?

Yuna: Yes.

AF: Do you have any memories of Wisconsin? Any favorite moments of being here?

Yuna: Wow. You know what? I wish I had more time, especially when I’m on tour, I don’t really get to the opportunity to see much when I’m on tour. But I do remember my very first North American tour and I performed at Milwaukee. I can’t remember the name of the venue though, but it’s this really cute venue. It’s maybe 100 people.

AF: Oh, okay.

Yuna: I can’t remember the, but it’s a famous one. I do remember that-

AF: Shank Hall?

Yuna: Shank Hall, yes.

AF: Okay. Yes. That’s a fantastic place to perform at. It is a historic venue, been around for a long time. Wow. That’s great that you remember that. And I hear that from time to time. I’m sure you’re all over, you go to city to city, it’s hard to keep track, but that’s great that you have any memory from Wisconsin.

Yuna: And my first time it was snowing. It was so cold, so I was just like this girl from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where it’s tropical. And that was my very first experience with wintertime. I remember just walking around and trying to step into, oh, look at this little hill of snow, and I stepped into it and why did I do that? And just got my boots all wet. But it was my first snow experience, so it was fun.

Courtesy of the artist

AF: So growing up in Malaysia, we talked about alternative rock. How has your upbringing influenced you as a artist?

Yuna: I think I grew up in a very musical household. My dad loves music. He plays the guitar, he plays the drums, he plays the keys, he plays the piano, but everything with him, he didn’t learn the theory part of it. It was just all by heart, which was very impressive. And I learned a little bit of piano, playing the piano, but it was also by heart. And the theory part, I was really struggling, so I just took all the basics and just ran with it. And that’s how I started learning how to play the guitar also by heart. And it was enough for me to start writing.

So, I don’t know, I guess I grew up with my parents being raised in a Asian-Muslim household. They’re pretty chill about me pursuing music compared to other, I guess, families or other kids that I know who want to pursue a career in music. It’s always like, “Oh no, you’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor.” So it was kind of like that for me, but I think as I grew older and I got better with my music, my parents were very understanding and very supportive of my dreams, and they were like, “Oh, okay, you’re actually pretty good at this, so we’re just going to let you do your thing.” I’m like, “Oh, okay, cool.”

But I guess growing up, I grew up listening to a lot of the stuff that my dad used to play like blues, jazz, and a lot of American rock music. And I don’t know, I think when I was 13, I think that was when I started listening to a lot of R&B music and Lauryn Hill, especially when Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out, that was it for me. That was me, 12 or 13 purchasing my very first CD.

AF: Oh, wow.

Yuna: And my dad was like, “Okay, so what do you want?” I’m like, “I want this one.” I wrote it down on a piece of paper and I went to the local CD store, “I’m looking for this.” And then I remember the guy like, “Okay, let’s look for it. L, Lauryn, Lauryn, Lauryn, Lauryn Hill.” Okay. So that was my first purchase ever-

AF: That was your first purchase ever? Oh my God.

Yuna: At the CD store.

AF: That’s awesome.

Yuna: That changed my life.

AF: And that album, I’ve heard that countless times, especially from young women singers, how that album influenced them. And it’s clearly one of the best albums in the world ever. And I totally get that. Have you ever met Lauryn Hill? Have you ever had the opportunity to come across, come in contact with her?

Yuna: No, never. No.

AF: It’s coming.

Yuna: I’m scared almost.

AF: Right. And that’s really cool though.

Yuna: I want to.

AF: Because you’re an artist yourself, but no matter where you are in the stratosphere of music, you still have your idols and your people you look up to. And that’s fantastic, man. So you mentioned being Asian and Muslim. One of my coworkers, her name is Salam Fatayer. She loves you as well. She’s a Muslim woman as well. She wanted me to ask you this. She wants to know, how do you balance your Muslim identity in the music industry? Of course it could be a non-factor at times, but how do you balance being a woman and a Muslim and a person of color in the music industry today?

Yuna: I think for me, the only thing I know how to do this is just by being myself. I never tried to portray anything else other than who I am as a person. If you see me on stage, that’s me on stage, and off stage I’m still the same person. I don’t have a, what do you call it?

AF: An image that’s not you?

Yuna: An alter ego. I’m not that kind of artist. So it’s always just been super easy for me because I know who I am as a person. When I first started out, so here’s the story. When I first started writing music, I already had my hijab on and I like it. I like being able to just dress up however I want, but it was new, even to the Malaysian audience, having a hijabi singer, it was something different. It was very out of place for someone like me to be on stage. But I don’t have any choice. I just have to be myself. I really don’t want to try and be something else.

So I remember being 19, 20, 21, just playing my music and with my guitar, playing my music in different venues. And for example, I don’t drink or smoke, but some of these venues, they’re bars. So I’m just like, “Hey, hi everyone. It’s me. I’m going to play some of my songs.” And people will get a little bit, “Ah, this is interesting.” So for many years I just did that and I just felt really comfortable on stage. I didn’t feel out of place. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I just wanted to really, really, my love for music, for my songs, just triumphs over-

AF: Yes, it transcends everything, right?

Yuna: Transcends everything. So that was the most important thing for me. So how I balance my identity as a Muslim woman in the entertainment industry, I didn’t see it as anything difficult. It felt natural for me to just do it and moving to America at the time and a lot of people from my country, they were really worried about, “Oh, I don’t know how people are going to accept you. You’re this Muslim woman trying to do pop music and R&B music.” But for me, it’s just like, oh, I don’t care. My love for music is just going to shine through. And for me, it’s the positive energy will, what do you call it?

AF: Just override every other thing. And I feel like that’s one of the reasons why you’re in the place that you are, because people know you’re just being genuinely yourself. It’s not any alter ego, like you said. And I think that’s a huge reason why you’re successful and doing what you’re doing right now, because people come to you for that authenticity.

Yuna: Yeah, of course.

AF: That’s awesome. Absolutely.

Yuna: Thank you.

AF: Okay. That was a great answer. You’re giving me some great stuff. I love it. So, I peeped your IG. I went on your Instagram. And I see you – a wonderful artist – and you take art. You seem to be just as much into art as you are into music. How do I get my hands on one of those marvelous sketches that you did with the Moonlight Arts Collective?

Yuna: Ah, thank you.

AF: I watched the video, it was really cool. I saw you drawing a picture in five minutes flat. Incredible. So how do I get my hands on one of those?

Yuna: Yeah, you can. So I did this, I guess it’s a collaboration, I guess, with Moonlight Arts Collective, and they’re just really awesome. What they do is pretty much they just reach out to me. I did these sketches for fun. I would go to Malibu or Joshua Tree, and I just like, ah, this is fun. I’m just going to do a quick sketch and do a time lapse of it. And boom, okay, that’s done. And it is just a content piece for me, and they reach out and they wanted to do prints.

Never in a million years would I consider myself an artist, artist. And they saw that in me and I just feel really honored to be able to join the collective with other talented, real artists. To me, it’s like, “Oh, they’re real artists.” Me, I’m just this girl doodling and sketching on the side. But they see it as something special, so there must be something there. But you can check out their website, Moonlight Arts Collective. And they’re really great people. They’re super nice and I’m so happy that they reach out to me.

AF: The Instagram post, it looked like it was a real genuine connection there. It looked great. So your album Y5, it’s terrific. Congratulations.

Yuna: Oh, thank you. Yay.

AF: Congratulations on that. Yes, very, very dope. You’ve got a wonderful song with Usher, “Crush.” That’s amazing.

Yuna: Thank you so much.

AF: You also collaborated with Tyler, the Creator. My daughter loves Tyler, the Creator. I went to see him earlier this year. G-Eazy, Little Simz. We love Little Simz. She just put out a new album. What is the creative collaborative process like with you and other artists? I’m sure it could go a million different ways, but for instance, Usher, how does a collaboration like that come about?

Yuna: You know what? It was just, my manager, Ben, he actually managed another artist who went on tour with Usher, who opened for Usher in, I can’t remember really, 2014 maybe. And I was already working on this one song for my album at the time, Chapters, and it was called “Crush.” And it was finished, it was ready to go, but I felt like something was missing. So I played around with the idea, oh, maybe let’s ask someone like Usher to get on there. Why not?

AF: Go for the top.

Yuna: Hey…

AF: Go for the top. Shoot for the moon, you see what happens, right?

Yuna: Exactly. So knowing that Ben had met Usher and his team, it was like, “Maybe do you think he’ll be interested in singing this song, getting on this song with me?” And then we sent the song over to his team and we didn’t really hear anything back. And I went back to Malaysia actually to be with my grandparents. It was Eid. So just to be with my family.

AF: Eid is Ramadan?

Yuna: It’s the end of Ramadan. So normally I would spend Ramadan and Eid back in Malaysia with the family. And I remember checking my email that morning, and then I saw it. I got an MP3 file from Usher, and I played it. I was like, “Oh my Gosh, this is insane.” It sounded perfect. I was screaming. I was telling my late grandmother at the time, “Do you know who this is? This is Usher.”

AF: Right. At least you got to share that with your grandmother. That’s fantastic, right? Wow. So that’s got to be pretty dope to open your email like everybody else, you opening your email and you scroll down, you see Usher, and then you see a MP3 link at the bottom. I’m sure the.

Yuna: Oh my gosh.

AF: Did you wait a few minutes before you open it, or it was like-

Yuna: No, it was right away like, “Okay. Nobody talk to me for one second.” We were waiting for a response. We sent over a song and it was nothing for two, three months. And then all of a sudden it’s there. But I met up with him and he was super cool. He was super supportive. He was excited about the song. He loved the song, and it really was a game changer for me. It was a life changing, career changing move for me.

AF: Absolutely.

Yuna: And he’s such a sweet guy. Really kind, really humble. So I think that’s the most important recipe for collaborations. When I’m working with someone like Tyler or Little Simz, G-Eazy, they’re not based on emails. I actually had moments, personal moments where I get their humanity. I get to see them as-

AF: As just a person.

Yuna: As a person. And we would share some information about each other. “Oh, you’re the only child.” or “Oh, you feel like you’re the black sheep of the family.” So, when I have that connection, then I can work with someone like that. It has to be a two-way thing. So, I’m really glad everyone that I worked with, collaborated with in the past, I’ve had that special connection with them. And it’s not just like, oh, our managers put this thing together and here we are working on a song. So, it was never like that for me. So, I’m really happy that all of my collaborations are very organic and real.

AF: That is fantastic. And that’s something I’m sure you could sleep better at night knowing that this comes from a real place. So let’s pivot a little bit. You were on “One in a Million”, it’s a competition show. Those are big here in the States, I’m sure you know. Being in LA, I’m sure you see it’s like, “So You Think You Can Dance”, “American Idol” and all those type of shows. What was that experience like and what did you take from it without winning? Obviously you’re winning now, but what was that experience like?

Yuna: Oh my gosh, it was horrible. (laughs)

AF: Really?

Yuna: I think joining something like that, a production like that, it’s what to avoid in life. This is me going through that and okay, I really don’t want to do this again. Ever. Don’t do that again. Okay, Yuna? But I learned a lot from that. It was my dream, I guess. I grew up watching American Idol, the first one, the second one and third one. And when “One in a Million” started in Malaysia, it was something so huge. I think the first day, 30,000 people auditioned or something. And they had to not shut down the whole mall, but the mall was filled with people trying out, auditioning for this TV show. And I remember skipping my class. I had a morning class.

AF:  Yuna, you skipped class for this?

Yuna: Yeah, I did.

AF: Your parents might see this, Yuna.

Yuna: I was in law school too. So it was just like, “Whatever. I don’t need to go to class.” So I went and my dear roommate, actually drove me to this audition, and she had to skip the morning class too. So I went and I was like, “Okay, well it’s just going to be quick because, it’s going to be in and out.” And then I end up spending the whole day there. I went into the audition room at 9:30 PM. I was there since 8:00 AM or something. And I got through. So I was on that show. I was really excited. It was my dream, and it was just so stressful. So I was like, “Well, I don’t know if I want to do this.” I was crying in the bathroom. It was just too much.

But I learned a lot from it because of course, I had to deal with rejection because I didn’t go through. I was eliminated right before the final round, the final 12. So I didn’t get to have the opportunity to perform my songs on stage and having people vote. But it was a great learning experience for me. And I remember packing my stuff, you have to stay at the hotel for a few days, and once you get eliminated, you have to leave. So I remember packing and I was just like, “You know what? I’m going to come up with a plan. I’m going to go home and I’m going to learn how to play the guitar. I’m going to write my very first song.” So that was exactly what happened. What I did was I went back and immediately I brought my guitar out and started recording my first song immediately.

AF: You were motivated, right?

Yuna: I was motivated.

AF: I’m going to show y’all where y’all went wrong here.

Yuna: Exactly, that was exactly what happened. I was like, “Let me show you.”

AF: Tell them, Yuna, tell them. And now look, right? But that’s fantastic. A lot of people’s dreams die with that when they get rejected from that and don’t take it as a motivational thing to turn it around and go further with it. And sometimes it’s almost better to not get that close than to get that close and lose. But for you, it worked out.

Yuna: Yeah.

AF: Cool. Any opportunity you get to come to Milwaukee, if you could come by, we would love to have you come to see our studio and meet us.

Yuna: Of course, yeah.

AF: Everyone on our staff here was like, “You’re interviewing Yuna? Really? I love her.”

Yuna: Send my love to them.

AF: Absolutely.

Yuna: I haven’t been back to Milwaukee in so long, so it’d be nice to go back out there and perform.


Written by: Anthony Foster

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