Described as a “trailblazing singer-songwriter”, Kedah born Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai – aka Yuna – has been chosen as the cover model for the April issue of VOGUE Singapore!
The issue, themed ‘Rythmn’, sees the 34-year-old R&B superstar stay true to her psychedelic stylings with vibrant prints (from fellow Malaysian, designer Khoon Hooi) as she details “her rise to superstardom, meaningful music and her unwavering faith.” From studying to be a lawyer to setting up her own independent label, Yuna Room Records, after being told time and time again that she’d have to take off her headscarf or sing only Malay songs, Yuna has always stayed true to her beliefs – while also ensuring that others believed in themselves too.
“I feel deeply connected to Malaysia and Singapore, so putting Southeast Asia on the world map is important because kids who look like me and grew up like me can think they can also be international artists,”
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Yuna – who has collaborated with the likes of Usher, Pharrell Williams, G-Eazy and Tyler the Creator – is based in Los Angeles, but has never let the glitz and glamour of Hollywood change the girl who grew up in Malaysia. As she explores in the track, “Forevermore” from her latest album’ Rogue’, growing up in a small town and coming from a small country created the environment that pushed the “Crush” to “strive to be the best that [she] can be”, without changing who she was, fundamentally. Elaborating with Vogue Singapore, Yuna shared:
“Being a Muslim Southeast Asian woman in the American music industry, I’ve gone through every single thing: being put in the Muslim box, or the hijabi box, or the Southeast Asian box, or the ‘we don’t know where to place her’ box. But I’ve managed to find my people, those who understand what I’m doing and listen to my music,”
And what exactly is she doing? Giving meaning to moments and life with her music, of course!
“I could write a song within five minutes and call it a day, but would it mean something? The challenging part with songwriting is saying something meaningful. Time plays its role in this case—you need time and you can’t rush things, otherwise it will just be another forgettable pop song.”
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On the topic of representation, Yuna highlighted in a post on her Instagram profile that Southeast Asian women are often overlooked or underestimated. And as the topic of representation and inclusion widens to encompass more of SEA cultures and its people, Yuna wants people to make sure to be part of that narrative, so as to be able to tell authentic stories that only we as SEA people can tell.
“In my 15 years working in the international music industry I have been ‘trying’ to prove my worth to the world that yes- I’m a Southeast Asian woman and I too can be great at what I do. Southeast Asian women sometimes get little or no respect for our efforts because of where we come from (this is where third world country, sexualization of SEA women comes to mind) or the colour of our skin. We needed to go above and beyond to have a seat at the table. Now that the entertainment world is starting to recognize SEA talents and the richness of our culture- it’s important that we are involved in carefully telling our story and not let anyone else write our narrative for us. You can’t pick and choose what Southeast Asian narrative you want to tell your audience, you need to embrace us for who we are. We need to be in on the conversation.”
She also mentions how there are people who are still unaware of how diverse and talented Southeast Asians are.
“When I’m out there and I tell people I’m Southeast Asian, and Malaysian, I’d get different reactions. ‘Wait how are you Asian but dark skin? Wait how are you Asian but you’re Muslim? Wait how is your English so good?’ People still have no idea (or a skewed idea) of who we are so let’s find every opportunity to make our mark in whatever field we want to excel in. Demand a spot to tell our story.”
And why is that story so important? For one, Yuna says:
“Our girls and boys need to see us out there so they know that – with whatever they have in them, no matter how small a village they come from, they can achieve what sometimes seems impossible. But it’s not. They can be world-class too.”
And for another, because we all deserve to tell our stories and we all deserve a chance at what may seem impossible! Kudos to Yuna for being such an inspirational artist and an even greater human being.
*Cover image credit: @voguesingapore