SINGAPORE: As the 8,000-strong crowd at Neon Lights, a music and arts festival held in Singapore on Sunday (Nov 27), screamed her name, and her band tunes up just before her set, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna waits in the wings in her stylishly chaste glittery outfit.
Just before stepping on the stage to perform, she flashed her megawatt smile at this Channel NewsAsia reporter, who was waiting with her backstage, and shared a pre-show ritual: “Drink lots of water.”
It may be simple advice, but it is authentic - something that the 30-year-old music superstar has fought for all her career to achieve, even when she decided to move her career to the US in 2011.
Born Yunalis Zarai, her star has been on the ascent ever since her move to the US and she scored a mentorship with Grammy Award-winner Pharrell Williams, who produced much of her 2012 self-titled debut album. International critical acclaim soon followed, as well as her 90s R&B-infused third album, Chapters, which includes her chart hit Crush featuring Usher.
Yuna mesmerising the crowd at the Neon Lights festival.
The latest feather in her cap? Her picture emblazoned on the Nasdaq billboard in the middle of New York's Times Square last week.
“They are always putting up portraits of musicians so it’s cool that they support the music industry,” she said. “Especially for me, this is a great platform to get my music out there.”
So how does the Malaysian songbird feel about managing to bridge the Asian and Western gap successfully without giving in on her beliefs and principles?
"America is such a huge melting pot, especially in New York or LA, and I feel like it’s kind of important to do it for the kids to be myself and hold on to my roots and identity,” Yuna said.
“I feel that the younger generation needs someone to relate to. Because there are lots of kids out there, not just kids who are just like me, but kids who love their roots, who they are and where they come from. They don’t want to live in a world where they have to shave that away just to be relevant.”
Yuna's image on the Nasdaq billboard. (Photo: Yuna/Twitter)
NOT ONE FOR COMPROMISES
After spending the last five years honing her craft in the US, Yuna is not one for compromises.
“I guess when you know what you want, it’s not such a huge deal to say ‘no’,” she said with a smile. “Sometimes, no, a lot of times actually, my management would be like: ‘Oh let’s do this!’ And I’ll be like, ‘No, I don’t want to do it!’
“It’s always give and take, and what I’m not comfortable with and what I won’t do. So I’m not shy about expressing that and saying no to certain things so as to protect my identity and my values. Because at the end of the day, you’re the one that has (to make your peace before going to) sleep at night.”
It has not always been this way though. Yuna shared that in the beginning, it was a challenge to try and make people understand who she was, what she stands for and her values as a “conservative Asian girl”.
“But now they’re used to it. And I’m used to it, you know? I’m not going to do this or that and it’s not a big deal. I think as you grow older, you get that confidence to be yourself,” she said.
DOES ASIA GIVE ENOUGH SUPPORT TO ARTISTES?
Now that she has garnered international acclaim, does Yuna believe Asia gives enough support to its music artistes, or must one succeed abroad before local fans embrace them?
“I guess it’s a little bit of both. You definitely have to start from home, like what I did was perform a lot of shows and I really tried making a name for myself in Malaysia before heading out to America,” she said thoughtfully.
“So I did that, I got the support. And some of them would criticise me for leaving the music industry but others got really supportive and cheered me on. Once I got to America and started making music, then they get to see and understand that ‘Ah, this is what she’s been doing and this is what she wants to do!’
“You kind of have to slowly change the mindset of people who didn’t give you the support before. So I think it’s important to do a little of both,” the songstress continued. “I try to come back to Malaysia and contribute to the local music industry once in a while. Because that’s my home. I have to be present all the time as well for my fans.”
ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND A TRUMP-LED USA
With all her travelling, social media takes on an added dimension for the music star, with her extra effort in keeping personally connected and involved being much appreciated by her fans. It is a “great way to promote your music, and to reach out to your fans immediately”, she shared.
More importantly, it is also a way to show people “you’re human as well”.
“For me, I’m so glad that since the beginning, I stayed true. It was important for me to do this thing where what you see is what you get,” Yuna revealed. “I don’t have an alter ego or anything like that on the side. This is Yuna and when you see me outside, you know, just eating nasi lemak or whatever, it’s still me. So what social media does is it humanises you … so fans are able to relate and connect to you even more.”
She also commented on another big social media presence - US President-elect Donald Trump.
According to her tweets, she was making music while the US presidential elections were taking place and admitted to “having mini heart attacks” as Trump was leading his opponent Hillary Clinton. He eventually won the race to the White House.
“I think you have to constantly be positive. That’s what I did five or six years ago moving to America when everyone was saying: ‘Aren’t you scared of Islamophobia in America?’” she said.
“I’m like yeah, it doesn’t bother me that much. I’m still going to continue doing what I’ve always been doing - music. I’m not doing anything wrong or hurting anybody. I’m spreading the love. And that’s exactly the kind of attitude I feel (we should all have).
"Now, I probably have to work twice as hard. And I’ve been doing the same thing since the very beginning, promoting love at my shows. You see people from different walks of life - different religions, different races, different backgrounds - they are all just under one roof enjoying the music. So I’m going to do that and nothing is going to change for me.”