From humble beginnings to international success, Yuna talks success, passion, and Malaysian food!
Malaysia’s love affair with Yuna keeps on growing, as does the world’s. These days it appears that the Malaysian singer-songwriter can do no wrong, as her success story continues with each chapter she writes.
Born in Kedah and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Yuna splits her time between Malaysia and the US, where she moved in 2009 to pursue her music career. She began writing songs and learning the guitar at just 14 and gained initial exposure from her strong following on Myspace, her music garnering over 1 million views. This online success drew the attention of Indie Pop label Fader Records, with who she signed with in 2011.
Four albums and global success later, Yuna continues to take on the world, connecting with audiences worldwide through her soulful sound and impeccable style. Her music and identity, perfectly balanced between Malay, Islamic and American culture.
Just a few of Yuna’s highlights in 2019, of which there are many, include the release of her fourth studio album Rouge, her hit single “Crush” featuring Usher was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and she was nominated Most Inspiring Asian Woman in the People’s Choice Awards. Despite her success, Yuna exudes humility and is forever grateful for the position she finds herself in.
“It feels awesome to be nominated Most Inspiring Asian Woman! I didn’t expect it – in all my years making music and working to stay true to myself despite being in a tough industry, it’s always an organic thing for me, I’m just happy to do it and I’m not expecting anything in return, especially being awarded for just being yourself. So it’s nice to have your hard work recognised.”
Her life now is a long way from what it could have been, had it not been for her own determination, along with the support of the people around her. Before moving to the States, Yuna finished her studies graduating with a Bachelor of Legal Studies (Hons) degree. But her father, a former judge; and mother, former chemistry teacher; fully backed the idea of her putting a career in law aside to pursue music.
“I remember graduating from university and thought of leaving music to pursue a ‘real’ career in the legal field because I wasn’t sure if I was good enough for the music industry, and was stopped by my parents!”
“That definitely changed the course of my life – I remember graduating from university and thought of leaving music to pursue a ‘real’ career in the legal field because I wasn’t sure if I was good enough for the music industry, and was stopped by my parents! It was really funny because I thought that was what they wanted from me, ergo to be a lawyer, but I guess they saw bigger potential in me for a career in music. Sometimes other people see it in you when you don’t. And it depends on them if they want to tell you “hey, you’re really good at this, you have to keep on going,” because I know sometimes people see that talent in you but they would rather you live a mundane life like everyone else. That’s why it’s important to have supportive, sincere and honest people around you who will tell you how it is!”
By following her passion, Yuna is now one of the few modern Malaysian artists to have transitioned so successfully from the local music scene, to break the US market and beyond.
“I do believe that following your passion will push you to do better. I feel a lot of people settle for something less, they go to work and become a cog in the wheel, go home, and do the same thing all over again without having the need to excel or to put in the effort to do something better. If you’re passionate about something, you strive to do your work better, get better pay, and make something that matters to you.”
“Becoming an influencer is not a legit dream, you need to find something solid that can put you on the map as someone intelligent and inspiring.”
“But it comes with a responsibility – I always tell the younger kids who want to pursue their dreams yes, it’s ok to pursue your dreams but make sure your dreams are legit and realistic. Becoming an influencer is not a legit dream, you need to find something solid that can put you on the map as someone intelligent and inspiring. You have to give it 110%, but realise that you also have to get paid for doing the work, because sometimes your passion doesn’t work out and that’s ok! You need to find something that works for you to survive. You can still have a real job and do something you love on the side. You have to be realistic.”
In Yuna’s 10 years in the industry, the KL native has racked up an impressive list of collaborations, including none other than industry icons Pharrell and Usher. Her latest album includes her most collaborations to date with appearances from Tyler, the Creator, G-Eazy and Little Simz, among others.
“I can get nervous meeting some people, but once I’m in the room with them, everything changes. I get excited about the work that we’re going to do together so I focus on getting the best creative work done possible, and that involves being professional and treating them like a normal person as well.”
“Music, family, faith, they’re all a part of me – and so is Malaysian food!”
Despite achieving international success, Yuna remains a proud Malaysian and not someone who will forget her roots. A typical Malaysian, the thing she misses most when outside of Malaysia is the food! “It’s so cliché I know, but there’s nothing like it. It’s a part of ‘Yuna’! Music, family, faith, they’re all a part of me – and so is Malaysian food!” Listen to Yuna’s music, and you will hear many cultural references to Malaysia. Forevermore, a track off her latest album is a depiction of Yuna’s childhood memories growing up in Malaysia, the video was filmed in 11 locations across her home country.
“I try my best to bring my culture into my music. It can be a challenge to bring something traditional into something so current, but it’s a lot of fun! Plus I like to have something meaningful that ties me back to my roots once in a while.”
There were times when Yuna could have given up on her big dream. Once a contestant on the reality competition show One in a Million, Yuna made it to the Top 40 before subsequently being eliminated. She was also turned down by many music executives for refusing to conform to their stereotype of what a successful artist should be. So Yuna along with her manager Wawa started her own record label, Yuna Room Records, and self-produced her own EP.
“Rejection comes with the job, you have to understand you’re not for everybody. I knew from the very beginning that I was different and people might not vibe with my musical style or the way I look and that’s okay. I focus on the fact that there is something for everybody, no matter what you work on there will always be an audience for you.”
If there is one thing that is undeniable about Yuna, it’s that she remains steadfast in her own values. Yuna has spoken a lot about staying true to herself, and not conforming to traditional pop culture looks and pressures, and knows the pressure facing young girls and women today. “It’s okay to say no. It builds your character when you know what you want and you stand by it.” Refusing to conform, Yuna let her music and her own style do the talking. There is a lot of pressure out there to look a certain way, for girls especially, and Yuna is inspiring women across the world the way she stylishly incorporates her headscarf into her modest yet experimental wardrobe.
“Malaysians are so lucky to have what we have – our values and how we stick to our roots and how we practice our culture is the most unique thing we have compared to everyone else!”
“People everywhere, us Malaysians, we should be proud of who we are! I’ve travelled the world and met all kinds of people, and we in Malaysia are so lucky to have what we have – our values and how we stick to our roots and how we practice our culture is the most unique thing we have compared to everyone else!”
Her strength, values, and determination will surely see Yuna’s success story continues to grow through the next decade, and far beyond. So what final advice does the woman Vogue called an ‘icon in the making’ have, for graduates about to embark on their own journey?
“The world is your oyster. Know that you are so blessed to be where you are right now, and never take anything for granted. You have such a long way to go, please use all your skills and knowledge to elevate your community. Congratulations and I can’t wait to see you change the world into a better place.”