Her road to success reads like a modern millennial story. A young girl in Malaysia teaches herself to play the guitar via YouTube. She starts performing in public, offering her songs on MySpace, and gains enough attention to land a record deal with an American music label. But Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, better known as Yuna, is different from others who have found fame this way. She studied law. She is a Muslim, who believes in dressing according to her beliefs. Her image and music have remained in her control, unlike other young stars who have been coerced into glossy pop makeovers. And after years of striving to break the US market, the 29-year-old singer is now global. She is an artist whose most recent album Chapters has been chosen by Rolling Stone magazine as among the top R&B albums of 2016. She has collaborated with music big-timers Usher and Pharrell Williams, boasts celebrities Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid as her fans, and has been on successful tours in the United States and Europe.
Attention surrounding Yuna, whether in her homeland or in the US, where she is now based, tend to revolve around her faith and her modest but fashionable style. She fights an intriguing double-fronted battle: she has said she faces calls from Westerners to remove her ‘oppressive’ headscarf while tackling criticism from her Muslim fans that she is not covering herself enough. When her star began rising in Malaysia, her fans loved her humble and folksy style – her songs were as gentle and saccharine as her personality itself. The attention and expectations would intensify as her fame grew.
She moved to Los Angeles in 2011 after being signed to American music label Fader. It was a significant development for an artist in that region, as many have traversed the path Yuna has taken – trying to make it in the tough US market yet getting nowhere. In her first years in America, she was already a source of intense curiosity for her long-time fans – how would she navigate this big bad world of Western celebrity? How would she handle free and easy Hollywood and LA culture? The songwriter had a model as a boyfriend at one point – his social media feed often flaunting his all-American lifestyle and carefree skater boy approach. Always careful to be discreet in her relationships, this particular romance was watched with interest by her fans, probably just as much as it was curiously observed by those in the West, more used to stereotypical views and examples of Muslim women donning the hijab or niqab.