Pharrell Protege Yuna Talks Being Muslim in Music: 'It's My Choice to Cover Up My Body. I'm Not Oppressed -- I'm Free'
It's afternoon rush in Los Angeles, and Yuna is cruising through Mid-Wilshire in a black SUV with the windows rolled down. At a stoplight, the singer-songwriter, who left her native Malaysia for the land of movie stars and pricey green juices in 2011, cues up Snapchat and flips the camera to selfie mode. "Some guy on the street just shouted, 'You're beautiful!' " she says, letting out a pinched giggle. "That just made my entire day!"
Los Angeles looks good on Yuna, even if she doesn't fit the Hollywood standard for pop star -- hair always wrapped in a hijab (she's a devout Muslim); a stylishly chaste wardrobe that covers her from turtleneck on down; a label home, Verve, known for legacy jazz and adult contemporary artists like Barry Manilow. The 29-year-old born Yunalis Zarai is a long plane ride from her homeland, where not so long ago she posted shy folk-pop songs to MySpace and, warmed by the feedback, hit the reset button to move to America and meet her mentor, Pharrell Williams. Today, she's markedly different: Her third and best album, Chapters (May 20), is edgy alt-soul featuring Usher, Jhene Aiko and DJ Premier. The songs -- including "Crush," her first Billboard chart hit -- are inspired by a wrecked relationship and powered by Yuna's new confidence in herself and her opinions. "I was a timid girl before," says Yuna hours earlier, perched at a table in a warehouse photo studio and dressed in all black. "A lot of people said, 'Your problem is always holding back.' I didn't want to hold back anymore."
"Yuna thinks differently than a lot of people -- she has something to say, and she won't compromise," says Verve chairman David Foster, who has won 16 Grammys producing and writing for Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and others. "I'm much older than her, but I relate to her lyrics, and my stepdaughters, Gigi and Bella [Hadid], they're crazy for her too. She's speaking to a lot of generations."
Yuna was raised in Alor Setar, Malaysia, by her legal-adviser father and chemistry-teacher mother. "It was a very conservative environment -- we watched what we said." Yuna spent her childhood focused on her education, set on becoming a lawyer. As a hobby, in between poring over textbooks, she taught herself guitar watching YouTube, writing songs in both Malay and English, inspired by her heroes Lauryn Hill ("she was life-changing for me") and Feist. Music started taking priority a year before she graduated from university in 2009, when she self-released EPs to local acclaim and won second place in a national songwriting contest. At first, she felt like an outsider in the country's music biz. Malaysia may be predominantly Muslim, but much like in America, "women singers are seen as sexy here -- you have to let your hair out and be beautiful," she says. "I struggled with that." Instead, Yuna shrouded her image in mystery, letting her music speak for her. "I didn't put up a proper photo of myself -- it was cropped, up until my nose. People didn't know what I looked like until my first show. They were shocked in the beginning, but they accepted me."
Her music began attracting international fans online as well -- including her now manager Ben Willis, who encouraged her to chase bigger dreams and start over in Los Angeles. Things began quickly: Fader Label, the influential magazine's indie imprint, signed Yuna and introduced her to Williams, who produced much of her 2012 self-titled global debut (it peaked at No. 19 on the Heatseekers chart). In 2013, Yuna signed with Verve and released Nocturnal, which featured cutting-edge R&B producers like Om'Mas Keith (Frank Ocean).
But despite the warm welcome, Yuna still sometimes deals with criticism and condescension when it comes to her image. "People say, 'You should let your hair out; you shouldn't be oppressed -- you're not in Malaysia anymore. You should show your curves and be proud of it.' But I am proud -- it's my choice to cover up my body. I'm not oppressed -- I'm free."
Yuna loves Rihanna's music, praising several tracks from Anti, but doesn't feel the need to dress (or undress) like her. "It's easier to just be me and not try to look like her," she says. "I have nothing against Miley Cyrus onstage being herself, but girls like Adele and Andra Day, we don't get enough credit. We have talent; we don't count on the extra stuff. We just want to play music."
Chapters is a breakup album, inspired by the crumbling of a real-life relationship, although Yuna doesn't offer many details in person. On the album, however, she puts it all out there, wondering aloud how he's moving on when she's stuck behind -- particularly on "Used to Love You," featuring Aiko, who pushed Yuna to come out of her shell. "She's very blunt and direct -- she expresses what other girls are feeling," Yuna says of Aiko. "I see her as a big sister. When I go through stuff, I listen to her music. The last two years of my life, she played a huge part in it."
Suddenly alone in Los Angeles, Yuna had to learn how to be "more tough" like Aiko, she says. "I used to be dependent on my ex. I didn't know how to love myself. So I made a mental note: 'In 2016, I'm going to be single.' When this album comes out, I want to be in a good place."
Yuna smiles when discussing her plans to push Chapters on tour in Europe and the States through May, and just bought a piano for her apartment to start work on a new album, which she says won't wallow in the sadness of the past. "Crush," featuring Usher, is her first song to crack U.S. radio, rising 22-18 on the April 30 Adult R&B chart. She says she feels at home in the Los Angeles soul scene, and America overall -- even as she warily eyes the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim fervor stoked by Donald Trump and others. "He's out there promoting hate, violence," she says. "It's really weird that this is acceptable in a modern, advanced country.
"But I'm not too worried about it," she adds. "I think you can soften people's hearts, even if they have a lot of hate. Music can do that, if it's beautiful and honest. If I can do that -- soften just one person's heart -- I consider myself successful already."
This story originally appeared in the April 30 issue of Billboard.