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The singer-songwriter Yuna, grew up in Malaysia learning English at school and hearing it on television. But most pop songs she heard were sung in Malay. When she started singing in 2009 at open mic nights, and auditioning in English, she navigated negative feedback about why a Muslim girl in law school, wearing a hijab, was singing in a language not typical for singers in Malaysia. She ignored that criticism, setting herself apart in the local music industry, and began to write her own songs, with her eyes set on an international audience.
With just one Malay song on her first EP and the rest in English, she uploaded it to a then-booming Myspace page and was scouted by her current management company, Indie-Pop. Soon she was releasing hit songs, like “Live Your Life” in 2012 and “Rescue” in 2013. While rising in the music industry, she also branched out into the fields of fashion and design with November Culture—a ready-to-wear clothing store in Selangor, and its eponymous label, which she designs. Transcending both music and fashion labels, her unique look and authentic personality are captured on social media with more than 600,000 Instagram followers and over 2.4 million on Twitter.
Currently, she’s working on a new album, to be released before the summer, and is planning on bringing November Culture to the U.S. Speaking with Yuna just weeks before her wedding, which became a social sensation, Whitewall learned about her musical journey, modest fashion, and environmental activism.
WHITEWALL: Let’s rewind to 2009 in Malaysia when you first started singing—in English, wearing a hijab. What was that like?
YUNA: When I first started performing with the hijab in my own country, I was laughed at by people who were like me, Malay and Muslim. No one who wore the hijab would be singing pop songs. It was seen as if you wore the hijab, you were not modern or not open minded. I was a law student, I played the guitar, and I sang . . . and I wore the hijab.
I remember going to record labels and they’d say, “We love your music, but the hijab has to go. If you want to be a star, we need you to be a singer with your hair out. You’re a really pretty girl. Why are you covering up?” I said, “No, thank you,” and carried on by myself, and that’s how I started my own recording label. There was no box for me, so I created my own. It was refreshing.
It was funny to other people to perform English songs. They asked, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to make music and take it overseas—to the U.S. and the U.K.” They said it would never happen and said that no one would listen to a Malaysian English-singer. I had to ask myself if I was going to listen to the people that had been in the music industry for a long time, or follow my gut and make my own rules. I said, “Screw it,” and told myself I’d do it until someone noticed me. I just did my own thing. And it worked. If you do that, you manage to capture your audience and your fans. It was an organic growth.
WW: Tell us about November Culture—your clothing store and label in Malaysia.
Y: I’ve always wanted to have a clothing line or a store, and when I was 21 or 22, I found out how to start a clothing business. I rented a tiny store space and started selling clothes. A lot of fans like to ask where I get my clothes from, so it was really for the fans, because they could come by and shop and I could meet them.
Obviously, now it’s a bit bigger. Now sometimes we design our own stuff. We also ship worldwide, and focus more on online sales. In the future, I’d like to bring it to the U.S. I have a lot planned this year for November Culture. But it’s still the same concept as it was back then. If you go on NovemberCulture.com, you see me modeling the clothes because these are the clothes I actually wear myself, and really love. This is my style. I could be demure, I can be modest, I can be grungy, more girly, or fun and colorful. These are clothes that represent my personality.
WW: Do you feel that your style has evolved or stayed much the same?
Y: My style has evolved throughout the years. I was kind of a rock chick—I wore, and still sometimes wear, vintage rock band T-shirts and jeans and denim jackets. But now it’s more clean-cut. Nice shirts and velvet pants, that kind of thing. I try to make it as modest as I can because I practice modesty. But I don’t want it to just cater to Muslim girls. I want it to be more universal, where everyone can embrace long cardigans, culottes, loose tops, or oversize jackets.
WW: How do you best express yourself through modesty?
Y: My scarves. I love my scarves. I have hundreds of them. And jackets. Jackets are the key piece for modest fashion. For me, it’s a long duster coat. I feel more comfortable and confident. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of your body. We’re all different.
For the longest time, girls who wore the hijabs were not really out there. It’s so nice to see the hijab being normalized. Nike is pro-hijab, and Ibtihaj Muhammad, the U.S. Olympic fencer, wears it. I would have never dreamed that. It’s nice to see that people are accepting it in a positive way. It’s not a weird thing; it’s not taboo. No man influences us to wear the hijab—it’s us. It’s cool to see that fashion is evolving in that sense. We need to see that women from different backgrounds exist.
WW: You’re an activist—environmentally concerned with issues like The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and involved in campaigns like “I Suck.” Can you tell us a bit about where this idea to be active came from?
Y: After moving to L.A., I started caring about things like the environment. In Malaysia, our trees are some of the oldest trees in the world. That never occurred to me, and I have a feeling a lot of other Malaysians don’t understand how important that is. Deforestation in Malaysia is a real thing, and it’s very frustrating. Forests are being flattened out for more condos.
Same with plastic. I try my best to be a part of something that could change our carbon footprint. In Malaysia, I grew up living very… comfortably. I never had to deal with or think about trash. I never thought we had to recycle. But now, I make sure to.
I joined the “I Suck” campaign because in Malaysia we have all of these corals and sea turtles and marine life. But we’re so immune to it, and we think it’s never going to go away. And then you travel. I flew from Malaysia to the U.S., and I could see plastic patches in the Pacific Ocean. I could visually see garbage patches from the plane!
My involvement is all based on personal experience. I went on a whale-watching tour in Long Beach and that was another eye-opener. I had never seen a whale before! We don’t have them where I come from. After that trip, I was reading up about whales and researching how they’re dying, and it’s by eating plastic. We’re throwing out trash into the ocean, and they’re actually dying. How long can we continue to ignore this?
WW: For a lot of artists, social media can be a double-edged sword. You were on Myspace when it was big, and have continued to capitalize on platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Tell us a bit about how social media has changed your career.
Y: I grew up having my own blog. I was about 13 when I started, and I was really into it. I love technology, I love computers, and I loved designing my own website. But I was really carefree and I learned my lesson at a very early age. Getting into social media was really natural for me, though. I knew how to carry myself. I grew with social media. I grew into my image, thinking, “How will this represent me? Does this represent me as a brand?” And I learned this early on when I put out my rough recordings on Myspace. I feel quite lucky that I started out on social media early. I learned how to handle it.