You could not miss them - the young Muslim women with their turbans tied with chic sharpness, in the fashion of the songstress they were here to see. There was also plenty of tell-tale accents betraying the legion of Malaysians eager to see their compatriot. But the queue for Yuna’s sold out concert in London stood out for other reasons. That long line of people outside Scala was as diverse as London itself – from ‘hijabsters’ to hipsters, afros to silver haired folk. And the 29-year-old singer’s performance that night reflected an awareness that she is now global, an artist whose album Chapters has been chosen by Rolling Stone as among the top R&B albums this year.
Attention surrounding Yuna, whether in her homeland or in the United States, 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 Asian Muslim fans that she is not covering herself enough. Her performance in London however, showed the naysayers what she has always insisted on – her music speaks for itself. Her entire set – lush with alt-soul, hip-hop beats and smooth R&B production - proved to be fresh and exceedingly confident. For what is essentially a break-up album filled with raw love songs, this confidence was irresistibly compelling in an intimate venue.
She jumped straight in with the cool DJ Premier-produced single
Places To Go, and went on to perform 14 tracks, nine of them entirely from Chapters. This could have been a surprise to some fans, who would have hoped for more songs from her older folk-pop albums like Decorate, but it made sense for a woman who knows she has worked hard and made it in the US, a star now aware of her growing number of international fans who have been introduced to her via this new album. That is not to say Yuna’s sound has changed entirely – her voice is still her best asset, and her vocals have become even stronger while retaining its airy charm. It gives tenderness to songs like All I Do - a song about being unable to fall out of love with someone, recently played on hit series Grey’s Anatomy. It takes on a force when she sang ‘No regrets, no looking back now’ on Used to Love You.
Her audience was putty in her hands – singing along when she told them to, and she did not even have to say very much. Her banter – while poised and cheerful – consisted mostly of appreciative thank-yous to her fans for coming to the show. The deeper, more vulnerable insights were laid bare in her songs. But a more self-assured Yuna was evident – when she asked if there were any Malaysians were in the house and they replied thunderously, she playfully asked them to take it down a notch because ‘everyone is watching us’. This cheekiness was also in full affect when she announced super star Usher was here to duet Crush with her, later admitting however that this was untrue. A less adoring crowd may not have let her off with such a tease.
She has said herself that when she made Chapters, she “decided to let go of my insecurities.” In this showcase Yuna demonstrates just how much she has grown as a singer and a Muslim icon, bent on hard work, creative progress and remaining true to herself. If the question was whether she was still the same old Yuna who used the strum her acoustic guitar on stages in Malaysia, she answered it beautifully with just one Malay song – Terukir Di Bintang (Carved in the stars). Like a sweet secret to her Malaysian fans in the crowd, she sang in Malay, the only song without the accompaniment of her band.
Sayangku jangan kau persoalkan (Darling don’t you question)
Siapa di hatiku (Who is in my heart)
Terukir di bintang (It is carved in the stars)
Tak mungkin hilang cintaku padamu (My love for you will never fade)
Back in 2010 I interviewed Yuna for The Nut Graph’s Found in Malaysia series and she said she understood her influence on other young Muslim women who wanted to embrace their faith but also do things they enjoyed. “It is nice how Malay (Muslim) girls are finding the right balance nowadays just wanting to be successful, educated and stylish.”
Six years on and she has achieved all this and more. An internationally recognised album, a fashion business, and a personal style that grows more assured and bold, Yuna has done what no Asian artist has done in the quest to crack the American music market. Unlike Korean K-pop stars like Rain and Psy who have tried to do this by taking on either outlandish catchiness or unabashed appropriation of black culture, Yuna has kept her Muslim faith in full view, with a side of fashion flair. She may find musical inspiration from icons like Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah, but she doesn’t do sexy ‘twerking’ like CL (Chaelin Lee), another K-pop star hoping to make it in the US. She remains herself – still sharing meals with friends and fans, yet currently confidently navigates through the world of stars and celebrities. She continues to experiment with the balance of her soulful songwriting with more edgy production styles. She is based in the West, but goes home to Malaysia often. She pointed out her parents who were there at the show, her mother at one point unceremoniously going into the crowd to hug a friend.
Yuna’s strongest moments were perhaps during the songs which showed off her most assertive lyrics. During her early years of fame, she was known for her soft and folksy musical style. Although some of the saccharine clearly remains, the steely side of her comes through, the side that has told off some of her Malaysian fans who have commented negatively on her dressing. “Don’t be judgmental over what others wear, even if it is different from what you wear," she once replied to one such fan on Instagram.
During Lights and Camera, she sang repeatedly:
Cause these lights won't kill me now
Saying these clothes won't change me now
Saying these words won't scare me now
Saying I will be myself
I will be myself
In being herself, Yuna is showing that there is no one quite like her around, with an easy breezy independence that knocks the bottom out of notions she is oppressed in any way.
Laych Koh is a Malaysian freelance journalist and writer now based in London.