Muslim Girl had the chance to have a sit-down with Malaysian-born pop star Yuna, who recently released her latest album, the critically-acclaimed Chapters, which boasts appearances from Usher and Jhene Aiko. Since then, Rolling Stone has rated Chapters amongst the top R&B albums of 2016, putting our girl Yuna alongside the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna.
Yuna sat down with us to drop some of her own major keys that would make DJ Khaled himself proud.
Can we say total #MuslimGirlFire?!
Muslim Girl: Ramadan mubarak! What are your goals for this Ramadan?
Yuna: I really wanted to do the whole 30 days, but obviously that’s not possible because of the whole girl thing. (Laughs) I had it all planned out, but your body decides to do what it has to do. So, today, I have to kind of just like…you know. I want to use this time to get a lot of rest, and take care of my body. I haven’t been eating well. I was on tour for a month and a half, and so I was traveling. It’s definitely good to just chill for a minute, like find my center again, after a month and a half of stressful—not really stressful—but traveling, meeting people, and nonstop work. It’s nice to get back into talking up my spiritual and zen points.
>“I just want to take it easy and be me for a minute, not the Yuna that everyone expects.”
Muslim Girl: What’s the significance of Ramadan for you?
Yuna: I try to focus on cutting off music—not that music is bad–but so I can find balance. Not too much music, not too much social media, so I can just focus on spirituality.
You don’t get to be “in the zone” for more than two minutes when you’re touring. Prayers become something you just do–a habit–like you’re going through the motions, versus being fully present.
>“I like to feel my prayers, feel my spirituality, so this month is really, for me, about getting rid of the distractions.”
I try my best to go to tarawih. Whenever I’m back home, I go with my parents and family.
Doing Ramadan away from home is hard. You’re alone. In Malaysia, we have a Ramadan bazaar; you can get any kind of food you want.
But when you’re alone, you wake up eating alone, and it’s pretty sad. I have a friend from back home with me right now, so I’m not alone this year. I have a friend to fast with, which is kind of nice.
Muslim Girl: Do you have any favorite foods for suhoor and iftar?
Yuna: I love dates at both. I try to avoid sweet drinks. I love anything sweet, so it’s hard, but I try to avoid them. For suhoor, the easiest thing for me to eat is oatmeal, and then I’m set for the day. I like to eat the usual breakfast stuff, like eggs. I take my protein in the morning as well, and I drink hot water. I stay away from drinking cold water for suhoor.
>“For iftar, it’s curry and heavy food, because I’m Malaysian. But it makes you really sleepy afterwards, so I try to eat smaller portions.”
Muslim Girl: Being in the entertainment industry, where women are oftentimes objectified, have you had any moments where your values were conflicted? How do you find balance?
Yuna: It’s really simple for me because I started out young in the Malaysian music industry. I don’t party or drink or smoke, and I’ve lived that way for a very long time.
When I’m in America, it’s always after party invites after after party invites. If I go, it’s to show face, say hi and bye, and then I leave.
“It’s weird for me when people ask me how I can be a Muslim, and be in the music industry.”
I just see it as me being myself. I just hang on to my values. You’re just you. I’ve never had anyone try to force me to take off my hijab or wear sexy stuff. I have people around me who are really understanding—like my management. I don’t tour, and I prefer not to perform, during Ramadan. And they totally get that, and they respect that. If there’s a job opportunity, they’ll ask me—it can be especially hard in America, because during Ramadan is when all the festivals are happening.
I toured with Maxwell this past year. I’ve managed to do like three or four shows with him, but I can’t tour during fasting months. They were bummed out, but they were still respectful and understanding. I couldn’t ask for a better team.
>“From the very beginning, it’s a man’s world. Being a woman can be hard, especially for young girls. They feel like they need validation from men.”
I know how that feels, but because I moved to America at 24 or 25, I’ve already been through those situations in Malaysia. It’s very similar in Malaysia, the entertainment scene. Girls put their hair out, they have sex appeal while performing;
I was not like that. It made my move to America easy though, because it’s easy for me to say no.
>“I don’t feel scared or intimidated by saying no. I understand it’s hard. You want to be successful, but if you have to sacrifice your identity, it’s not worth it.”
I sacrifice some time with my family to be here, and I hate it, but that’s the most that I can do. I can’t sacrifice my identity. To sacrifice your identity for something that’s temporary is dumb.
When you’re younger, you don’t know any better, and you say you’ll do whatever it takes, but I stayed away from all that, alhamdulilah.
Muslim Girl: How were you able to avoid that?
Yuna: Because I’m a Muslim girl; a proud, unapologetically Muslim, Muslim girl.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been put in situations. This one magazine in Malaysia wanted to put me on the cover, but they didn’t want it to be apparent that I was Muslim; they didn’t want to be political–apparently being Muslim is political–and they didn’t want me to cover my neck.
>“I said, ‘Listen, this is me; I am Muslim, and I cover, so you’re not going to get me on the cover uncovered.'”
After that, they said they’d do a turtleneck. It’s important to remain positive. I understand where they’re coming from, but they need to understand where I’m coming from. The industry is slowly changing, alhamdulilah.
Muslim Girl: How do people usually react to your hijab in the industry? Is it ever confused for a fashion statement?
Yuna: So far, no. I’ve never gotten any backlash from the American music industry. They see it as something different, and they’re accepting of it. Which is cool for me.
I don’t have to change who I am in an industry notorious for exploiting women, alhamdulilah. Thank God. That’s horrible that it happens. Even in the film industry in Malaysia, I see girls who have to compromise their values, where they are doing scenes where they’re in bed with a man, etc. I don’t have to deal with that; I get to have creative control over whatever I’m doing.
>“I wear the turban, so it’s not a traditional hijab. Sadly, most of the backlash I get is in the form of hijab-shaming, and it comes from the Muslim community.”
Muslim Girl: It seems like you’re really good at setting boundaries, and being able to set boundaries has helped you immensely. What tips do you have for other women who might struggle with this?
Yuna: Just be you.
As Muslims, we were raised differently. First, respect your parents. Family comes first to be successful in the afterlife. They’re a part of our lives. Draw on that to excel in whatever you want to do.
>“If you have a dream, don’t be afraid of it. Go for it. You were raised with a privilege: Being Muslim. As Muslims, we were raised to take care of the planet, and to do good for others.”
We’re made to survive this world, and rain or shine, you’re gonna go through this, and you’ll survive. Just be brave and be you.
Like I mentioned before, I wear the turban, not a traditional hijab, and I do get backlash from the Muslim community, but I’ve learned that you just have to be you, and be genuine, and people will accept you for who you are.
>“If you wear the hijab or not, you’re Muslim; be proud of it. Don’t hide it.”
At the end of the day, you’re the one that has to go to bed with yourself every night. Can you look in the mirror and go to bed with this person? You have to be comfortable in your own skin, and rock it!
Great interview. I’ve only been aware of Yuna more recently (last few years), but it’s wonderful to know how she carries herself – make me feel proud as a Muslim. No doubt the girls out there have a very cool person to look up to in multiple ways.
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