It’s about halfway into my interview with Yuna — last name Zarai, 32 years old, international pop star — before I suddenly lose her attention. The burger in her hand also gets deprioritized. Her eyes (the kind a bad novelist would describe as saucer-like) widen and then narrow to a viewpoint beyond my shoulders, at her red Mercedes Benz parked in the lot of our chosen restaurant. It’s not so much a dent in her car as it is a deep, long gash, a jarring blemish on an otherwise flawless surface.
When I turn the recorder back on — after she’s made phone calls to her car insurance company, a mechanic, and her husband — she dramatically, and with some levity, talks directly into it, to the future audience that would someday read this piece. “So, update,” she says, “Someone just hacked [at] my car.”
“It must be one of your many enemies,” I laugh. “You got beef with anybody?”
The joke is, of course, that you would be hard-pressed to find anybody with anything bad to say about Yuna. The Malaysian musician is relentlessly affable, her smile easy and frequent, and generous with her time. The first time we saw each other was at a dark Chinatown restaurant months earlier, where she was filming the video for her new single with rapper G-Eazy, “Blank Marquee.” It’s a funky, ‘80s-inspired pop song whose noir-like visuals depict both musicians as co-conspirators in a shady deal gone wrong, and their harrowing escape from a menacing villain.
Now, months later, she’s promoting the full album, Rouge, her fourth studio-length project. The synth-heavy R&B/pop record represents Yuna at her most grown-up, self-assured, and confident. Gone is much — not all — of the vulnerability that used to pervade her music as a budding independent artist. Rouge presents a version of Yuna that has come into herself, and happy to be there. On the front of the album, she stands audaciously tall, swathed in buoyant clouds of bright red tulle and crowned with a halo-like gold wreath, her boldest cover yet. “A little more lipstick baby, yeah / A little more knowledge baby, yeah,” she sings in the opening lines of “Pink Youth,” a single featuring British MC Little Simz, illustrating this growth as a visual metaphor.
“Rouge is the color that I feel right now,” says Yuna. “I know it’s the color of a woman. You wear red lipstick when you feel sexy, and you feel confident… This album is it. It’s my rouge lipstick.”
Western audiences were introduced to Yuna Zarai in 2011, when she’d first signed onto Indie Pop management and began working with Pharrell Williams, who would become one of her biggest champions. But Malaysian audiences had been familiar with her for much longer. In 2005, when she was 19-years-old and a student in law school, the young artist — born and raised in Kuala Lumpur — appeared on One In A Million, a Malaysian singing contest. Wearing a bright orange scarf, she introduced herself as Yunalis and proceeded to belt out a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“When I came in, in my hijab, I was like, let’s do this,” remembers Yuna. “They’re like, what are you going to sing today? ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ They both exchanged faces like, kind of rolling their eyes.”
“You strike me as something special,” remarked Paul Moss, a British judge, at the end of her song. The judge next to him ask Yuna for “something different,” and she delivered a moving performance of an Arabic song popular in Cairo at the time.
“People are gonna love you,” says Moss, in the video now archived on YouTube.
Their admiration was short-lived. She was eliminated on the next episode. But the early talent is there, documented in Malaysian television history: Yuna, her quiet confidence bubbling under a guileless exterior. The initial defeat threatened to snuff it out — she left the show dejected. But a friend encouraged her to pursue music regardless. “I’m like, ‘You know what, fuck yeah! I’m better than that. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to learn how to write an actual song.’”
She went back to her hotel room and began writing. The song she would eventually produce was “Deeper Conversation.”
Yuna arrived to music at the height of viral music culture. Illegal music downloading services like Limewire and Kazaa were still up and running, creating an environment of chaos for artists and labels. But it worked out in Yuna’s favor.
“I was sharing ‘Deeper Conversation’ with my friends in college, and then they shared it with their friends, with other colleges around Malaysia,” she says. “Back then, it wasn’t even Spotify or anything. It was just a thumb drive. ‘Yo, what music do you have? Let me see.’ Isn’t that crazy?”
She uploaded the song to MySpace. Born in 1986, Yuna has lived on the Internet for a very long time. She used to post poetry to LiveJournal. She once managed a GeoCities page. She used to blog a lot. In her small community, she built up a local fan base from a very young age. But it was when her music was uploaded to Napster that things totally blew up. She started hearing her song, a song she wrote in her small bedroom at home, playing over the radio.
She rerecorded the song and packaged it with her first EP, Yuna, which she released in 2008. By 2009, the EP had become so popular that it caught the ears of Indie Pop manager Ben Willis, who emailed her asking for a meeting. The next thing she knew she was flying out to Los Angeles to meet with the team.
In a post-9/11 America, Yuna represented an exotic spectacle to music audiences in America. By the time she released Decorate, her debut EP in America in 2011, music media was eager to present her as an alternative kind of Muslim woman, in direct conflict and opposition with the images of “oppressed” Muslim women that had become prevalent in other parts of American media. They fixated on her scarf. When her EP broke on Billboard’s Uncharted list, peaking at No. 2, the headlines couldn’t stop name-checking her faith. An NPR article celebrated her rise thusly: “Muslim Pop Star Yuna Climbs The US Charts.”
And here’s the thing that Yuna wants you to know, that probably a lot of practicing Muslims with public profiles want you to know: she loves being Muslim. It’s part of who she is. It governs how she navigates the music industry. She doesn’t drink, for example, as part of her personal practice. Or party, in the traditional Hollywood sense of the verb. “I know a lot of people out here, that’s their ticket to meeting people, networking, and I get that,” she says. “That’s the culture. But I don’t do that. If you want to hang out with me, [we can] have coffee? Or we can go watch a movie, you know?”
But there are downsides to being a Muslim in public. People treat you like you’re an ambassador of the faith. There is a tokenizing impulse, one that turns every Muslim into an avatar for something else. When she’s on a press tour, she dreads the questions she knows she will have to field. inquiries that are never about the music. “People like to ask me, ‘Oh because you’re… you’re part of a marginalized group of people, a hijabi. What do you think about Trump?’” she says. “You know what I think about Trump.” She rolls her eyes.
Dodging questions like these can make an artist seem coy about their political positions. But Yuna’s not being coy. She’s just not an activist, despite the best efforts of the industry to turn her into one. Yuna approaches her professional relationships with a moral code, but that’s not because she’s an activist. It’s because she’s a good person. “I try to avoid working with people who have a history of something like hitting women,” she says. “Because I’ve been in an abusive relationship, you know?”
She’s been in rooms, she says, with music execs who want her to write about the #MeToo movement. “Don’t tell me what to write,” she retorts. “Let me come to terms with the fact that I can be cool about my identity. Just wait for that to happen naturally.”
And it has. On “Likes,” the seventh track on Rouge, featuring the rapper Kyle, Yuna airs out these frustrations publicly. “Like a toxic candy bar, I will consume it / I made it pretty far, but that’s not enough yet,” she sings. “I gave my best from the east to the west / Still getting tested, people don’t get it.” It’s an unexpectedly defensive song from an artist who became famous for her angsty love ballads.
On “Castaway,” the album’s opening track with Tyler The Creator, she explores these frustrations more obliquely. It’s a song that grips at the edges of isolation. “Honestly, you didn’t see the best in me / It feels like you’re mocking me,” she sings. “And now I’ve gone off so far away… A castaway.”
You would be mistaken to read it as a break-up song, although parts of it evoke that feeling. Yuna’s not breaking up with anyone. She wrote it about her first meeting with a record label. It’s about how she once felt pulled in multiple directions, to become a thousand different versions of herself that would appease her audiences in Malaysia, and her audiences in the US, and label representatives, and on and on and on. And Rouge is, in many ways, a response to that.
“This sh*t is not easy, you know?” she says. “It’s not easy for someone to move from her own home, leaving her home country and being in another place, in order to make a living. You know what I mean? To create and make music, it’s not easy. I’m not from here. I still feel an outsider.” That’s why, she says, parts of Rouge feel defiant.
“I think rouge, it’s just the color of anger, too,” she says.
“Passion,” I contribute.
“Passion, anger, bravery,” she says.
“Maturity,” she adds. “The color of victory.”
Lighting: Clay Pacatte
Photo Assistant: Andrew Narváez
Styling: Dureen Truong