The new face of Muslim pop

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Years ago, before Australian Idol won our hearts and Guy Sebastien got buff, there was a show called Popstars. At the time, one of my brothers suggested I audition because he knows I love to sing. I can carry a tune, but my experience was limited to school choirs, a couple of Eisteddfods and a hairbrush in the front of the mirror when I was five, which really doesn’t count. I was also wearing a headscarf at the time – something I’d never seen on any contestants. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t go).

While we have pop stars throughout the Muslim world, I don’t know how many of them are women or, more specifically, visibly Muslim. Even though such pop stars are nothing new, a female in a fashionable looking scarf is unique.

Enter Yuna, a Malaysian singer with a sweet set of pipes, an eclectic indie/pop mix of music that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Grey’s Anatomy episode, and a headscarf. I first came across her music a few years ago, when a Facebook friend posted a grainy YouTube video of her singing live. She was, in a word, amazing.

Nowadays Yuna has more than 1.3 million fans on Facebook, and her self-titled debut album, which features tracks produced by the well-respected Pharrell Williams, entered the US charts last August. While she currently resides in the US (she’s signed to FADER Label), she’s also the ambassador for some well-known brands in Malaysia. And there was also a performance on CBS This Morning, which isn’t too shabby an achievement.

This is all very significant, for a few reasons. Not only is Yuna unique to the Western music space, but she’s confronting for more conservative Muslims who aren’t used to seeing Muslim women sing in public. Even Muslim pop stars in the Middle East tend to be hijab-less. They play a certain glamorous part, and religion is forgotten. Having someone attempt to marry faith and culture in this way is new and also a little audacious.

But, as Yuna told CBS , “I have beliefs and I have religion just like everybody else. But at the same time, I’m just a normal girl. I write music, I play music. And I sing.”

I’m not here to argue the merits of a woman singing in public from an Islamic perspective, as there is little to debate on this. For many Muslims, even if they listen to music (many don’t), it wouldn’t be considered an appropriate career path for a man or a woman – though few seem to blink when Zayn Malik makes up one-fifth of a boy band.

For me, the most interesting things to come out of this are not only how courageous it is for a Muslim woman to declare her faith and embrace her musical talent publicly, but also what it will mean for younger generations.

I admire Yuna’s conviction – she could’ve ditched her headscarf and played to pop type, but she has remained unique and kept her hijab on. This shows a dedication to her faith, and I’m sure many female Muslims are heartened to see it. But she’s also a subject of criticism, because wearing a headscarf does entail a certain lifestyle, which seems at odds with that of a music star. As she told AFP:

“I’m covered head to toe but still they say bad things about me. They say I’m a disgrace.”

She’s not the only artist experiencing problems. Daryl Goh, senior music writer for English language daily The Star, told AFP that while Muslim females are generally free to perform in small venues in the local Malaysian scene, things take a sharp turn when fame enters the picture.

“Once they gain popularity, that’s when the problems start … The moral police start paying attention.”

You can expect that it won’t slow her down, but Yuna isn’t the only one challenging the stereotypes. About five years ago, a Pakistani-Norwegian artist and human rights activist by the name of Deeyah created Sisterhood, a community network online, aimed at empowering young Muslim women through creative and artistic expression.

It began as an “online mixtape”, featuring songs written by female Muslim singers, rappers and poets, but it has since evolved, according to the website, which says the young artists deal with such subjects as war, racism, love, women’s rights and sexuality.

Deeyah, who has been referred to as the “Muslim Madonna”, says female Muslim artists face a tough time, and have little support.

“Many are actively discouraged by their own communities from expressing their thoughts and dreams through music or any other means. I want to give the encouragement and support to these young women that I didn’t have from certain sectors of the Muslim community. I want these women to know they are not alone. They have something to say and they deserve to be heard.”

It’s certainly a worthwhile proposition, giving way to various methods of creative expression, some perhaps less controversial than Yuna’s foray into music. But I guess we should also ask: is there a place for a hijab-clad pop star in the Western world? Is Yuna, with all her talent and passion, going to succeed in an industry famed for celebrating appearance as much, if not more than, talent?

Judging by her achievements so far, it’s not outside the realms of possibility. She was on CBS This Morning and worked with Pharrell Williams. We know, at least, that she has their attention. 

8 comments

  • Yuna is beautiful & I wish her the best of luck. Thank you for the article, I will definitely look her up.

    Commenter
    MsK
    Location
    Bondi
    Date and time
    January 30, 2013, 11:01AM
    • Yuna makes many women proud Muslims or not. No doubt she'll get the tall poppy syndrome treatment but as long as she's true to herself and her faith she'll thrive and shine. We wish her all the best and love her style of music.

      Commenter
      SBarnes
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 30, 2013, 11:57AM
      • What is wrong with a woman who has her own personal religious beliefs and her abiding by it while following her dreams?
        We live in the year 2013 and sadly some people or groups feel its still okay to control and legislate how far or high a woman sets her ambitions, dreams and behaviour on, while practicing this insidious double standard of saying its 'between them and God' or even 'its okay because they are men' to men who go their own errant ways.

        Best of luck to Yuna and more power to her for allowing her own strong faith and convictions override the nonsensical furor which isn't about faith but boils down to whether its appropriate for a woman to step out of a strictly confined cultural boundary of control and submission that has nothing to do with belief in God or adhering to one's religion.

        I hope to see her go high and far - and hope that she will be one of the movers and shakers of an industry that is over saturated with sell outs while keeping true to a clean, modest and talented life of music as a passion.

        Commenter
        Green Tea
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        January 30, 2013, 12:36PM
        • In countries where the Islamic fundamentalists have control, music is banned outright. Hence the wearing (or not) of a hijab is rather beside the point, just by merely singing she will been seen as an apostate.

          Commenter
          Mark
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          January 30, 2013, 12:54PM
          • While that's true, Islam, like every other religion, suffers from multiple sects, multiple translations, and multiple debates as to how to practice it, how much and sometimes, whether or not certain practices are forbidden or not.
            Muslims, like Christians, are so diverse in their beliefs and practices that its practically just Christianity v3.0 - its quite divided.
            It shouldn't stop people like Yuna from getting out and doing it rather than skulking around in fear of whether something highly debated is questionable or not, since its a matter of her own personal religious conviction.

            Commenter
            Green Tea
            Date and time
            January 30, 2013, 4:26PM
          • @Greentea Judaism and Islam came first, if anything Christianity is Judaism 3.0. and Islam 2.0.

            Commenter
            Jimmy
            Location
            Melbs
            Date and time
            February 01, 2013, 12:28PM
          • There are extremists in every facade of humanity, religious or otherwise. That doesn't mean it represents it as a whole. I'm pretty sure progressive Christians don't want to be lumped in the same groups such as the extreme Westboro Baptist Church.

            Commenter
            Miffy
            Date and time
            February 03, 2013, 1:59PM
        • I think the western world has to accept that Muslims are in fact, part of the western world too and aren't relegated to the "middle-eastern/exotic" part of the globe, and that includes the arts such as music.

          I personally think if someone like Yuna can break down those cultural barriers and have a successful career, it will open a floodgate for many others, and that's not a bad thing.

          Commenter
          Miffy
          Date and time
          February 03, 2013, 2:03PM
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