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.