It was around 7:00 p.m. on Monday, July 18, and thanks to a harsh torrential downpour, the temperature had cooled from the blistering New York heat on the balcony of Hotel Indigo Lower East Side. Uber’s Summer Series was in full swing as a diverse group of guests flocked to the rooftop bar — buzzing with excitement. Small cliques of partygoers scattered around the area, indulging in the complimentary sushi bar and a selection of mixed drinks (including one blue beverage that was sure to knock you out if not sipped slowly). But the reason that the rooftop was packed with young professionals — and hipsters — was not for an average happy hour or the stellar bird’s eye view of New York City; it was to see Yuna — the Malaysian songstress whose infectious vocals were the perfect accompaniment to a romantic summer sunset.
Guests were prompted inside, where Yuna joined the stage with a gleeful smile and her crew of three — a guitarist, cellist, and a one man on the hand drums. She humbly introduced herself to the hovering crowd, speaking softly into the mic.
And after a few echoing cheers finally dulled, the singer stepped to the edge of centerstage and began with “Places To Go,” one of the final tracks on her 2016 album .Chapters (deluxe version). As she appropriately sang of gloomy weather and heartache, a sea of smart phones instantly shot up, snapping pics and videos of her stylish black jumpsuit and signature hair wrap. At the song’s finish, she politely waited until the crowd stopped cheering, playfully interacting with a few ecstatic fans.
And the show moved right along, Yuna revisited her 2013 album, Nocturnal with “Lights and Camera,” “I Want You Back,” and “Lullabies,” and then on to her 2012, self-titled project with “Lanes.” Her faithful followers sang along, while the newbies swayed to her frequency. At the end of her set, the songbird performed the single that many were waiting for, “Crush,” featuring Usher. After she announced that it was time her to bid farewell, the crowd let out a unanimous sigh. But in closing, she left with a symphonic message, to “Live Your Life.”
Following her performance, VIBE walked down one floor to join Yuna on the balcony of her hotel suite for a chat. As the pink, yellow, and purple hues fused into an illuminating sunset, Yuna spoke about her music, growing up in Malaysia, and being a voice for young women.
VIBE: How do you prepare for your shows usually?
Yuna: I didn’t have much time to prepare [for this show], just relaxed for the last 15 minutes before going onto stage. But normally on tour before the show, I call my mom back home in Malaysia.
That sounds soothing. What is the best city you’ve played for so far?
I can’t choose one. Each experience is really special. I feel like I always enjoy performing in San Francisco because it’s always sold out. And Chicago is really cool too. Also, sometimes it has to do with what’s good to eat over there. In San Francisco, I eat halal, which is kind of like Muslim kosher, and there’s this one Thai restaurant and it’s right next to the Great American Hall. I’m there all the time whenever I’m in town; that’s my spot. So sometimes it’s that, sometimes it’s the people. I like Detroit as well. I think it’s a really special city.
Getting to the music, your new album Chapters sounds much more personal and vulnerable than your other projects. What is it like creating something so transparent and then having to perform it in front of an audience?
When I was writing Chapters, I already knew that I’m not going to hold back. I feel like on my previous albums, I was holding back a little bit. But this time, I’ve done this for close to ten years; I owe it to myself to be real and be candid … and be vulnerable. And I think I needed that for this album to happen. I wouldn’t do it any other way. And performing it in front of people, I’m so used to it. Maybe some of my fans know what I’m singing about, but I don’t let that affect me when I’m making music. This is just how I feel. The best thing to do when you’re writing is to write about something you know instead of pretending. I mean you can do that too obviously, but when you write from your heart, it works so much better. People will connect to it almost immediately. So that was the attitude that I had towards this album: screw it, let’s just sing whatever I’m feeling right now.
You said you were kind of hesitant at first. Was it because you were fearful of people’s criticism, or was it a more personal battle? I think it was because sometimes when I write, I don’t know if it’s too personal. There’s this one song that I wrote, I had to screen it with my friends. I played the song to them in my car, and I’m like, ‘is this even okay to put out?’ And there like, ‘yeah, sure. Just do it!’ I had to think about this, but then I had to trust myself and go for it. I think it has to do a lot with growing up in Malaysia and making music [there]. I feel like there’s always a limit. I reserved myself a lot. Back home, you live in a community and they always talk about you and gossip. Malaysia is so small and everybody knows everybody. And I think I had to get rid of that mentality as I slowly move forward in my music career. I had to let go of that insecurity.
You have a lot of feminist undertones within your music. What’s your definition of feminism?
I think feminism is that you just have to stick it all out. I remember this one time when some one interviewed me and I was young, and they said, ‘do you see yourself as a feminist?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’m not really comfortable calling myself a feminist.’ And then I got bashed for that from all the feminists in the world. And I realized now that as I grow older, you notice how important it is to speak for your gender [and] speak for women’s rights. I go through it everyday not realizing this is what I go through, having to stand up for myself. And it’s important to talk to younger girls, especially back home in Malaysia. There are still men who are super conservative. There are still men back home that are controlling their women. I grew up not having to go through that.
My father was an amazing dad to me, and he was super supportive of what I was doing. But sometimes I would get comments from men back home [saying] ‘you’re not a good woman.’ And that’s happening to me, imagine how it is back home in Malaysia. Girls are growing up in that environment, which is unhealthy for them. So I really want to change that. It is important to be a feminist through music and anything, to inspire them to be brave. If you have a dream go for it; don’t be scared of the community you live in, just be brave and strong and do you.
Do you consciously try to be a role model through your music to Malaysian girls, Muslim girls, and young girls in general, or does it naturally come as you try to be yourself?
I let it happen naturally. When you do it naturally, that is when you’re more sincere. I don’t like being preachy. Like I said before, when I was younger, the reason why I couldn’t relate to being a feminist was because I had no idea what was going on in the world. I was young, not wise enough to speak about the issues. So I let it happen naturally for me. And now that I see a lot of girls out there that let me know they’re inspired by my music, these are the kinds of things that I feel like [are] changing the way I write music. It’s always been that way; I want to promote positive energy and love. Sometimes I write about relationships and breakups because those are real things. I just want to let them know that I’ve been there. I try to tell them, love yourself first before going on and loving some one else. I try to include in my music, something meaningful, something they can take back home with them. If they come and watch me perform live, when they go home, I want them to take something from that.
Do you think it’s important for artists, especially in the music industry, to speak on social and political issues?
Definitely. I think it’s an automatic responsibility. If you have 1.5 million followers, you immediately have that responsibility to promote love and to speak up on social issues. But it’s tricky because people believe in different things, so you can’t really force them to go into this way of thinking. For example, I grew up in Malaysia, and I just moved to America five years ago to pursue music. And slowly I’m learning what’s happening here. I care about the things are going on in this country, but it’s something that I have to learn. But I feel like if you’re from here and you grew up in a certain environment, you have to care about your environment. For me, I speak up on behalf of all the girls back home. I know what’s going on and I speak to the younger generation. That’s my responsibility to the younger generation in my country. I call them my kids; I got to make sure my kids are going to do well in the future.
You finished your performance today with your single, “Live Your Life.” What’s the best way that you live your life?
I just realized the best way to live your life is to just be you, as cliché as it sounds. I grew up trying to please everyone. My parents were so supportive, but we were always in this situation where we [were] obliged to do ‘this.’ But I can’t really please anybody. I learned that even if I were to be this perfect person, no one’s going to be happy with me. So why let them bring you down? I just decided to be real and show the real me to the world. Back home, I have a lot of supporters and fans, but there are also a lot of people who don’t necessarily agree on whatever I’m doing out here with music. But I just have to be me. The best way to live your life, is to live it fully, and just be a good person. That’s enough.
Photos & Video by Jason Chandler and Andrea K Castillo