Pop Star Yuna On Working with Usher, Wearing a Hijab, and Being a Feminist

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Photography by Nyra Lang.
Styling by Christopher Kim.
Makeup by Stephanie Peterson.

Beyoncé. Lil' Kim. Nicki Minaj. When it comes to Usher's female collaborators, most flaunt their curves as much as their beats. But then there's Yunalis Mat Zara'ai, known onstage as Yuna. "I like to cover up," shrugs the Malaysian singer, a practicing Muslim who wears the hajib (or headscarf) in public—and while she's recording with artists like Pharrell and Jhené Aiko. "And I'm not going to be writing any songs about going to 'da club' and sexing it up," she laughs, "but I still think I'm pretty cool and stylish. Right?"

Right, say her millions of fans worldwide, including celebrity admirers like Gigi Hadid and The Roots. They've made her new album Chapters a global success, pushed her single Crush into Billboard's Top 10 slot, and voted her into MTV award shows. And now, they're showing up in droves for her first-ever world tour. (Next stop: San Francisco.)

For obvious reasons, it's a rough time to be a feminist Muslim immigrant in America—and thanks to a 24/7 news cycle, an exhausting era for celebrities, too. But at our recent photoshoot in New York, Yuna is beyond chill, drinking tea with the crew and joining the fashion team's classic hip-hop sing-along. Yuna has to catch a flight later that day, and wheels her own luggage into the studio. "I love clothes," she smiles, glancing at the pile, "and packing light is hard."

Fortunately, other stuff—like shooting music videos with hip-hop royalty—is easy, at least for this 29-year-old. "Working with Usher for Crush was great, obviously. Are you going to ask me if he's really good looking in person? You totally are," she laughs. "Fine. Yes. He's very handsome." She describes how they talked through not just the songs, but the music video scenes, asking director Daniel Carberry if they could share frames during key lyrics about breaking hearts. "Some people are like, 'You don't sing about [sex] but you sing about love?' I mean, of course! I write songs about love, because above all, love is the most human thing we have together. Feelings are a part of us every day. You feel things every day, no matter where you are. So that's what I write about."

Yuna's origin story goes something like this: Malaysian youth teaches herself guitar via YouTube, performs on local TV while getting a law degree, signs her first record contract, meets Pharrell, gets a million twitter followers, lands on the iTunes Top Albums chart, and charms crowds at Lollapalooza. She moves to LA and lands a new Verve contract with music legend David Foster ("the nicest man, and such a genius in the studio"), records Aladdin's "Whole New World" for the best-selling We Love Disney album ("I love Jasmine, but I also love Pocohontas, because she's so strong and cool, and she's brown! She looks just like me!") and does vocals for H&M commercials. You can also hear her song "Favorite Thing" on Pretty Little Liars.

And because she's more nonstop than Hamilton, Yuna launched her first fashion line, called HATTAYUNA, this season, featuring stylish prints and matching headscarves. She is quick to point out that all her friends and fans can wear it, regardless of religious or ethnic origin. "I've seen a couple white girls coming to my concerts wearing head wraps, and I think they look so cute," she says. "It's kind of sad to see that people are really into separation, trying to separate everybody and making a clear division of 'us against you,' even with fashion. That sucks. It's not the way the world is supposed to be. The world is getting smaller; you can find out about anything from the internet, and learn about other people's cultures easily… I borrow stuff, too, you know! I'm a Malay Muslim, but I get inspired by the world… If I go out in Malaysia wearing henna tattoos, even though I'm not Indian, it's totally normal because we have so many mixed cultures in our country. And it's meant as all of us coming together and recognizing each other's beauty, you know? It's good to spark creative thinking through style. What does it feel like to be literally in each other's shoes?"

I ask Yuna if she's ever conflicted between some of the hijab's key meanings—modesty and humility before G-d—and fame. Can you be both a pop star and a modern Muslim? "Wow, that's a big question," she grins. "I can't answer for anyone but myself, but I can say, I used to think about both of those sides when I was creating my music… I spent my 20's just trying to make my way through the Malaysian community. I was doing music, but I was also being a Malay Muslim woman, and I felt a lot of pressure to not piss people off. I thought, 'Oh, if I make this kind of [pop] music, will people enjoy it? Will people criticize me? Is it too racy? Is it too tame?' I used to think about that all the time."

What's changed?

"I guess now, I've lived long enough. I've seen the world… As you grow older, you stop worrying about what people might say… You know, for the longest time, I thought I was maybe going to fail as a singer, or cause trouble, because I always cover my arms, I always wear turtlenecks, I don't show tons of skin. I would feel a little bit—what's the word?—embarrassed anytime I would have to tell people what I would and wouldn't wear. But what I've found is that most people are really excited about other cultures and they want to understand and make it work. And I'm proud to be a part of that.

"It's like with feminism," she continues. "We talk a lot about feminism meaning complete freedom, and for some people, that means like, 'Free the nipple!' But there's another end of the feminist spectrum, and that's where people like me are. Feminism is universal. You can't just fight for one type of freedom, or one type of female power. You know what? Muslim women want to cover up and we have to fight for our right to do that, too."

It's time to leave for the airport, and I notice Yuna eyeing a pile of chocolate chip cookies by the studio exit. Is that her go-to tour snack? "No, believe it or not, it's Cracker Barrel!" she says. "I can't really eat meat [because of religious reasons], so I get the Uncle Herschel's Catfish from the breakfast menu. That's my go-to."

I tell her this is awesomely weird. "I guess I'm not 'normal' but nobody is normal," she smiles. "Everybody has their thing."