Yuna on Empowerment, Culture, and the Universality of Her Latest Album ‘Rouge’

Singer-songwriter Yuna immediately commands attention with her distinctive voice. The Malaysian-born artist fills her songs with recognizable pop and R&B signifiers, yet manages to sound quite unlike anyone else, a shining example of the rapidly increasing universality in popular music. She created a buzz at the cusp of the decade on MySpace, and piqued the curiosity of such industry figures as Russell Simmons. With songs like “Lullabies,” she began racking up award nominations and superlative distinctions, while collaborating with producers like Pharell WIlliams. Her 2016 singles “Crush” and “Used To Love You” with features from Usher and Jhené Aiko, introduced her to a new strata of listeners, and made her an illustrious name on the world stage. Yuna has steadily honed her craft, growing palpably more visionary with every successive album. Her musical proclivities have fleshed out and assumed form over the years, evolving from traditional singer-songwriter musings to the clearly defined, cohesive aesthetic that appears on her latest release, fittingly titled “Rouge.” Like the color red, Yuna’s new album exudes confidence, and demonstrates a certain comfort of musical instinct and overall persona that are at the heart of her artistry. Moreover, the whimsical choice to use the French word for the color points to the universal aspect of the work.

“Rouge” finds Yuna collaborating with a slew of hip-hop artists including Tyler, the Creator and G-Eazy, as well as a roster of Pan-Asian talents, such as Masego and Jay Park. The album is a decidedly breezy and funky affair, maintaining an effortless cool through all its exciting stylistic detours. Underneath all of this, there’s also a message of empowerment running through the album. Yuna has famously adopted the hijab head scarf as a nod to her Muslim upbringing, but reimagined it in a forward, fashionable way that has made her the subject of numerous, glossy fashion campaigns. She retains her cultural identity, while judiciously adopting and adapting in a way that challenges misinformed stereotypes. Her songs are often inspired by and dedicated to young girls back home in Malaysia. Yuna spoke with Entertainment Voice about the concept of her new album, and its many collaborations. She shed light on her style and sound, her influences and inspirations, and her unique cultural position.  

You’ve described your new album “Rouge” as being about feeling comfortable with yourself and your life, and you’ve described “rouge” or “red” as “the color of becoming this woman I am.” What is it exactly about the color red that captures that feeling for you?

I think just the thought that it’s a really bold color. Growing up, for example, wearing red or red lipstick would always lead to people being like, “Ooh, you’re looking really fancy today.” In my culture, wearing red means they want to stand out, and normally they avoid the color. I think I grew up avoiding wearing such a bold, strong color, and I feel like I relate to that in a lot of ways. I used to be very timid, very shy, not sure of myself. I would second-guess myself, and now I think I’m old enough to dismiss all of that — be more confident. I think with this album, I just went for it. I’m just like, “You know what? Let’s go all out — no more holding back. This is it.” This is me growing into the person I am today, and I just see “rouge” being the color of the album, the color of the energy that I put out for this album. I’m like okay, I’m not afraid of wearing lipstick or a red jacket or driving a red car, which I am right now (laughs).

You knew from the start that you specifically wanted Tyler, the Creator for the new album’s opening track “Castaway.” What was it about Tyler that made you envision him on this song? 

Wow, I have always wanted to work with Tyler. We were at a different creative space before. In 2012, I was a different artist, and he was also really young. And the kind of music that he put out back then is very him, but it’s different. With his album “Igor,” he knows the type of music he wants to make now. With “Castaway,” when I heard it, I wanted someone to be on this track, but I immediately knew, “You know what, Tyler would be perfect for this,” because it sounds like him. It feels like him. And I was really excited, like “Wow, this is finally happening. If we actually get Tyler on this song, it would be like a dream come true,” because it was something I was working towards for the longest time, but I just didn’t know how to do it, considering we’re both doing really different genres of music. Now is the perfect time to do it.  

Your new album is full of exciting guest features, especially from hip-hop artists, and you’ve spoken of your surprise at being so embraced by the hip-hop world. How would you describe your experience crossing over more freely into hip-hop styles on the new album?

I was doing a lot of singer-songwriter, like folk, kind of jazzy, acoustic music before, but it was only pop. I think for the longest time, I didn’t know what it really was, but it had been pop the whole time, so I kind of embraced that. In the middle of my musical journey, I kind of leaned toward the R&B and hip-hop world. I was exposed to a lot of R&B and hip-hop musicians, and they always wanted to write and collaborate with me, so naturally I felt like “Oh, this is something I really have to explore, because I’m really good at this. Let’s see what happens.” One of the first collaborations that I had was with Kyle and G-Eazy, and it fit. It just made sense. And slowly from there, I pretty much took it as a sign that, like, yeah, this is definitely a path that I should be taking in music. That’s how we got to this album, which is full of collaborations, and I’m so happy that I got to do that. To be honest with you, it started with working with Pharrell. It was a collaboration that I thought would never happen, where I thought, “This could go really good or go really bad” (laughs), because I didn’t exactly know how to work with him or write. That was my first experience working with a hip-hop producer. I said, “You know what? I can really do this.” That was 2011, and I think I’ve always been on that path. 

“Blank Marquee” calls out the leeches and sycophants who rely on friends’ connections for any degree of success or acclaim. How much of an issue has this been for you personally, and how did you come up with the perfect image of a “black marquee” to represent the idea?

I don’t know. One day, Chloe Angelides and Robin Hannibal and I created this beautiful melody over this music production that Robin did, and I was like, “You know what? Let’s write something sassy, something kind of like super Hollywood.” It’s a very Los Angeles song (laughs). Everyone is on their grind, and everyone is trying to meet someone, and sometimes friendships are just a way to get from point A to point B, and we wanted to write about it. Chloe and I were just jamming with the song, with the lyrics about friends who only want to hang out with you to be at parties with you, and meet other people. And “Blank Marquee,” I think, was like a perfect title. It sounded kind of weird at the beginning, but after that, it started making sense — a theater with nothing to show (laughs). It was a pretty interesting story to tell, and it turned out to be a really cool and fun song. 

Before you were fully fluent in English, you used to learn English songs by imitating the sounds, even though you didn’t understand their meaning. It’s a sign of a true musician to be able to distance words from their associations, and appreciate sound first and foremost. How much of an impact do you think this approach has had on your artistic evolution?

I think from the very beginning, I was very intrigued by sound. As a kid, I would imitate comedians on TV, for example like Mr. Bean (laughs). He would always go like “Ha ha ha,” and I would imitate him to tell the story to my parents. And I realized I could imitate singers on commercials as well, and I’m like, “Oh, you know what? I can do that vibrato,” kind of like Aahh (singing). I’m like “Oh, I can do this wavy thing with my voice! How do I do that?” So you’re right, the imitation of sounds, I guess, and with music, with guitars and piano, I always loved playing the piano, and I played everything by ear, and I think from there, I slowly learned the language. We learned English in school, but I never used to like reading English books. The teacher would call me to the side of the class and she’s like. “Ok, you stand there because you didn’t practice reading this English book at home.” But I think music really changed that. I was really excited about learning the meanings to the lyrics. As a young girl, trying to understand a love song was an exciting thing for me. For example No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” was one of the first songs that I learned the lyrics too, and finally learning like, “Oh wow, this girl doesn’t want to hear this guy speak anymore, I guess, because she’s so hurt by him.” Everything about that was so romantic to me, and so intriguing, and I wanted to dive deeper, so I guess that was the beginning of my songwriter’s journey. I started writing poetry, and you know, from there onward. 

Your signature musical style stands out for how smooth, mellow, and now funky, you sound. As someone who grew up with eclectic taste, who are a few musicians that you most credit to shaping these aspects?

Wow, let’s see. It has to be Lauren Hill. Her album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was everything to me. And I’m pretty sure Daft Punk. For this album, Daft Punk really inspired me to do something really fun. This funky mood is just in this album, and it is totally Daft Punk. I would love to work with Daft Punk one day. And I’d have to say Frank Ocean. Frank Ocean is a great singer-songwriter. Everytime I write a song, to me, it’s always like “I have to write more like Frank.” (Laughs). You know what I mean? Not necessarily to copy him exactly, but the way he sings, the way he describes things, the way he makes it super normal but super deep as well.

Your single “Pink Youth” celebrates and encourages aspiring young girls, while the animated music video depicts you and featured rapper Little Simz saving the world from authorities who want to rid it of all color and hope. What are your thoughts on the concept that “the future is female?”

“The future is female,” wow! Isn’t it everywhere? (Laughs). I think, for me, how I see the world in the future, it’s important to just keep on empowering girls. I know we talk about feminism over here, but people tend to forget in other parts of the world, it’s still pretty much backwards. When I do what I do, I think about the girls in my hometown. We’re very lucky to go to school, and go to college, and have a career, but at the same time, we are still pretty much haunted by criticisms and expectations. The girls back home are very timid, very shy, like “Oh, if I do this, what will people say? What will the community say about me?” So I think about them, and the young girls, I feel, are the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing today. You can be whoever you want, and you can be confident, and you don’t have to listen to other people. You can be your own person. You just have to keep on inspiring them and sharing with them. For example, I’m going on the “Rouge” tour, and it’s going to be an all-girl band, and the first thing that I thought, that I was excited about, was bringing them back to Malaysia to perform with this all-girl crew for the kids in Malaysia. They have to see this! For me, it’s important to keep on doing that for the fans back home. And that’s what drives the songs as well. 

You have been featured in major fashion campaigns, incorporating the hijab into unique, stylish outfits, and have explained that although “a lot of people think it’s a symbol of oppression,” you actually find it “very liberating.” What in particular do you find liberating about it?

I think, to be honest with you, an ability to be yourself. I guess, coming from a different background, different culture, I’m super comfortable. As a girl, I never used to wear the hijab. I never used to practice modesty. There were some parts of my childhood or my teenage years where I was just like, “Um, this is not me,” you know? Maybe wearing shorts is not me. Maybe wearing short skirts is not me. Wearing a bikini is not me. This is something that I wanted to protect. My body is my temple, so I really want it to be a personal thing. This is not meant to be shared, and you get to make that decision for yourself. It’s the same thing like how Billie Eilish finally spoke about how it’s her decision to wear baggy clothes, and people won’t be able to sexualize her, and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for a long time, and I’m so happy that there’s this girl who’s not from the same culture or background, but she feels the same way as I feel, so it’s liberating for her, and that’s how it is liberating for me as well, to, kind of, just cover up. It’s my decision to do so, and I’m so happy that I get to still do what I love, still make music, and still be myself, and wear what I like, staying true to my identity. 

You stand out as someone who maintains your identity, undeterred by social pressure. It’s an issue that you explore in your song “Likes,” which mocks the simplistic criticism people dole out on social media. Where do you draw the line between assimilation and cultural preservation? 

(Laughs). Wow, where do I draw the line? I don’t know. It’s really hard. For example, doing what I do, this is my job. I’m an artist, and I come from somewhere. I come from a cultural country, and a traditional family, and my parents are conservative. They worked 9 to 5 jobs when they were younger, and they don’t really see being an artist as a way to make a living. Moving out here, I think there’s also that pressure. When I first came out here, people were just like “You’re going to go to this party, going to go to that party. Oh wait, you don’t drink?” So it’s like how do I explain that that’s just not who I am? At the same time, how are you going to assimilate to the Hollywood culture, you know? And for me, it’s like, “Well, do I have to?” I know I make great music, and I know I care about my work, and people love working with me, and I have great work ethic, and I think that’s all that matters. I think I’ve finally found a balance between the two. I practice what I practice, I don’t forget my roots, and at the same time, I know how to, kind of, adjust myself to the music industry that is constantly getting you to change. I guess I kind of grew a thick skin throughout the years (laughs). I’ve been very comfortable saying no to things. It doesn’t bother me that much if I’m not the most famous or popular girl in Hollywood. I think that’s all that matters, man. I just love what I do, and I just feel it preserves my cultural identity, and that’s all that matters.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your new album?

We’re working with a lot of cool features not just rappers, but at the same time, talented musicians. Miyavi is a very talented Japanese guitar player, songwriter, and Masego is also a crazy talented songwriter, singer, rapper, and saxophone player, and I’m really excited to share it with the world. I also have a song with Jay Park, who is this huge Korean star. It’s just very eclectic, so I can’t wait for people to just explore the album and find things that they like on the album. 

Rouge” is available July 12 on Apple Music.