Grieving Yuna doesn't want return to old normal, but a better world

Grieving Yuna doesn't want return to old normal, but a better world
Grieving Yuna doesn't want return to old normal, but a better world

MALAYSIANSKINI | When Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Yuna came back to Malaysia for work in March 2020, she didn’t think she would be staying for longer than a week before heading back to the US.

That was until the first Covid-19 lockdown was announced in Malaysia.

One week turned to two, then it became a month, and then three. Now, it has been almost a year and a half into the pandemic with multiple lockdowns and Yuna has resided in Malaysia through it all.

Despite having only packed for a week, she made the decision to stay in Malaysia to ensure her family was safe during these unprecedented times.

But what she did not expect during her time back was to find herself losing a family member to the deadly virus.

In July, Yuna took to Instagram to announce the passing of her best friend and cousin Amilya Saila Aminoddin (also referred to as Amy) who came in close contact with a Covid-19 patient while undergoing dialysis for kidney failure.

Despite the crushing grief, it only fueled the 34-year-old singer to fiercely advocate staying safe and getting vaccinated.

She isn’t stopping there though. A strong proponent of oximeters (a tool to check oxygen levels in a person's blood), she has even been sending them to families dealing with Covid-19 who can’t afford the device.

The R&B/pop vocalist has been a roaring success since she was first discovered on MySpace by American management company Indie-pop.

Yuna, who was born Yunalis Mat Zara'ai in Alor Setar, Kedah in 1986 and has become one of Malaysia's most successful artistes of the last decade, first moved to the US to advance her career in early 2011.

Her self-titled album debuted in the US in April 2012, followed by Nocturnal (2013), Chapters (2016) and Rouge (2019).

She has previously collaborated with other prominent names in the music industry such as Pharell Williams, Usher, Tyler the Creator, Jhene Aiko and SonaOne, among others.

The pandemic however had enforced the longest break she has taken from work and she plans on returning to the US soon to focus on her fifth album.

Earlier this week, the bubbly Yuna took time out to chat with Malaysiakini via Zoom. We talked about the struggles she faced in the early part of her career, her upcoming album, grief and how she's adjusted to the pandemic as well as her immense love for banana leaf rice.

This is her story, in her own words:

I struggled in the early part of my career with not having guidance on how to get my music abroad. A few Malaysians have done it before, but a lot of people don't know how difficult it is to do so. The formula has always been so mysterious to me.

One of the first people who managed to do that successfully was Zee Avi. She was such a huge inspiration to me so I was like, "if she can do it, I can do it too" because it was always my lifelong dream to make music. I pretty much had to start from scratch and really find out how to do it.

I got really lucky because my management reached out to me about 11 years ago. The minute I got my manager’s email I said "Okay let's do it. Let's just try it and see." The biggest struggle was understanding the process and having to go through it alone.

I also thought about how I wanted to portray myself, which proved to be a struggle in the US. It wasn’t easy, especially when you’re a Muslim Southeast Asian woman who wears the hijab trying to make it in the American music scene. I just had to learn quickly and make the right decisions.

There were a few things that I struggled with in the beginning but Alhamdulillah, it was smooth sailing for me after that. I figured out my songwriting methods and how to work with people. The social settings were different so I had to learn that.

I had never lived overseas (prior to living in the US). I never had friends in the US. Everything was just starting fresh for me, and figuring out how to establish myself as an artist like how I did in Malaysia.

I didn’t feel like I had to dress differently in the US to fit in. Of course, I had to glam up at a certain level and I was always down for that. I love fashion so I was totally up for having my style evolve in a different way. But I have never felt like I had to show more legs or take off the hijab.

Nobody I met in the US has made me feel small because I was a hijabi, because I was different. Everyone that I met was on board with what I wanted to do and my identity. I was very lucky to have a team that was really supportive and understood what I stood for from the beginning.

The fans really understand what I am all about. I am Yuna. I am really just a regular person and a regular human being who loves music, fashion and making people happy. At the same time, I am a practising Muslim. I wear the hijab because I love the concept of modesty. I have fans who get that.

When I go from one city to another my fans show up and they support me and sing along. I cannot believe that people still sing along to my music, especially in the US or when I am touring in Europe.

I have no idea what Hollywood looks like right now. I am sure they are all just back to partying which I do not agree with, especially with the Delta variant that is out there.

I have always been a homebody since the beginning. I love my work and that was my party. I could party in the studio with some Thai food and work on my music. If I am not home, I am in the studio with my producer working on music. I loved that. It was my dream since I was a kid so I never took it for granted.

My daily life pre-Covid-19 would be me in the studio from the afternoon till about 5 to 6pm. I would be back home for dinner. My husband and I would order in or cook something Malaysian.

There is the glitz and glamour part of Hollywood once in a while, which I would go to. Or a movie premiere to support a friend. But it always revolved around work.

If my album cycle was done and if I wasn’t touring, I would usually pack my bags and head back to Malaysia. That has always been my thing. If there was nothing to do in Los Angeles I would head back to Kuala Lumpur because my whole family is out here.

Yuna with husband Adam Sinclair.
Yuna with husband Adam Sinclair.

This is the longest that I have been back in Malaysia. A lot has happened, and I am actually really thankful to be able to be in Malaysia and spend time with my family. I managed to spend a lot of time with my late cousin who just passed away from Covid-19.

That was something that really hit me. If I hadn’t been here I wouldn't be able to say my goodbyes and I wouldn't have been able to hang out with her more.

You know, you learn to adjust to the situation that you're in. Even though it has not exactly been an ideal situation for me because I would have still preferred to be back in Los Angeles workwise, but I'm really happy that I got this time to just lay low and relax a little.

I have never been on a real vacation in the past 10 years, except for my honeymoon which lasted for five days. I have been working nonstop since. This has been the longest break that I've taken so far in my life, and I'm really glad that I get to do that.

I feel like I could have gone back (to the US) a lot earlier. But I decided to stay (in Malaysia) because I wanted to make sure my family members were vaccinated. That was the priority for me and my husband. We wanted to make sure our parents were vaccinated, that we were vaccinated, then we can leave. And obviously, it took a while but at least now we’re vaccinated and are planning on heading back to the US sometime in the near future.

A lot of musicians and artists in Malaysia are affected by the lockdown. They really don't have other avenues. You can put out music but promoting it is less effective if you're not on tour and not putting on a great show. I am struggling with that a little bit because I am starting to see the benefits of being on the road.

Now I'm able to just put out music and I still have fans who know who I am. I'm still able to get that fan base to support my new music. So I'm very lucky in that sense.

I do miss the working and travelling part of the job, but I am in no hurry at all to go on tour, especially with Covid-19 still being out there and all these variants that we don't understand. Safety is first for me. I really just want to be responsible.

I have gotten show offers but I've had to postpone them until it's safe to have a crowd in the same building, then I'll do it. I really don't want people to have to experience the death of a family member from Covid-19.

It was very surreal losing my cousin, Amy. She and I would talk every day, even about Covid-19. It was an issue that we were both very passionate about and we agreed to take care of ourselves. We even agreed not to see each other during this Raya. When she got Covid-19, my whole world just kind of… you know.

The number one thing that people need to understand when I talk about Covid-19 is that I never expected it to happen to my family. We have always been careful and didn't go out when we feel the cases are too high.

Even if I went to a photoshoot prior to the recent lockdown, I would hire a medic on set who would sanitise everything and make sure everyone was following the standard operating procedure (SOP). I was very careful about it and my cousin was too. We were especially careful around her as she was a diabetic and had a failing kidney.

We try to take the grief day by day. But it hasn’t been easy. My cousin’s mum was also in the hospital fighting Covid-19 so we didn’t have time to actually grieve for my cousin. It happened all so quickly. I really want people to understand that it happens in a chain reaction. The whole family’s health conditions can deteriorate really quickly. It is just painful. Every day we try to move on knowing that she is in a better place.

My family and I see Covid-19 very differently now. Even though we used to be careful, we were still relaxed. Now we are extra careful, almost paranoid. We just don’t want to go through it again. It is really crazy to think that before, we could just go out but now going out is a matter of life and death to us.

On getting vaccinated - I think it goes without saying, getting vaccinated protects you and your family. It's a no-brainer for me. I have a few relatives with chronic illnesses. If it (getting vaccinated) is something that will help us beat Covid-19 and protect our loved ones, then I will do it.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to do that fast enough and we had to learn it the hard way through a death in the family.

I definitely think that from this experience, I really want to educate more people to make better judgments. For example, with the oximeter. I think people are probably tired of my tweets and posts of the oximeter, but that knowledge saved my aunt’s life.

I didn’t know that if your oxygen level is below 95 you have to go to the hospital because that means you may be suffering from hypoxia. My late cousin had told me her oxygen was at 70 and I had thought that was okay. It is not okay, but we had no idea what it meant.

I think my biggest regret was not reading up more, and I really don't want anyone to go through the same thing. I really want to get the information out there and hopefully, that will save lives.

I even sent a few oximeters to some families who could not afford the real thing. I randomly reached out to some B40 families a couple of times and had it delivered to them.

Sometimes I look through social media for anybody who is posting about Covid-19 and I ask them about their family member who has the virus.

They do get starstruck in the beginning but I’m like, "Okay cool. But listen to me, we got to act quick." They might be a bit taken aback by the fact I reached out to them, but they have been so lovely. I helped provide an oximeter to a girl’s mother who had Covid-19 and she’s now fully recovered. Alhamdulillah.

Charity bodies have yet to reach out to me so that I don’t have to send oximeters by myself. Hopefully, in the future I get to work with them, then it’ll make my work easier because I wouldn’t have to order all these oximeters myself and send them over. But it is also nice to help people directly. I have been doing that on a non-public scale. I love reaching out (to people) through direct messages.

Advice to those who are hesitant about being vaccinated - Try to make better decisions. You just have to educate yourself about things that might affect you and the people around you. If you have a (medical) condition, it is understandable if you don’t want to get vaccinated.

If you don’t (have a medical condition), you have to get vaccinated. It will protect you from having major health issues later on and even save you from death by Covid-19. Remember that you have to protect the people around you. You can’t be selfish.

If you find out one of your family members has Covid-19, check on them every day and give them morale support. When you're in the hospital on your own it's horrible, I think.

To know that my cousin was in there by herself kills me every day. Just make sure they (the patients) act quick, get enough support and love.

Again, knowledge of things like oximeters and vitamins will help you. And it will hopefully make things better for you.

What makes me laugh - My husband makes me laugh. He has always been a jokester and is my source of happiness. We also have three new kittens, they are so cute and silly.

And honestly, the memories I have of my late cousin. She was the funniest of all the family members and the funniest person I know. She is just the best. When we talk about her, even though we are sad, we still laugh at her jokes.

We will always remember her even though she’s gone. It’s really funny how she would imitate local celebrities and that still makes me smile. What a loss, but she is in a better place. I just miss her.

I am still figuring out the theme of my next album. Initially, it was something else but lately, it has changed. Now that I’m going back to the US and preparing to work on this album, I have a different idea for it. Who knows, I may have a different idea next month. But it would definitely play around the vibe of the new single I just put out "Don’t Blame it on Love" with Pink Sweat$.

I think the world needs some healing songs right now, not the party upbeat ones. Even though it may seem like things are going back to normal, I feel that we can still appreciate something more soothing and relaxing. I have recently been looking back at my 2012 self-titled album, and I love that album so much I might do something similar - a bit more melodic and innocent.

When I go back to Los Angeles, I will definitely miss banana leaf rice. There is nothing like it. It is my favourite food of all time, I can just have that and nothing else. I am taking notes on how to make good curry because we can’t find anything like that in the US.

I will miss my cats too - I have grown so attached to them. They are attached to me too but I can't put them on a 17-hour flight, so they will be with my parents.

I will miss my family. At the moment we are stuck in one house and it feels like we’re in a TV series, like an episode of "Full House". There is always something going on, we are always bantering about something. I will definitely miss that.

My mum would always try to sneak something into my luggage and I wouldn’t even be aware of it. Sometimes when my luggage gets checked at the airport, airport security will find a tupperware wrapped in tinfoil. And they would open it and find sambal ikan bilis (anchovy sambal) in it!

I want the world to heal and be in a better place. I don’t want it to go back to normal, but for it to be a better place. One where we have learned a lot about ourselves, and fight for the important things that matter. That’s my wish.

MALAYSIANSKINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.

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