In campaign images for Uniqlo’s new line, Yuna Zarai stands near her longtime friend, designer and fashion blogger Hana Tajima. They’re usually in spare, tasteful rooms, and they’re both wearing head scarves—Yuna’s turban-like and knotted at the front; Hana’s looser, falling over her shoulders. They look comfortable together, and elegant.
When Uniqlo, the Japanese casual-wear company, launched its first line aimed at hijab-wearing Muslim women and decided to release it in the Western world, the press took it as a harbinger of change. The face of the line would be Yuna, a Malaysian pop star who moved to Los Angeles five years ago. “The hottest singer coming from Southeast Asia,” Marie Claire called her, mentioning that her stateside appeal had to do with her music, of course, but also that she’s one of few pop figures here to wear hijab.
“There’s nothing political about it,” says Yuna. It’s a Monday afternoon, and she’s sitting in a makeup chair, music playing in the background as a makeup artist hovers over her. She speaks deliberately, thinking before she proceeds. Her collaboration with Uniqlo happened organically, she explains: “I’m not trying to make a statement. I just want to make music. And at the same time, it would be great to be able to be myself. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not Muslim.”
Now 29, the singer had been in law school and performing mostly in her native language when she first gained a following back in 2009. She was playing ukulele in cafés, posting her Malay and English songs on her MySpace page as views climbed. She’d just released her sweet, slow single “Deeper Conversation” when managers in the U.S. approached her. Would she consider visiting Los Angeles to work with producers here? By 2011, she’d signed with the Fader label and was making the most of her music stateside.
In 2012, she collaborated with Pharrell Williams on “Live Your Life,” a single for her debut U.S. album, Yuna. Soothing and restless all at once, it has a lightly tropical mood, but her voice overlays itself, as if she’s building toward something bigger and deeper. The song didn’t fit cleanly into any one genre; no one knew quite how to categorize it. Since then, she’s learned how to make her own identity resonate more intentionally with the musical forms she’s fallen for here.
“I’m from Malaysia—I grew up with pop music and rock in a Muslim, musically inclined household. That’s where I come from,” she says. “So how do you fit that in with an urban hip-hop beat? I’m not going to write about struggling in the hood.” She laughs. “You can only write what you know.”
She spent two years on her latest album, Chapters. The single, “Places to Go,” expresses a desire for freedom, being in Malaysia but dreaming of flying to somewhere new. The sound is sensual but not sexy, measured and self-reflective.
Yuna seems quite comfortable with her appearance, even as she searches for some sort of existential fulfillment. Perhaps that’s why her appearance and demeanor have garnered so much attention in the States: She’s simply being herself, while the hijab is something Western culture has found discomforting for years.
“If you wear the head scarf, you’re supposed to be oppressed,” says Yuna. “So people would question me: ‘Did someone tell you to do this?’ ” She sees her modesty differently, as a point on a spectrum. “There’s that end of the spectrum where girls are proud of their bodies, proud of their hair, which is fine. But there’s another end of the spectrum, where girls are more reserved. I think I’ve always been reserved. It’s kind of the person that I am. It’s not only religious.”
She didn’t have many pop-culture role models growing up. None of the female artists she looked up to wore hijab. By being the face of Uniqlo and starting her own fashion line, she’s trying to change that.
“I think a lot of other girls like me feel out of place,” she says. “I don’t want girls to see their beliefs as a burden. I’m like any other woman with a belief system. It’s kind of nice to just show people their prejudices are bullshit. I’m a normal girl.”