The fashion in the United States music scene is often dictated by critics who are intimidated by anything unfamiliar. Yet Yuna, an R&B artist from Malaysia, is taking a stance against this ignorance by being true to her Muslim identity. Her hijab (or headscarf, when the occasion is right) is displayed publicly to prove critics that her wardrobe is her choice, which empowers both women and Asian-American musicians by forcing the audience to accept their identity.
Though Yuna debuted in Malaysia in 2008, she did not release an album in the United States until 2011. When her first music video “Come as You Are” came out, her hijab immediately was one of the first thing critics noticed (Refinery29 wrote an article on her hijab before they ever wrote a review on her music). Though now she wears her scarf as a turban more often than a traditional hijab, she is still told to “take off hijab” and conform to a westernized sense of fashion.
This is not the first time Asian Americans wearing hijabs have been under scrutiny. As stated in an article published by the Harvard International Review, Western countries such as the United States are driven by a “White Savior Complex,” which “(seeks) to ‘liberate’ less privileged people and societies in other parts of the world by acting on their behalf.” The impression of privilege that white people have, such as better gender and socioeconomic equality, gives them a sense of superiority. To an ignorant crowd, hijabs can easily be seen as a device used to oppress women in “uncivilized third-world countries.”
For the veiled-woman, whether in France or elsewhere, her future is daunting. Her veil marks her as oppressed, while she is simultaneously ostracized as a Muslim. Nevertheless, I urge her to resist—to fight to assert her autonomy—for that is the truest manifestation of freedom.
Excerpt from the Harvard International Review
To those criticizing her hijab or headscarf, Yuna makes it very clear that she is in no need of saving. “It’s my personal choice — it’s just kind of weird when people say ‘take off your hijab and be you’ because this is me, I’m being myself. I’m not oppressed,” she said in an interview with New York Magazine because her ability to choose her own clothing gives her liberation. She is capable of wearing a bright hijab – which she has the option of taking off if she were not as devoted to her faith – and being true to her identity while performing in the United States. The only thing that is oppressing her in this situation is the ethnocentric views of critics who believe she needs to be saved from her own culture.
“When I put it on, I feel more confident. A lot of people think it’s a symbol of oppression. But it’s very liberating, actually.”
Yuna during an interview with Vogue
It is significant that Yuna is taking a stance against the hegemonic fashion scene in the world of music because she is challenging the social norm and pushing for acceptance of Asian culture. By telling musicians to conform to a westernized way of clothing, society is erasing their racial, ethnic identities; anything that is unfamiliar to white culture is deemed as inappropriate and ignored. According to singer Z. Woods’ interview with Bustle, it enforces racial stereotypes about Asian-Americans (“that someone who looks Asian is automatically a foreigner”) which “clash with the standard of the “sexy and cool” persona that artists are supposed to have in the music industry.” This is detrimental to Asian-American artists because it sends the message that they are unable to succeed unless they seem “white.” Unfortunately, Asian Americans can never be truly white, thus a far-fetching conclusion can be made that Asian Americans can never succeed in the current music scene that values “whiteness” over genuineness.
Another important problem that is highlighted by the conflict of Yuna’s headscarf is ethnocentrism. People feel the need to “save” Yuna from her headscarf because they assume Malaysian culture is oppressive. Asian culture itself often holds several negative connotations, such as submissiveness, inequality, and backwardness. Thus, if Asian-American musicians try to express their identity within their music, western listeners may automatically be turned off by their prejudices and biases. This is comparable to when western musicians are free to dress up to express their culture and identity (Miley Cyrus dressing up as a “cute” cow girl, dipping into her Southern roots), which shows the complete lack of equality of condition in the music scene and the imbalance of power dynamics between western and Asian culture.
As if she is trying to make her indifference with hijab critics any clearer, Yuna stood as the face of UNIQLO’s 2016 SS hijab collaboration with Hana Tajima, a muslim designer. She also collaborated with Malaysian clothing brand Losravelda to launch “Yuna for Losravelda,” which sells fashionable headscarves.
Yuna now sells a wide variety of scarves from her clothing brand November Culture as well. As multiple pictures of her in different, brightly colored headscarves scatter across the web page, there is no doubt that she is posing in front of the camera in a hijab because of her own free will. The scarves frame her face, highlighting her heavily lined eyes and fair complexion; she does not leave room for people to doubt her happiness and liberty. The day people see only beauty in the headscarves will be the day Asian Americans are free to celebrate their identity in their music without fearing being alienated by the public.