Yuna: Guided by the invisible hand of neoliberal multiculturalism

Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, better known by her stage name, Yuna, is a Malaysian singer-songwriter. Her music career began when she auditioned for One in a Million, a Malaysian TV show inspired by American Idol, in 2006 and began posting her music on MySpace. In 2008, she released her self-titled EP in Malaysia. She released her debut US EP in 2011. Yuna began her career in Malaysia as a pop singer and has developed an R&B sound since coming to the United States.

In addition to her Asian-ness, Yuna is greatly influenced by her faith as a Muslim. The intersection of these two identities has played a key role in her transition from Malaysia to the US. Through interviews and an archival analysis of her music and awards, it becomes evident that the white-dominated American management companies and record labels that “discovered” Yuna have applied the concept of neoliberal multiculturalism, assigning value to Yuna’s race and religion in a way that has forced her away from mainstream pop music and slotted her in the R&B mold. The deliberate remodeling of Yuna’s sound by hegemonic record companies highlights the need for record executives with Asian, Muslim, and other marginalized identities to advocate for artist integrity and against other barriers to entry. Without top-down facilitation, Asian-American musicians will continue to face hidden forces deflecting them from mainstream success, despite evidence that a significant market does exist for their talents.

Yuna’s discovery by the management company, Indie-Pop, began the commodification of her race and identity. Ben Willis, CEO of Indie-Pop, said that when he first saw Yuna and heard her music, he “knew right away that she was uber-talented… She’s going to change the game, not just musically but culturally.” From the onset, American record executives saw an opportunity to use Yuna’s race and religion to capitalize on shifting market cultures in music by seeking “to bring her voice to global audiences”. Willis got Yuna signed to a deal with Fader Records.

Fader arranged for Yuna to work with Pharrell Williams to produce her single, “Live Your Life”. Yuna was hesitant to work with Pharrell, saying, “My background is super acoustic, jazz, folky feel. How were we going to write songs together?” In Malaysia, Yuna became recognized for her acoustic, pop ballads, akin to a sadder, softer version of John Mayer. Her breakout single in Malaysia, called “Dan Sebenarnya” (“And Actually”), is a perfect example of her old style and won multiple Malaysian Music Awards, including Best Pop Song and Song of the Year. Compared to “Dan Sebenarnya”, “Live Your Life” is more electronic with a bold, repetitive beat and lacks the soulful vocals that not only hook the audience but also highlight Yuna’s impressive range and control. “Live Your Life” received little critical recognition.

As Yuna continued to establish herself in the American popular music scene, she incorporated more R&B influences into her songs. After she signed with Verve Music Group in 2013, she began working with The Fisticuffs to forge “a smooth, neo-soul sound with hints of Janet Jackson and Aaliyah.” Her latest album, Chapters, was released in 2016 and marked Yuna’s return to critical success, being listed as a Top 10 2017 R&B album by Billboard and nominated for a spot in the R&B Top 20 by Rolling Stone Magazine. Chapters represents the transformation of Yuna from a fledgling pop star to a blossoming R&B singer, guided by the management companies and record labels that recognized her cultural assets and potential to “change the game.”

When she first moved to the US, Yuna said that “Adele gives [her] hope” because Adele could find success in the US as an international pop star without modeling Lady Gaga or Ke$ha. Yuna dreamed of becoming the next big pop star but her dream took a detour into R&B. While some may dismiss this change as “natural” artist evolution, it is also likely that Yuna was purposefully kept away from mainstream pop music due to her identity and personal style. She ended up in R&B because record executives thought that the genre’s listeners and other artists would be more willing to accept an Asian, Muslim girl with dark skin. Record labels believe that in order to fully exploit Yuna’s racial and religious identity to create a new cultural commodity, she has to first gain a stable foothold in the US market; R&B was chosen because it previously incubated other non-white pop stars like Mariah Carey and Beyonce.

Yuna, however, differs from Mariah Carey and Beyonce in that her original sound was not R&B. If the original plan was for Yuna to “change the game” for pop music, then the reason for her artistic layover in R&B is the false belief that there’s no space for Yuna in the pop market. Asian and Muslim record executives need to raise their voices and advocate for artists like Yuna to break into the US market without compromising their natural sound. Neoliberal multiculturalism has allowed Yuna’s race and religion to aid in her “discovery” but letting her identity outshine and silence her artistic talent is a gross over-step. If Adele didn’t need to imitate Ke$ha to make it as a pop star in the US, Yuna shouldn’t need an R&B phase to do the same.

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