Kuala Lumpur – Wearing sunglasses and a tiger-print dress as she raps into a microphone, Malaysian hip-hop artist Sya calls for empowerment while taking a hammer against stereotypes of Muslim women.
First woman to sign for Def Jam – the label behind superstars from Jay-Z and Rihanna to BTS and Justin Bieber – in Southeast Asia, her first single “PrettyGirlBop” addresses misogyny and acceptance in her country predominantly Muslim.
“I just want women to feel more comfortable in their own skin,” says Sya, whose long dark hair is uncovered. “I don’t have to pretend to be someone else just to match what society sees fit.”
The track, which also features up-and-coming Singaporean artist Yung Raja, features scenes of Sya dressed in white and stroking a cat wearing a pearl necklace in a lavish bedroom.
Highlighting her desire for women not to be cataloged, it then passes to her holding a snake and wearing a leopard-print jacket, as she defiantly raps, “I want to be like me.”
She is part of a cohort of young artists from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines who have been signed to the Southeast Asia branch of global music giant Def Jam.
Hailed by the industry as a rising star, the 25-year-old says she faces online abuse from those who think her behavior is inappropriate for a young Muslim woman.
“I had a lot of disturbing comments,” reveals the rapper, adding that she has been accused of being a prostitute and that her faith has been called into question. “Is she a Muslim? How much per night? Why is she showing so much skin? “
“The impostor syndrome hit me”
While Malaysia is a relatively wealthy country, society remains largely conservative, with critics saying women’s rights are not adequately protected and harassment is common.
Sya says she faces “patriarchal mindset” and “sexualization” of those who do not conform to stereotypical expectations of Muslim women
Most of the Malaysian Malay Muslim community follow a moderate form of religion and although the majority of women wear a headscarf, no law requires it.
But conservative Islam has gained ground, pushed by extremist politicians and preachers, accompanied by growing criticism of any activity and behavior seen as undermining the faith.
For Sya – whose real name is Nur Batrisya Mohammad Nazri – art and religion must however remain firmly separated.
“What does (religion) have to do with me as an artist and what I create? ” she says.
The artist, who spent much of her childhood abroad, burst onto the music scene almost by accident when she posted some of her work online, catching the attention of famous local rapper SonaOne. .
He put her in touch with Def Jam, who had launched a push in Southeast Asia, seeking to capitalize on a new wave of regional stars and a young population with increasing disposable income.
“First and foremost, I consider myself a writer… writing was the reason I do all of this… I never planned to be an artist,” says Sya.
The star admits that she was plagued by “self-doubt” and taken aback by her success.
She remembers: “The impostor syndrome really touched me. There are other people, especially independent artists, who make music 24/7 and are still struggling to sign.
“Be your own person”
Growing up, Sya took part in talent shows and listened to artists such as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.
She then drifted into hip-hop, because it was “such a straightforward kind of genre.”
Her parents are “getting used to the idea” of her becoming a star, she said, adding that her mother was her “biggest supporter”.
After months of only doing shows online due to a long coronavirus shutdown in Malaysia, she is now planning to return to performing live.
Sya hasn’t had any problems with the authorities yet, but artists do regularly in Malaysia.
Rapper Namewee, from the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, moved to Taiwan after controversy over the videos he made and which critics allege insulting Islam.
Despite this, Sya still believes male artists have a lot more freedom to rap on sensitive topics in the conservative country without fear of criticism.
“For boys, there are no limits. If they want to rap about sex or weed, that’s a pass, ”she said. “But for women, if you’re uneasy, you don’t want to imply that you’re doing all of these things.”
Sya hopes that her music will inspire other women, not to imitate her, but to be more confident in themselves.
“I don’t want to be the perfect role model,” she says. “You can take inspiration from me (to) be your own person. “
In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, concert halls and other public spaces.
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