M'sian female rapper SYA breaks taboos with debut single

Kuala Lumpur – Wearing sunglasses and a tiger print dress as she raps into a mic, Malaysian hip-hop artist SYA calls for empowerment while taking a sledgehammer to stereotypes of Muslim women.

The first female signing for US label Def Jam – behind superstars from Jay-Z and Rihanna to BTS and Justin Bieber – in Southeast Asia, her debut single PrettyGirlBop tackles misogyny and acceptance in her Muslim-majority homeland.

“I just want women to feel more comfortable in their own skin,” said SYA, whose long dark hair is uncovered.
“I don’t have to pretend to be somebody else just to fit what society deems is good.” 

The track, which also features up-and-coming Singaporean artist Yung Raja, includes scenes of SYA dressed in white, and stroking a cat wearing a pearl necklace in a lavish bedroom.

Underlining her desire that women should not be pigeon-holed, it then switches to her holding a snake and wearing a leopard print jacket, as she defiantly raps: “I wanna be like me.” 

She is among a crop of young artists from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines who have been signed by global music giant Def Jam’s Southeast Asian arm.

Lauded by the industry as a rising star, the 25-year-old says she faces online abuse from those who believe her behaviour is not appropriate for a young Muslim woman.

“I’ve had a lot of disturbing comments,” she said, adding that she has been accused of being a prostitute and had her faith questioned.

“’Is she a Muslim? How much per night? Why is she showing so much skin?’” 

SYA - whose real name is Nur Batrisya Mohammad Nazri and spent much of her childhood overseas - said she is facing down the “patriarchal mindset” and “sexualisation” of those who don’t conform to the cliched expectations of Muslim women.

She burst onto the music scene almost by accident when she posted some of her work online, drawing the attention of well-known French-Malaysia rapper SonaOne.

He connected her with Def Jam, which had started a push into Southeast Asia, seeking to capitalise on a new wave of regional stars and a youthful demographic with increasing disposable income.

“First and foremost, I consider myself a writer... writing was the reason I am doing all of this... I had never planned to be an artist,” said SYA.

She confessed she was plagued by “self-doubt” and taken aback by her success.

She recalled: “Impostor syndrome really hit me hard. There are other people out there, especially independent artists, who make music 24/7 and are still struggling to get signed.” 

Growing up, SYA took part in talent shows and listened to artists such as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.
She later drifted towards hip hop as it was “such an outspoken type of genre”.

Her parents are “getting used to the idea” of her becoming a star, she said, adding that her mum is her “biggest supporter”.

SYA hopes her music inspires other women – not to emulate her, but to be more confident in themselves.
“I don’t want to be the perfect role model,” she said.

“You can take inspiration from me (to) be your own person.” - AFP