Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi’s path to musical stardom began five years ago in her bedroom with a second-hand guitar, a clunky old laptop and a YouTube account.
Her grainy, self-shot black-and- white rendition of her song Poppy soon gained a following, and further videos led to her discovery by Patrick Keeler of The Raconteurs and two albums that charted on the US Billboard 200.
“It was my birthday and I was out with friends for dinner. When I came back, I was like, ‘why are there 3,000 e-mails from YouTube?’” Zee, 26, said of her selection as the video-sharing site’s featured artist for Christmas 2007.
With a folk-soul sound resembling early Norah Jones, US-based Zee, who comes from a Muslim family, is among a wave of Malaysian women artists who have used social media to appeal directly to fans.
This has not only helped them gain popularity, but has also given them more leverage when it comes to the pressures and constraints faced by female singers and performers in their predominantly Muslim country, they say.
Another rising star is Yuna, a Muslim ethnic Malay whose soulful self-titled debut this year peaked at number 19 on Billboard magazine’s “Heatseekers” chart and has made some waves in the US. She is currently based in New York.
Yuna — who swaddles her hair in a chic version of the Muslim hijab headcovering worn by many Malaysian women — gained “three fans, then 3,000, then 300,000” after uploading her first song on Myspace in 2006.
Yet at home they face criticism from religious authorities, online trolls and the mainstream media over what they wear, who they date and where they go.
“Muslim females are generally free to perform in small venues in the local scene. But once they gain popularity, that’s when the problems start,” said Daryl Goh, senior music writer for English-language daily The Star. “The moral police start paying attention.”
Malaysia bars hugging, kissing, jumping and foul language by performers on stage. It also prohibits women from baring skin between their shoulders and knees.
Female stars often elicit attacks that they are promoting free sex and alcoholism — and in the case of Malay Muslim artistes, that they are degrading the community. Male stars rarely face such accusations.
Malaysian dance-pop artist Mizz Nina, who has a more overtly sexual style than Yuna or Zee Avi, released a debut single What You Waiting For in 2010 that has been viewed nearly 4 million times on YouTube.
Her songs also have been downloaded half a million times as phone ring tones, reflecting a more tech-savvy fanbase in a country where Internet use — especially Facebook — is heavy.
However, Nina, 32, who released a suggestive video for What You Waiting For, said she was taken aback by abuse on her Facebook page accusing her of “degrading Malay women.”
Nina, a Malay whose real name is Shazrina Azman, says she must walk a tightrope — between the “sex-sells” approach that finds success overseas and “limitations to what you can do as a Muslim.”
“The director said, ‘Nina I want some scenes where you’ve got the dancers grinding and getting dirty with each other,’” she said of a recent music video shoot.
“They can, but 100 percent it’ll be banned and they will say ‘Nina is promoting sex on the dancefloor.’ That’s where we have to be more creative,” she added.