Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - SYA, Def Jam’s taboo-breaking Malay woman hip-hop artist

SYA, Def Jam’s taboo-breaking Malay woman hip-hop artist

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Malaysian hip-hop artist Nur Batrisya Mohammad Nazri, known as SYA, speaks during an interview at a studio in Kuala Lumpur. AFP

SYA, Def Jam’s taboo-breaking Malay woman hip-hop artist

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 label Def Jam – the label 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,” SYA, whose long dark hair is uncovered, said.

“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 Singapore 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,” the rapper reveals, 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?’”

‘Imposter syndrome hit me’

While Malaysia is a relatively affluent country, society remains largely conservative, with critics saying women’s rights are not sufficiently protected and harassment is common.

SYA says she is facing down the “patriarchal mindset” and “sexualisation” of those who don’t conform to the cliched expectations of Muslim women.

Most members of Malaysia’s ethnic Malay Muslim community follow a moderate form of the religion and while the majority of women wear a headscarf, there is no law requiring it.

But conservative Islam has been gaining ground, pushed by hardline politicians and preachers, accompanied by growing criticism of any activities and behaviour seen as undermining the faith.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
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. AFP

For SYA – real name Nur Batrisya Mohammad Nazri – art and religion should be kept firmly separate, however.

“What does [religion] have to do with me as an artist, and what I create?” she said.

The artist, who spent much of her childhood overseas, burst onto the music scene almost by accident when she posted some of her work online, drawing the attention of well-known local 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,” says SYA.

The star confesses she was plagued by “self-doubt” and taken aback by her success.

She recalls: “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.”

‘Be your own person’

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 was her “biggest supporter”.

After months of only doing online shows due to a lengthy coronavirus shutdown in Malaysia, she now plans to return to live performing.

SYA has yet to run into trouble with authorities but artists regularly do in Malaysia.

Rapper Namewee, from the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, relocated to Taiwan after controversy over videos he made that critics allege insult Islam.

Despite this, SYA still thinks male artists have far more freedom to rap about sensitive subjects in the conservative country without fear of being criticised.

“For the boys, there are no limitations. If they want to rap about sex or weed, it is a pass,” she said.

“But for women, if you are Malay, you don’t want to insinuate you are doing all of those things.”

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.”


  • 12th Cambodia int’l film festival to see return of Hollywood star

    Phnom Penh is set to come alive with the magic of cinema as the highly anticipated 12th Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) takes centre stage. Boasting an impressive line-up of 188 films from 23 countries, including captivating shorts, feature films, documentaries and animation, the festival promises an

  • Brawl marrs football final as Indonesian take gold in seven goal thriller

    The Indonesian men's U22 men national football team were crowned champions of the 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia, defeating Thailand 5-2 in extra time on May 16 at Olympic National Stadium in Phnom Penh. The match was marred by an ugly incident that occured in the 91

  • Bareknuckle champion wants Kun Khmer fighter

    Dave Leduc, who is the current openweight Lethwei boxing champion in Myanmar, has announced that he will travel to Cambodia this year to challenge SEA Games gold medallist Prum Samnang any time that is convenient, after their planned match later this month in Slovakia was

  • Candlelight Party disqualified from July general election

    The National Election Committee (NEC) has disqualified the Candlelight Party (CP) from contesting the upcoming general election, citing a lack of valid documentation. NEC spokesman Khorn Keomono said the CP failed to fulfil one of the three main requirements: including original documentation proving their registration

  • 1.4 billion dollar Phnom Penh-Bavet expressway due in four years

    The Government, through the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, has officially signed a public-private partnership agreement with a private company for the construction of a Phnom Penh-Bavet Expressway project that will connect the capital to Svay Rieng province. The budget for the project is

  • New Law on Taxation comes into effect

    Cambodia has enacted the eagerly-awaited new Law on Taxation, which aims to improve the national tax regime’s compliance with present and future international standards and economic conditions; encourage accountability, effectiveness and transparency in the collection process; and promote investment in the Kingdom. King Norodom