When I first stumbled upon SYA’s latest music video “Madame” while clicking around YouTube, it got my attention. Here was this über-cool female rapper from Southeast Asia — there aren’t so many around — and her lyrical flow, empowering messages, and chic fashions were epic.
But what was even more impressive was how warm, friendly, and down-to-Earth she was during our interview. Our video chat between New York City and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia felt like two girlfriends catching up more than anything else.
SYA (pronounced Sha) had news, too. As the first female rapper from Southeast Asia to be signed to Def Jam records, she had just recently broken ties with her label of two years and was going indie. Perhaps her independence and forward focus should be no surprise to her fans, who first blew up her freestyle raps virally on Twitter in 2019.
This artist is a creative, powerful force of slick rhymes and fresh styles with a cultural background that leaves me and her thousands of fans wanting more.
“Being independent, it’s a whole other ballgame,” she told me. “Even creatively, I want to work with other independents. I didn’t want to disrupt that creative momentum, whether it’s between me or a producer or a beat maker or a rapper.”
Her debut single, “Pretty Girl Bop,” made headlines throughout Asia for her lyrical abilities to express a message of female empowerment. She spits lines like, “Lemme see you work your magic, watch these fellas berzerkin’/ Have him spend couple hunnids/ Then I David Cop‘ field him.” She quickly reminds me of musical icons Rihanna or Missy Elliott.
Malaysian Born “Creative Kid”
Although SYA was born in Malaysia, she was raised overseas as a child before moving back to her native lands to graduate high school. During those years, she joined all the talent shows, plays, and performances she could.
“I wanted to be that creative kid,” she said, laughing. “I grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B. I love how hip-hop and R&B allow you to be so outspoken, yet poetic. When you take out the flow, cadence, and tone, rap is poetry on its own.”
Before Def Jam signed her, she considered music her favorite hobby. Her real work, she said, was in writing. She worked as a travel writer, copywriter, and social media marketing — the latter of which might explain why her Instagram is so dope.
“Storytelling is my favorite thing,” she said.
Her life changed when her mother passed away. They were very close. She turned to her music and her writing, especially her dedicated journaling practice. SYA said she has stacks of journals, which she might consider turning into a book one day.
Viral Freestyling Led to a New Career
By working through her pain, she started to see the healing nature of songs. Her songwriting, she said, became an open diary in which she channeled universal emotions over a hot beat. Even if the music simply helped people clean the house with a twerk, that was success.
Before pandemic lockdown, she suddenly found her freestyle raps going viral on Twitter. In early 2020 Def Jam South East Asia Recordings signed her, and her career took off. She said it’s still hard to realize the reach and impact of her music.
“I was able to use the passion for writing and turn it into a career in music,” she said. “I was signed during the lockdown, and that was a weird introduction to the music industry. My first song was recorded by Facetime. My own contract was electrically signed.”
At the time, she said she didn’t even have a Soundcloud yet. She had to learn fast about the music business, which she noticed often got in the way of being creative.
“Music is a tricky business, even in Malaysia,” she said. “I’m happy that the label has helped me in terms of branding, but I felt like I needed to learn my roots. That was easier when I didn’t have the added pressure of the business side of things.”
SYA Is Doing Things Her Way
When SYA started to feel like the “business” side was impacting her creative process, she knew it was time to be independent. With gratitude for the path Def Jam paved, she was ready to go down what could be a challenging indie path. But she’s confident that the modern digital age has made it easier for creatives. After all, she already achieved viral status.
Her well-deserved confidence isn’t foolproof, however. She admits that her rapid rise to fame brought on some bouts of imposter syndrome. That’s where her journals — and her long-time, loyal friends from around the world — support her mental health. It can be tough to be authentic and break down gender stereotypes in the age of cyber-bullying and toxic cancel culture, she admitted.
“Because I started out in the pandemic, I had to find my audience through Wi-Fi,” she said. “But now, if someone knows my songs or lyrics, it’s just wow. TikTok videos? Like, ‘oh!’”
Next Up: Focus on SYA
SYA said she’s got some projects in the works but wasn’t ready to share. She’s still planning on leading the way with her fashion that mixes timeless pieces found in thrift stores. After all, everything is art to her — including the times when she just wants to Netflix and chill with her cat.
It was her down-to-Earth, humble personality that was most refreshing to me. As we talked, she repeatedly expressed honor to be the first South East Asian female rapper for Def Jam, but she also said she wanted to avoid competition. She hopes that new collaborations and projects will encourage the growth of Malaysia’s music scene and elsewhere throughout the region. She sees even more crossover tracks gaining popularity worldwide, thanks to today’s digital platforms.
SYA expects big things going indie. She said she’s ready to see her face in Times Square, and with her hot hooks and business savvy, I can believe it.
“Now it’s expanding what it means for me to be a female rapper,” she said. “I represent being Malaysian as a Muslim Malay girl and working with any artist overseas would be cool. I don’t want any air of competition. Now that I’m independent, I want to make it SYA.”