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Meet Amirah of Amirah Group

Today we’d like to introduce you to Amirah.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My story as a singer-songwriter and artist begins with my song “Katakanlah.” Back in 2010, the Christians and Muslims were fighting over the right to use of the word “Allah” in the Malay Bible in Malaysia, and as a result, several houses of worship on both sides were desecrated. I felt sad, angry, and disappointed. Despite being an introvert, I was so sad and angry at this unrest that I felt compelled to speak out. My words arrived through song. “Katakanlah” poured out of me as quickly as it came.

I felt compelled to share it with the world, but I was uncomfortable and afraid for two reasons. First, religious sensitivities can run high in Malaysia, and I was unsure of what the response would be to a song like “Katakanlah.” Second, it was a terrifying idea to share a song with my own voice since I always wrote my music with other singers in mind. However, the message of the song was far more important than my introversion. I asked myself, If this could end my new songwriting career, would I still do it?

The answer resounded deep within me: yes. Nervously, I decided to go ahead and share my song. To my surprise, “Katakanlah” was greatly accepted throughout the country. I received a lot of support from newly discovered fans as well as activists, actors and prominent bloggers, including Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, daughter of Tun Mahathir, Malaysia’s prime minister, Patrick Teoh, Syed Akbar Ali, and Sivin Kit. Everything happened so fast.

Although I felt uncomfortable in the spotlight, I was happy to know there were people who shared similar thoughts with me. For the very first time, I did not feel alone. After hearing demos I had written for other artists on my website, my new fans asked me why I didn’t sing and release these songs myself. They encouraged me to sing and release my music as an artist. Some of these songs were later released by singers such as Dato Siti Nurhaliza (Malaysia’s No. 1 megastar for the past decade), Alif Satar, Nadeera, Atilia Haron and a few others.

However, deep down inside me, I knew I had several songs that were so closely tied to me, that did not fit the usual pop format, that fused global traditional music, and modern cinematic pop; these were songs that talked about things other than just love, covering themes of unity, interracial and interreligious love, the love of a mother, songs that were uniquely me.I then realized that that was my calling: to write songs with a message and be that voice, as well as to create a Global Hybrid Music™ sound where I could fuse the two worlds I constantly lived in. It was then that I decided to begin my career as a singer-songwriter and artist.

This step seemed wildly unpredictable, but it was a huge turning point for my career. I felt humbled when “Katakanlah” went on to win several awards and was a finalist at the ISC International Songwriting Competition judged by Timbaland, Peter Gabriel, and Rihanna in 2011, beating 15,000 other international entries from 115 countries. One of my goals is to bring traditional music and cinematic pop music into the main stage, and I felt humbled and blessed to be able to do it in some way through these nominations and awards.

The song was a semifinalist for ISC International Songwriting Competition in 2013, ranking at the top of 19,000 entries from over 100 countries, and it was a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition in 2010. It was also nominated at the Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM) awards, the Malaysian equivalent to the Grammys. This brings me back to my Tanahair, (homeland): Malaysia. My home country of Malaysia made me who I am as a singer-songwriter and an artist. It is a melting pot where so many religions, races, and ethnicities, as well as hybrid cultures and backgrounds, gather together. Hybrid cultures are part and parcel of what it means to be Malaysian.

I have a niece of Indian, Malay and Chinese heritage and my brother and sister-in-law’s baby is Punjabi, Malay, Indian and Chinese. I come from a multicultural background. I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with my Indian father and my Malay mother. My childhood was spent listening to my father’s Hindustani songs and my mother’s keroncong music in the background. I enjoyed the clothing, culture, music, food, and language of both my Malay and Indian heritage. I had friends from many different religions and backgrounds.

At the same time, I loved a blend of music. Since age five, I’ve been interested in music and loved pop and classical. I took classical piano lessons when I was very young. A few years after that, I started writing my own short piano compositions, and later at university, I became smitten with the Javanese Gamelan. As an introvert, music was the vehicle that allowed me to fully express my emotions and thoughts. It was my first love, the only thing that understood me during times of pain.

I also painted and drew endlessly, but there was something that music could do that art could not for me. I enjoyed the intense dynamics of classical music and loved the strong melodies and beats in pop music and listening to the radio. The biggest influences on my musical career ran the spectrum: Yo Yo Ma, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Anoushka Shankar, Silk Road Ensemble, Timbaland, Sa Ding Ding, Aaliyah, and Zainal Abidin. I felt deep within me that music is something that can connect us. It connected me to my emotions. Through music, I found true innate myself.

One of my core values is to question everything. I always questioned the status quo. At age 12, I read an article by Zainah Anwar that explored and questioned women’s rights and equality. Other than questioning who I was in my gender, I also started to question my cultural identity, especially coming from mixed parentage. I realized, as my true self, that I was a citizen of the world. I questioned restrictions on freedom of speech and equality. I believe we should be able to be our true selves, whatever that may be, without restrictions, shame or guilt.

I believe that everyone should be free to love and marry whom they want without religious restriction or conversion. It breaks my heart when I hear stories of people who love each other but are unable to be together due to differences in religion and culture, or the pressure to change one’s religion. I have personally faced this myself and have seen it happen to people around me. Therefore, I constantly express and write about this in my music.

My songs sometimes deal with controversial subjects such as intercultural and interreligious relationships, praising tolerance and unity, combining traditional instruments with modern music. There are many individuals who are children of mixed parentage, who have lived in more than one country, who have bridged different ways of living. I create art that reflects this hybrid life.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It is never easy when you are trying to do something out of the box. When I first started out many years back, there were not many artists in Malaysia combining pop music with traditional instruments. I would have these traditional instruments, such as the gamelan, appear in my music and perform with them live. It was also not common yet to release original Aidilfitri songs as I did with my first EP, or combining Malay, Chinese and Indian instruments in Aidilfitri songs. Some people found this strange, but this is what made me unique and different as an artist.

The other challenge was to find musicians and producers who understood my vision and hybrid concept without trying to change who I was or worry about what would “sell.” It took a long time to find the right team that could understand and accept my vision. I felt so blessed to meet Grammy Award-winning producer, Jeff Bova, who has worked on a hundred gold and platinum albums. I’m in the studio working on my debut album, and I’m excited to work with him and collaborate with several amazing traditional and modern musicians.

My Global Hybrid Music™ is a mix of East meets West with a dark, dynamic, melancholic, and, cinematic mood. It infuses my love for the ancient textures of multicultural, traditional instruments and music with western classical music and pop. I realized while I was working with Jeff in the studio that there is so much duality in my music and my personality: masculine/ feminine, light/dark, modern/traditional. It showcases everything I am without ignoring or erasing my identity.

Lastly, it is not easy being an independent artist. I did everything myself, from managing and booking to marketing and graphic design. Although it was a challenge, it was also a great blessing as it forced me to learn all the different facets of the music business. After several years of working non-stop and handling everything on my own as an independent artist, it finally took a toll on me, and I fell very ill with Adrenal Insufficiency. I was bedridden for two years. It did not help that smoking was allowed in all public places, including performing venues in Malaysia.

I finally had to undergo tonsil removal operation for the sake of my career. I really hope smoking will be banned from public venues in Malaysia one day. It crushed me to give up on my music career during those years of physical recovery. I watched everything I built tumble down. But the illness was a great gift to me in one way: I spent a lot of time reflecting on myself and how I wanted my life to be.

My most recent challenge appeared when I was diagnosed with Aspergers as an adult. It felt like I had been stumbling in the dark my whole life and suddenly God decided to switch on the lights. Everything finally clicked and made sense: my social difficulties, my high sensitivities to sound. I feel blessed to have these great innate gifts as someone with Asperger’s, although it was, and still is, very challenging. One thing is for sure: it has taught me to embrace and be myself without apology.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
The core message of my music and brand channels, both musically and philosophically, is about unity through diversity. I fuse instruments such as the gamelan, sitar, erhu, and music from both traditional and modern worlds into Global Hybrid™ music. It is a clash of East Meets West with textures created from different worlds and the passion, intensity and cinematic arc of Western classical music. My lyrics often focus on interfaith and intercultural relationships, unity, war, and love.

I think it is important to question our traditions, rituals, and heritage so we can appreciate and continue what is relevant and let go what no longer fits with our current human values. Why do we have to change our names? Why do we have to dress like those in the West? Why can’t we embrace who we are and where we’re from and dress how we like as both Western and Eastern? Why can’t we be an introvert, highly sensitive person, empath or atypical, and celebrate this neurodiversity and be proud of our great gifts?

I’m pushing for this deeper exploration and appreciation of cultures and traditions beyond my debut album, through my brand’s video platforms. We are currently shooting two documentaries and a cultural series. The first documentary, Up Close: MaRia Bodmann, follows Bodmann’s life as the Americas’ first female Dalang (shadow puppet master).

Our second documentary, Up Close: Daniel Schmidt, explores Schmidt’s role as a pioneer of the American Gamelan scene and one of the top gamelan instrument builders and American Gamelan composer. Our cultural series is called Exploring Culture and is comprised of 5- and 10-minute mini-documentaries focusing on cultural events. We want to inspire unity by showcasing the beauty in diversity.

We can appreciate all our differences and celebrate how much similarities we all have. It’s past time to push the envelope and challenge the status quo. As humanity, we are all connected. This is the ultimate message I want to send through Global Hybrid Music™ and through all aspects of my music, brand, and company.

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Image credit: 

Vanessa Viola, Will Crowther

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