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 American 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 emails from YouTube?'” Zee, 26, said of her selection as the video-sharing site’s featured artist for Christmas 2007.
She only posted “Poppy” for the benefit of a friend who had missed her maiden public performance.
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 – and successfully – 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 Malay women – gained “three fans, then 3,000, then 300,000” after uploading her first song on Myspace in 2006.
Yuna – Thinkin Bout You (Frank Ocean Cover)
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.
Authorities fined American female group Pussycat Dolls 10,000 ringgit (S$4,000) for “gross indecency” following a performance in 2006.
R&B superstar Beyonce Knowles twice cancelled shows in Malaysia amid protests over her “sexy” image while American singer Erykah Badu had a concert cancelled in February over a photo of the Arabic word for “Allah” painted on her body.
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 four 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.
But Nina, 32, who released a suggestive video for “What You Waiting For” that also featured US singer Colby O’Donis, 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.
Zee and Yuna dress more conservatively and grasp guitars rather than men on stage and in video but have also come under criticism.
As Zee’s career took off, she was chosen last year as a youth ambassador of her home state of Sarawak on Borneo island but she was accused of denying her roots when she spoke only English in a 2010 promotional visit to Kuala Lumpur.
Nevertheless, “this generation is definitely breaking stereotypes and as far as possible, the government has been very supportive as seen with the recognition Zee Avi has in Sarawak,” said Goh.
Zee said social media has given more power to the artist to decide “what to do and how to dress”.
With Yuna’s hijab framing her fashion-model looks, many young women look to her as a more conservative role model, someone who has deftly balanced success, both at home and abroad, with a Muslim image.
“She’s done everything right,” said Goh of the 25-year-old, whose full name is Yunalis Zarai.
But even she – the Malaysian face of global giants Oil of Olay, Samsung and Canon – says that her choice of a life in show business has seen her commitment to Islam questioned.
“I’m not Mizz Nina. I’m covered head to toe but still they say bad things about me. They say I’m a disgrace,” she said.
Yuna said that her use of social media such as Twitter or YouTube helped give her enough independence to have “this racehorse view – just shut everything out and go towards your goal and success”.
“It’s amazing what social media can do to your music and art if you know how to use it, have the right platform and what you want to sell.
“Whatever happens after that, you know Grammys, an award, would be nice,” she said laughing.