Interview with Shila Amzah

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Why is Malaysian popstar Shila Amzah on the cover of Inspire, a Bruneian publication?

The answer is simple. Inspire magazine stands for dreams, possibilities and courage. A rare combination, just like the talent of Shila Amzah – a Malaysian singer who currently sings primarily in Mandarin and has 2.5 million followers on Weibo in China. Shila’s rise to stardom in this country represents “possibility” – this means that no matter how difficult or impossible a situation might seem at first, given the right attitude and determination, nothing is impossible.

After living in China for just two years, Shila has become very proficient in using the language and is able to deliver incredible performances and to conduct interviews in impeccable Mandarin. Shila’s unique talent, powerful voice and striking hijabs has made her a style icon and a role model for young Muslim women across the globe. She has become a symbol of racial and religious harmony – using the medium of music to unify people from all walks of life.

The reason that Shila accepted to do an interview for Inspire magazine is because she believes that if she could summon up the courage to dream beyond the limits of her hometown, so too can the talented people of Brunei. After all, geographically and culturally, we are not far apart from each other.

What is Shila Amzah’s story?

Born to a family of musicians with a dad who is a pop artist in Malaysia- Amir Amzah, Shila started going to the recording studio with her dad when she was four years old. By the age of 10, she had already released her debut album, Terima Kasih Guruku and started winning awards including Most Popular Kids Artiste at the Anugerah Bintang Popular Berita Harian.

Shila’s career has gone from strength to strength since winning Asian Wave (Season 1) in Shanghai and being the second runner up in “I am a Singer”. She has since been dubbed Asia’s Sweetheart, Princess of Music and the National Treasure of Malaysia. In December 2014, she was given an award by the Chinese government for her “special contribution to building friendship between China and Malaysia”. What makes Shila’s story unique and significant is not just how she shot to fame, but the way that she stayed true to her identity and how she represented her faith with grace and dignity.

In this interview, Shila quenches our curiosity about her journey with her usual poise and sincerity. Enjoy!

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Photo courtesy of Vie Media Pty Ltd

Four years ago when you left Malaysia for China to pursue your music career, you had a very limited command of the Chinese language, let alone the culture. Today, you reportedly speak fluent Chinese and are even able to differentiate accents from different regions. What gave you the courage to make such a bold move?
To me, language is only a vehicle to convey my passion for music. I love all kinds of good music from all around the world. When there was an invitation for me to go to China four years ago, it wasn’t hard for me to say yes because my dad always had a vision of me excelling in China. China is also a world that’s so close to me yet I had never set foot there. A great number of Chinese people also live in Malaysia, I am on the same soil with a lot of Chinese, so I always wondered what it would be like if I expanded my career using the Chinese language as one of my “vehicles” of communication with music lovers.

I have to say that China was always part of me and my father’s plan. I had been learning Chinese since I was a child. So when I was invited to the competition “Asian Wave” in Shanghai in 2012 and then to Beijing’s “I Am A Singer” competition, these important programs took me to China and since then I’ve spent the majority of my career in this “new market”. I am really enjoying being here and at the same time I’m seizing the moment whenever I can. I have been very fortunate because my growing success over the past few years has already taken me to a lot of places. And now that the internet is such a powerful means of communication, just for fun, I recently posted an Indian cover online and there were requests for more!

Tell us about your journey in China so far. What have you learnt and how has the experience shaped you?
My experience in China has been very rewarding, I have been able to learn this beautiful language and to perform in it. I cannot say I am able to converse with every Chinese in Putonghua. However, the idea of being on radio, on stage and at events and to talk to the audience in their own language, and to get an immediate response from them – gives me a very direct and personal connection with my fans. Prior to this, I only connected to my fans through Malay.

Performing in China gave me the chance to sing a variety of songs, some I already knew and loved and others I grew to love – these performances are my voice, my passion and my way of telling everyone through my interpretation of the songs who Shila Amzah is. Recently I had a concert in Hong Kong, and in order to reach out to the audience, we picked a few songs that influenced not only them, but also myself. Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui and Beyond are all legends in Chinese pop culture, and I was privileged to know their songs from an early age in Malaysia. When I got the chance to sing those melodies on stage, I realised how enjoyable it was to perform them. As far as China goes, one of the best parts of my journey here has been the fans. They are super supportive and welcomed me, a foreigner with an open heart. Every time I finished a performance in China, the fans would come to me and tell me which part of the song they liked most. On the “I Am A Singer” competition, I learnt that fans are one of the most important pillars in my career, without them, I would be lost. My fans keep reminding me, that I am a performer, my job is to touch people with my music… I love to listen, read and to feel how much they enjoy my music.

“Don’t be afraid to be wrong as long as you are following your heart, failure makes you stronger and wiser!” – Shila Amzah

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The big city apparently hasn’t changed you much. You still wear a Hijab even at your performances. And to many, “fitting-in” might seem like a more convenient option but you didn’t choose the easy way. Why?
Hijab is a commitment to my belief and myself. I don’t see why being a “celebrity” should mean that I have to change. However, I don’t see myself as a “celebrity”, I would prefer to be thought of as a singer.

When you think about it, appearance is just a reference, I hope the message behind my appearance, that is, my religion and belief will be a factor in my followers and audiences’ lives. They do not have to have the same belief as me, it’s about respect and being able to find meaningful value in life. You can even say “music” is what I believe! As long as there is respect, right? Oh and if you know of any Hijab brands looking for a spokesperson, I would be more than happy to represent them!

At a time when there are so many misconceptions about your faith, there is Shila Amzah, a celebrated Malaysian in China who shows a different side of Islamic women that represents strength, love and harmony through her music and performances.

The fact that you are widely embraced for your talent by the millions in China despite being a minority demonstrates to the world that we are not that different after all.

What message do you wish to convey?
I cannot say I have a big mission being Shila Amzah. I wanted to reach out to more music lovers and let them know music is what I love to share with everyone out there. You can escape from hectic days, pressures around you, negative vibes or boredom through music. I have never met anyone who doesn’t like music, or who hasn’t got an idol or singer or song that they love. I have the best career because music chose me when I was young. If I hadn’t found singing as my career, I believe I would still use music and maybe become a teacher to pass on the love, passion and positive impact that music has to offer.

How can ordinary women in Brunei aspire to have your kind of success and influence?
Follow your heart is what I would say. Do I have days when I think oh, maybe I made the wrong choice or picked the wrong song, gave the wrong speech etc? Of course I do. But I never doubt what I feel. Even if I make the wrong choice, I learn from it and make better choices next time. I guess my advice is don’t be afraid to be wrong as long as you are following your heart, failure makes you stronger and wiser! Hard work is also another key, you can never be successful if you don’t work hard. I have met so many different successful singers or entertainers since being in China, we’ve chatted backstage and one thing I find that these successful people all have in common is that they are all super hard working. For example, one day they might be in Shanghai for a promotion and the next day they are doing a recording in Beijing. Every time I meet these well-established singers or popular showbiz artistes, I feel that I have so much to learn from them, they encourage me to stay focused and true to my heart.

Your distinctive vocal talent is undisputed and recognised across Asia. How much do you attribute your success to God-given talent. How much of it is hard work?
Oh, wow, I guess I am not in the position to response this, but from the last answer I gave you, I think you know that I believe in hard work, and music is about hard work and sincerity. You can be the virtuoso in piano like Lang Lang, right, yet I know Lang Lang paid his dues and practiced hard everyday since he started learning piano at a young age. So if you were told you are that you would be the next Lang Lang yet never practice, learn your music or work hard, you will never reach your full potential even though you are gifted. There is always something to learn and improve in a profession, there is always a note you can never hit, right?

This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!