Herworld (Malaysia) - - FRONT PAGE - By Poon Li-Wei

NJWA (for­merly known as Na­jwa Mahi­addin) knows a thing or two about ded­i­cat­ing her­self to art – af­ter all, she wouldn’t be where she is to­day if she hadn’t per­se­vered de­spite her par­ents’ ini­tial aver­sion to pur­su­ing sing­ing as a ca­reer. She even went on to study en­gi­neer­ing for a fair bit while in Mel­bourne – a de­ci­sion she de­scribes as a “good com­pro­mise” as she fared well in school and had a gen­uine in­ter­est in some of the sub­jects. Still, there was no deny­ing her heart’s true call­ing as she be­gan to im­merse her­self in the mu­sic scene by per­form­ing at gigs. “I re­alised that was what I wanted to do rather than sit­ting at home, read­ing about cod­ing. Look­ing back, I un­der­stand my par­ents’ con­cern. Be­ing in the mu­sic in­dus­try is not easy. Even­tu­ally, they said as long as I did my best, they’d be sup­port­ive of my de­ci­sion and they have been ever since.”


It was then she ven­tured off to Bos­ton, fur­ther­ing her stud­ies in the ev­er­pres­ti­gious Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic – an op­por­tu­nity that is as cov­eted as they come. But while it was thrilling and eye-open­ing, it was also ter­ri­fy­ing to re­alise that she was but a drop in an ocean full of tal­ent in the R&B and soul mu­sic genre. “I needed some­thing that would set me apart. It was there I met some­one from Zim­babwe who asked me to sing some­thing and I went with Erykah Badu. He told me it was great, but he wanted a song from my coun­try – and I was stumped for awhile. I told him we had pop and R&B as well, but he meant mu­sic from my cul­ture and roots,” she rem­i­nisces of the mo­ment that got the cogs in her head turn­ing. Hail­ing from Jo­hor where she grew up with tra­di­tional and indige­nous (asli) mu­sic, she chose to sing Seri Mers­ing, a folk song. And he said, “That’s beau­ti­ful, you should sing that more of­ten.” That mo­ment sparked a pas­sion in her to ex­plore her roots and to bring some­thing unique to the mu­sic in­dus­try.


You’d think that hav­ing made it to New York af­ter her stud­ies, she was fi­nally liv­ing out her dream. But the truth was, it made her ap­pre­ci­ate Malaysia all the more. “You go to mu­sic venues to per­form and there is noth­ing on stage. My band mem­bers had to lug around the drum set, am­pli­fiers, and bring ev­ery­thing. That was also when I re­alised the kind of things one had to do to make it in the in­dus­try,” she adds. So, why re­turn to Malaysia then, you ask. “What I took from con­ver­sa­tions I had with friends and mu­si­cians I look up to is that the world is get­ting smaller. With the in­ter­net, you can still get your mu­sic out there with­out hav­ing to live in a cer­tain lo­ca­tion. Plus, I wanted to in­cor­po­rate more cul­tural roots into my mu­sic and I can’t get there any­where else but in my home­land,” she an­swers.


While lis­ten­ers do re­spond to her more ex­per­i­men­tal sounds as her mu­sic is ever-evolv­ing, she can’t deny that her fans tend to grav­i­tate towards her R&B tunes. Of her per­sonal style, she de­scribes it as “dark”. When pen­ning the songs she’s most known for, “I was about 25 to 30 and go­ing through a

lot of things – just ma­tur­ing – and that trans­lated into my lyrics and har­mony. I do hope I can branch out to other top­ics, but mu­sic has def­i­nitely helped me get through a lot.” I ask if she's ever felt the pres­sure to con­form to a cer­tain mu­sic style oth­ers pre­fer and she ac­knowl­edges that there have been a hand­ful of songs writ­ten with such in­ten­tion. Still, “I'm pretty de­ter­mined. I know what I want and don't want. And I've come to re­alise that peo­ple won't nec­es­sar­ily achieve the out­come they want by giv­ing a part of them­selves away. There's no sat­is­fac­tion there. I've re­alised it's bet­ter for me to do what I love and per­haps meet in the mid­dle, so I don't lose all of me. You have to be ex­cited and pas­sion­ate about your art, so oth­ers will be as well.” This doesn't mean she shuns crit­i­cism. On the con­trary, she wel­comes it as she be­lieves it will help her grow. What she does take is­sue with is oth­ers judg­ing her even be­fore they've lis­tened to her mu­sic. “I've taken the good and bad, weighed them, and made de­ci­sions to fur­ther my ca­reer.”


To­day, she feels more in tune than ever with her art – hav­ing re­branded her­self as NJWA, a strate­gic move that not only sets her apart, but is more in line with the sound and di­rec­tion she's em­brac­ing. In fact, at the time of the in­ter­view, she's just fin­ished the sec­ond leg of her show­case (there are three stops: Jo­hor, Kuala Lumpur and Pe­nang) and she's pos­i­tively glow­ing with en­thu­si­asm. “For my show­case, I didn't want (to have) just me and my band sing­ing – I wanted it to be an ex­pe­ri­ence where peo­ple would go ‘wow, this is some­thing dif­fer­ent'. I re­mem­ber we were driv­ing back from a shoot in Pa­hang and I told my man­ager, ‘You know what would be a dream? If we had this show in­side a hot air bal­loon blown up to re­sem­ble an igloo (she had seen it in Ruang Shah Alam, an event space) with vi­su­als in­side and a game­lan ensem­ble, so that it would be an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence,” she re­lays. It may have sounded crazy at the time – even to her – but they man­aged to pull it off for her KL show (she's de­ter­mined to have each show em­body a dif­fer­ent con­cept so her fans can have dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences), and she even di­vulges how she choked up when they first did a tech run on stage and all the vi­su­als and lights came on. “It was so sur­real. I couldn't be­lieve it was my own show and that I could re­ally present what I wanted, so that peo­ple would un­der­stand what I am about,” she ex­plains.


Of course, she wouldn't be where she is to­day with­out her strong sup­port sys­tem. Be­ing the daugh­ter of Tan Sri Dato' Dr Haji Muhyid­din bin Haji Muham­mad Yassin, Malaysia's Min­is­ter of Home Af­fairs, nat­u­rally, I find my­self ask­ing if she felt the need for her ca­reer to take a back­seat when her father went through a rough po­lit­i­cal patch. To that, she an­swers in the neg­a­tive, but af­firms that ex­ter­nal forces at the point in time did pre­vent her from mov­ing for­ward – which ex­plains the lull a lit­tle while ago. She nev­er­the­less per­sisted, as she firmly be­lieves that “you just have to keep go­ing”. It also helps that her hus­band is in­volved so in­ti­mately with her ca­reer – be­ing part of her band – and un­der­stands the vi­sion she has for her mu­si­cal per­sona. It is here the con­ver­sa­tion takes a more per­sonal turn as I en­quire if she's faced chal­lenges from be­ing in an in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage. “Peo­ple we've met in gen­eral are very sup­port­ive and pos­i­tive!” She does re­call one in­ci­dent in Jo­hor, where they were stopped by a po­lice­man who wanted to en­sure noth­ing was amiss. “When we rolled down the win­dow and I told the of­fi­cer he was my hus­band, he let us go. There are of course cul­tural dif­fer­ences, which I find so beau­ti­ful and won­der­ful to learn about. I love go­ing back for Chi­nese New Year be­cause I get to learn more about the tra­di­tions and em­brace them.”


At the end of the day, she's not in this for the glam­our or fame. What truly grounds her and keeps her work­ing de­vot­edly on her projects is be­ing able to touch peo­ple through her mu­sic. Hear­ing them tell me that my songs made them tear, helped them get through tough times, or made them proud to be Malaysian, cen­tres me.” So, if you're hop­ing to bet­ter ac­quaint your­self with her songs, you'll be pleased to know that not only has she got more in the works, she has a tour in Ja­pan sched­uled for No­vem­ber. And if she has her way, five years down the road, she would like to be “some­what trav­el­ling, tour­ing and get­ting to more fes­ti­vals around the world”. Although, she pauses and laughs cheek­ily, “Maybe I'll start a fam­ily as well and pull a Bey­oncé – tour­ing with the twins. That might hap­pen but it's up to God. Some­times, you can plan all you want but in the end, He will de­cide.”


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