“I’M PRETTY DETERMINED. I KNOW WHAT I WANT AND DON’T WANT."
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.
FINDING HER VOICE
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.”
HONING HER CRAFT
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.
BEHIND THE SCENES
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.”
STICKING TO HER PURPOSE
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.”