Yuna showcases power in variety at sold-out Oakland show

Aura Barrera/Staff

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The smoky fluorescents of the New Parish nightclub in Oakland are two oceans and roughly 8,343 miles from Yuna’s birthplace, the Malaysian city of Alor Setar. But the distance in no way prevented the Californian audience — piled onto the club’s dance floor, inches and a metal fence away from leaping onto its red-wreathed stage — from giving the R&B star a royal welcome on Friday. Sandwiched between crowds pressing ever closer, someone announced that they had loved her music since fifth grade. Another mentioned excitedly that they shared the same hometown. 

The music and festivities from the surrounding First Fridays block party trickled past the billboard bearing Yuna’s name in glowing red letters. “SOLD OUT,” the line of text beneath it announced. 

Inside the club, the atmosphere would perhaps be best described as giddy. The crowd that somewhat politely shuffled its feet to the dynamic dancey runs of opener Skylar Stecker suddenly blew out the mics in cheers and applause when the concert’s headliner took the stage. Yuna was clad in her signature hijab and a gossamer jumpsuit that was the fierce shade of her new album’s title, Rouge. “Oakland loves you!” a voice hollered to echoing sounds of agreement.

Not pausing for introductions beyond a resonating bass line, Yuna launched into her opening number as her two backup dancers sprang into slow-motion poses on either side. The song, “Forevermore,” was varyingly energetic and dreamy, with plenty of lyrical hums to pull it back toward meditative when the beat demanded speed and volume. It set the tone of the night in its cohesive contrasts, forecasting a dizzying night of genre-, era- and even language-bending that encapsulated the singer’s myriad career and artistry. 

Under the floodlights, it’s obvious that Yuna is no newcomer to the biz. Though she initially achieved global success via viral Myspace videos in 2011, she had been a recognized songstress in Malaysia’s soft pop scene ever since she took home four Malaysian Music Industry Awards three years prior. Despite being known as an artist for her guitar-girded romantic duets, her newest album carries the vibrancy of continued experimentation. Her second number in concert — yet another new collaboration with Korean American singer Jay Park entitled “Does She” — brings attitude and hip-swiveling dance moves to the breakup ditty. In between measured twirls, Yuna sneaked smiles at the audience as though sharing an inside joke. 

The lights went down following every song. As Yuna began to speak between numbers, her disembodied voice cut smoothly through the applause. The crowd held its breath and leaned a little closer. “I can’t believe it sold out,” Yuna said after her initial thanks and welcomes, wiping briefly at her shining eyes. “I can!” someone shouted from below.  

Song after song came after, each with its own distinct flavor. Reveling in the warm South Asian chords of “Forget About You,” the singer stood still and somber as a sentinel, her backup dancers moving in freeze frames under long red veils as the backlit stage obscured their faces in shadow. Familiar “vintage Yuna” numbers, as she put it, had the audience chorusing devotedly along, reminiscing about first crushes and memory lanes from her early-2010s hits.

The power of Yuna in performance, beyond a voice that matches and surpasses her recordings, may well be the warmth that suffuses from her person. In between dance breaks — some practiced, some seemingly unrehearsed but graceful all the same — Yuna made faces and shot goofy grins at her crowd. Rather than cheering during hard-to-hit high notes or daring points of choreography, as is typical, the crowd members shrieked each time her arms stretched out toward them, each time she turned to meet the eyes of someone among them. 

“If you got a good girl, then appreciate it,” Yuna sang as the evening drew to an end, beamingly pointing toward a couple in the audience while wiggling her fingers in the universal “put a ring on it.” Within the intimate enclosure of the venue, she embodied a best friend, idol and matchmaker all in one. Accompanied by the adoring gazes of her fans, Yuna raised her lace-clad arms and brought the house down.

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].