[EXCLUSIVE] Actress Wani Kayrie Responds To ‘Blackface’ Controversy Surrounding Malaysian Folklore ‘Dayang Senandung’

As we progress and grow, a part of that process is being able to look back at the things we’ve done, said or once believed in to reevaluate if those things matter in this day and age, as well as what context we can take from it. When we do that, we also see the issues that were once something we could brush off as “no biggies” that are now problematic, at best. Such is the case with Malaysian actress and singer Wani Kayrie, who is now caught up in accusations of “blackface” and racial insensitivity. The 20-year-old is facing backlash a TikTok video of her dancing in blackface made its rounds on Twitter. The video in question shows the Sandakan born television personality, whose real name is Syazwani Abdullah, dancing to ‘Shh’ by Young Fanatic while her face and neck is painted black.

 

 

This is where the issue gets complicated. The now-deleted clip is raising questioning both the actresses decision to make such a video as well as the decision of the producers of the drama she is currently filming, ‘Dayang Senandung’. For those who have never heard of ‘Dayang Senandung’, it tells the tale of the royal princess of Ratnapura, who is born with a curse. The curse turns her whole body black and she is removed from the palace she was born into. ‘Dayang Senandung’ grows up to become someone who is smart and gifted with a beautiful voice. The tale was first introduced on TV in 1965, with veteran actress Sarimah Ahmad played the cursed princess.

 

Image from OhBulan!

 

Kayrie plays ‘Dayang’, in the 2020 adaption of the story. Speaking to Likely, Kayrie states:

 

I am indeed in the midst of shooting Dayang Senandung, a Malaysian folklore about a cursed princess with pitch-black skin, NOT about any particular dark-skinned race. I am sure many have seen the various versions of the remake. The curse is lifted after some time and she returns to her original skin colour. It’s folklore… Just like how ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was cursed to sleep indefinitely, or how the ‘Beast’ in ‘Beauty & The Beast’, was cursed to look like a beast.”

 

 

Because the story revolves around the idea that the princess is “cursed” with skin “as black as night (hitam legam)” and shown to “break the curse” by “returning to normal” when her skin is fair again, criticism against the story has gained traction in recent years. As a result, many have stated that the story is one that is racist and perpetuates prejudice against dark-skinned individuals. This is further fueled by the fact that ‘Dayang’ is, more often than not, played by an actress with fair skin that has been “painted black”.

 

Some Twitter users have defended the production teams choice to retell the story of ‘Dayang Senandung’:

 

 

Others are keen to hold Kayrie accountable for both her choice to play ‘Dayang’ in the controversial remake of the folklore, as well as her decision to dance on TikTok with the blackface makeup.

 

 

In response, Kayrie has removed the video from TikTok and apologised on her Twitter account. She has also urged those spreading the video to stop doing so, so as to stop “spreading slander”.

 

 

On the criticism, Kayrie tells Likely,

 

It never occured to me that it would incite or be tagged with racial sentiment as it was never a drama about race, but about the life of the cursed character.
There should never be any comparison [between ‘Dayang’  and the Black Lives Matter movement] as like I’ve mentioned earlier, the drama is NEVER about any particular race but about the curse. And furthermore, it is a folklore. A tale we tell to teach kindness and goodness. And ‘Dayang Senandung’ is about looking at people beyond their looks.”

 

As the debate continues, TV host and journalist, Natalie Hussain (aka natalieisasleep on Instagram) has weighed in on the issue. Taking to her Instagram stories, Natalie breaks down why it’s not okay for the Malaysian entertainment industry to condone shows like ‘Dayang Senandung’ with the pretence that the story is “classic folklore”. She calls out the industry for thinking it’s “appropriate to do backface” as well as its failure to “include people of colour”. Amongst the list of reasons why ‘Dayang Senandung is problematic’, Natalie lists:

 

 

  1. “It promotes colourism.”
  2. “It brainwashes Malaysians into thinking the only way one can be intelligent, beautiful & happy is to be light-skinned.”
  3. “It affects how people treat/view themselves and others for having darker skin.”

 

 

Zeel Productions, the company in charge of producing the drama in question, had begun production before COVID-19 and the pandemic suspended their filming. However, they have since resumed and that is where Kayrie was seen with blackface. With regards to Kayrie, Natalie makes it a point to mention that attacking Kayrie is not the way to go. She says,

 

How does that help the situation? I highly doubt she’s a racist tyrant with malicious intent. The producers and her are both complicit in participating in something blatantly racist & while some backlash is warranted, let’s avoid going on non-constructive & overly aggressive hate sprees.”

 

As if to answer Natalie’s call for a constructive movement against the production of ‘Dayang Senandung’, an online petition calling for production of the series has been launched on Change.org and has since garnered almost 4,000 petitions. The petition is addressed to Zeel Productions and is still gathering signatures from supporters demanding Zeel Productions to stop filming the show immediately, given its anti-blackness premise. However, it seems like the producers are not changing their minds anytime soon. Speaking to the Malay Mail, the show’s producer, Fadzil (or Haji Zeel) has stood firm in the fact that the show is not offensive. Mirroring Kayrie’s statement to Likely, Fadzil insists that they are focused on telling the story based on a mythological tale.

As producers, we only wanted to make a story based on a mythological tale. Our drama is not insulting towards people with black skin. In fact, we glorify them in our story. So far (we have no plans to reshoot) because this is the story and character that was greenlit when we pitched the show earlier this year.”

 

What is your opinion on the matter? Would you watch to see how the series plays out or are you against what the story stands for?

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