Milla Hniang, a 22-year-old ethnic Chin singer from northwest Burma, released a self-titled debut album in the United States earlier this month after signing a music deal with a major American record label.
Originally from Chin State, she contracted polio as a young girl and moved with her family to Rangoon when she was 4 years old, spending most of her childhood in hospitals before emigrating to the United States. With a passion for singing, she uploaded videos of her songs to YouTube and eventually caught the attention of Tate Music Group, which asked her to produce a country/acoustic record.
In this interview, she tells The Irrawaddy about the challenges she faced as a child with a physical disability, which Burmese musicians she likes best, and why she wants to return someday to Southeast Asia.
Question: First, please tell our readers more about yourself?
Answer: I’m from Hakha Township in Chin State, in Burma. When I was 4 years old I moved to Rangoon with my family, and then in 2000 my dad asked us to join him the United States, so we all moved there. My debut album went on sale this year, on Jan. 8. I wrote all the songs myself—they’re all country and acoustic style. I used my name, Milla Hniang, for the album title, since it seems like most albums in the United States are self-titled. It’s great for promotion.
Q: And how did you get started as a professional musician?
A: I really enjoy singing, and I used to upload my songs for other people to listen on YouTube or other social networks. A music company reached out to me because they saw some of my work.
Q: How did you feel when Tate Music Group asked you to record an album?
A: So happy! I couldn’t believe my ears. They’re such a big company, and I never dreamed of having that kind of status.
Q: How difficult was it to produce an album in the United States?
A: So hard. There are a lot of very talented people here in the United States, and it’s tough to make a successful album, but I’m trying my best.
Q: What kinds of challenges have you faced?
A: It’s tough here in America. It’s not enough just to have a good voice; you also need to know about music, maybe how to play a musical instrument, and you need to be able to write songs. So I’m finding it difficult here, even though I’ve been singing since I was a kid. But I’m self-motivated.
Q: I understand you have polio. Can you tell us more about that?
A: Sure. I’ve had polio since I was less than a year old, back when I was in Hakha Township, and I haven’t been able to walk since then.
Q: And how are you getting by now?
A: I’ve been OK in the United States. I can use crutches to walk, and everyone always gives me extra help.
Q: Have you ever faced discrimination for your physical disability?
A: Yes. I went to school in Rangoon until third grade, but then I couldn’t keep going to class with my friends because I had a handicap. I felt very small. I had to study at home, hiring teachers to help me learn and just going to school for exams. Even though I earned the highest score in my grade, they could only give me second prize because I wasn’t actually attending classes at the school. But here in the United States, it’s quite different. Disabled students like me are given priority.
Q: What are your future plans, musically?
A: I need to work harder. I’d love to go back to Burma because there’s a lot I want to do there.
Q: Why did you decide to become a singer?
A: It was my childhood hobby, so I decided to pursue it.
Q: Have you ever fallen in love?
A: Not yet. But all the songs I’ve written are about love.
Q: Do you listen to Burmese music?
A: As a child I was big fan of Burmese music stars like Lay Lay Wah, Kabyar Bwe Hmu, Aye Chan May and Iron Cross. Now I don’t listen to them that often, just to Iron Cross and Sone Thin Par. I really like Iron Cross.
Q: In Burma, a lot of professional musicians sing their songs to the tunes of international hits. What do you think of that practice?
A: I think it’s better to write your own songs and sing them yourself. That’s my hobby. When you sing a song that imitates an international hit, the originality is gone. For me, being original in style and feeling is so important.
Q: What’s the key to being a successful singer?
A: You have to create, and you have to try.
Q: You said you have plans to go back to Burma? Just for singing?
A: Yes, I have plans to go back, if not this year then next year. I’ll try to sing there. I really want to go back. Even though I’m not a professional musician, people in Burma give me a lot of support, and it makes me so happy. I’m so grateful to them. I want to thank them myself, but I can’t speak Burmese very well. Hopefully they can forgive me for that.
Q: Do you miss Burma?
A: So much! I want to go back. It’s hard for me to remember my house there, since I spent most of my time in hospitals while I was in Rangoon. And I no longer remember Chin State, since I left when I was really young.
Q: What message would you give to people in Burma with disabilities?
A: I’d like to be a role model, helping them keep their hopes up and not feel small. I’d love to tell that that belief and diligence are keys for everything.