Rotana Tarabzouni is a singer-songwriter from Saudi Arabia, a country whose conservative culture should have prevented her from following her dreams of being a performer. There’s something she wants to make clear, though: Hers is not a story of suppression.
“It’s always that I’m this oppressed Saudi Princess Jasmine who comes to the States and is all of a sudden liberated,” she says, explaining why she remains hesitant to do interviews. “There is a spirit of rebellion in this, but it’s such a peaceful rebellion. My independence, that is the rebellion. It is the unwavering commitment I have made to myself to ask whatever fucking question I want to ask; to drop into my body and understand my sensuality and sexuality as a tool of communication and power.”
Quite frankly, that’s still a bold stance for any women to take, regardless of her religious or cultural background. "I’m not commenting on religion; I’m not commenting on the state of Islam or being a Muslim," explains Rotana, who performs under her first name. "I’m commenting on the concept of what it is to be an individual and what it’s like to have a square drawn around you."
Here's the premiere of her latest video, "Over You," directed by Meredith Adelaide:
Rotana finds the victim narrative surrounding women in her culture to be utterly exhausted, and even further, inaccurate. "When people think of Saudi women, they think oppression — that’s the first word that comes to mind," she continues. "Yes, that exists. And yes, that is part of the reality. But, also there is so much evolution that is happening in that part of the world, and the Saudi woman is becoming more and more empowered. They are getting so much more organized, and they’re really understanding their power." (As if to back up her point, shortly after our interview, the Saudi Arabian government announced that for the first time, women in the kingdom would be allowed to drive.)
"Most people," Rotana adds, "don’t understand that a Saudi woman can look like me." She notes that today, the majority population in Saudi Arabia is under the age of 35. “It’s just a bunch of millennials who understand how small the world really is and how disconnected it can really be.” That, paired with the current Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan for more implementation of the arts into Saudi culture, has led to the beginnings of a cultural renaissance. This year, the nation began hosting its first string of public concerts since the early 1990s. Rotana is confident that cinemas will come soon, too, and that the film she's starring in, My Driver and I — the first feature film licensed by the Saudi government — might be among the first to screen in her country.
Like many Saudis who are pushing boundaries, Rotana has never been one to place limitations on herself because of the box society has tried to put her in. Even at a time when her life fell more within the lines of what was expected of her, she did it on her own terms. After traveling to Boston to attend university, she returned home to Dhahran and quickly rose in the ranks at Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company, putting her on the fast track to the executive management level at the ripe age of 21.
"I was just killing it," she says, reflecting upon being a young woman in a position of authority. "But something was off. From that space, I just started to really hear a suggestion inside of me, which was, ‘Why don’t you try to sing and write?’ I just felt a pull to it and I didn’t know why or how I was going to do it."
After a bit of soul searching, she came to Los Angeles to pursue a master's in communications degree, and to put herself closer to the entertainment industry she had seen on television and visited as a teen. Driven by her love for storytelling — “I’ve always been telling stories, even before I began writing music; connecting with people has always been my gift” — Rotana began to write her own narrative as an artist.
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“The narrative I’m giving — it’s so sexy, it’s so sensual, but it’s not dependent on an exterior,” she says. In her lyrics, she details the strength of her intuition, stepping into her own power, and shouting back at self-doubt. Her debut single, “Daddy,” sounding like a sultry battle cry, is about the moment she let go of the fear of being her authentic self.
In an unreleased track, “Man Boy,” she explores lessons learned in a former relationship in which she found herself “trusting his instincts over mine, compromising myself to make him feel more comfortable, making myself smaller to make him feel bigger, even in moments when he didn’t ask.” She says when she screams the hook at shows — “Turned a boy/To a man/For another woman/She can have him” — it gets a visceral reaction from the women in the room. Though she’s probably just shy of 5 feet tall, Rotana has a lot of power. “My body has never really been able to hold my charge."
Beyond putting her unwavering individuality out into the world, Rotana wants her music to disrupt the notion of “us” and “them” that Western culture projects onto the Middle East and the Muslim world. “I think people in the West think that we’re completely different entities, and we can’t relate on a human level, and that is just so false. A Saudi 14-year-old girl is almost identical to a 14-year-old American girl; they both listen to Katy Perry, they’re both worried about boys, they both have issues with their mothers,” she says with a laugh. “When I get up and pour my heart out, and people are like, 'You are like me!' — that’s why I make music.”