Singer-songwriter Rotana Tarabzouni shrugs off the inevitable rejections and shit-paying gigs common to her trade. The 26-year-old is not driven by the same goals as a doe-eyed Beverly Hills millennial with a great voice. She sings her richly layered tales (“I found God when I lost my religion”) because in her home of Saudi Arabia, such behavior is forbidden.

“Deciding to be a singer, you just don't do that in Saudi,” Tarabzouni says. As a girl, she'd grab a hairbrush and strain her vocal chords singing along to Christina Aguilera and Brandy. But her dream remained locked in her room in Dhahran. “Possibility and dreaming [in Saudi] isn't that easy,” she explains. “[Your mind] doesn't even allow it because it doesn't know it. There's no frame of reference. Your mind doesn't have proof that the unimaginable can happen.”

She moved to Los Angeles to earn a master's degree in communications management from USC, financially backed by her then-employer. But her keener interest was in the university's proximity to the music industry. “This city has been so good to me,” Tarabzouni says. “The best people have popped out of this place. I think there's something inspiring about living amongst a large population that is largely trying to achieve the almost impossible.”

In the two-plus years since she arrived, the dark beauty with tangled chestnut hair has sung — often in hot stage outfits — at the Viper Room, the Whiskey and throughout L.A. She revels in the freedom just to drive her own car. In October 2013, the Women's Driving Campaign in Saudi Arabia challenged the Saudi ban on women driving. Some 8,000 miles away, Tarabzouni backed them, creating a video in which she covers the song “Team” by Lorde. She sang: “We live in cities you won't see on screen/Not very pretty but we sure know how to drive free.”

Her L.A. video went viral, and scores of commenters praised her. Others wished her a torturous demise. Messages filled her inboxes across social media. Tarabzouni still draws haters on YouTube and Instagram, but they don't get under her skin. “I started to realize, me just singing on YouTube sent such a big message to the Saudi community, and it's a message that they've been waiting to hear for a very long time.”

She's worked with L.A. artists and heard from female Saudi filmmaker-actress Ahd Kamel about a potential project. Meanwhile, she's planning another daring move. Tarabzouni soon will complete her master's thesis — on how the cultural narrative brands pop stars — and go home.

Returning to Saudi Arabia means she will be chastised for her art.

“The reason I do all of this is because of my incentive to go back,” Tarabzouni explains. “I see no purpose in any of [this] if I can't use that as a platform to create a dialogue about the state of the region and its relationship with the West. And I see no point in it if I can't use that platform and whatever power I build to go back to Saudi and fight for the arts and fight for women's rights.” 

Check out our entire People Issue 2015.

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