Rotana: Freedom, Rebellion, and Music

Photo: Steven Stone

Photo: Steven Stone

If you haven’t heard people talking about Rotana yet, you will.

The young Saudi Arabian born singer/songwriter isn’t shy singing about feeling depressed. She doesn’t hide her sexuality or keep her emotions a secret. She enjoys talking about who she is and what’s on her mind.

True, her shackled past has, at times, left her feeling lost and unsure of her true self - but she is very certain that she is not a victim. This is made perfectly clear in her single “Daddy”, which premiered in the early part of February 2017. It is a song that Rotana said started out as a song about a controlling relationship with an ex, but the “daddy” figure she sings about came to represent anyone in her life who tries to hold her down. Be it a lover, a boss, the President of the country she currently lives in, or even the oppressors of the country she came from.

Rotana speaks openly about growing up in a country where people, especially women, are not allowed to sing publicly.

“I mean… we have radio stations and stuff. There is music playing in places you go, it’s not just silent. You will also hear people singing at private parties or weddings and such, but you’ll never just see someone performing in the streets or on a stage somewhere in front of strangers. It’s just not the way things are. Saudi is a very reserved, secretive culture - and even though we had a very liberal king when I was there and my father was extremely liberal himself, I still knew what was expected of me. As do most women in my country.”

This important aspect of Rotana’s life has been written about in article after article since she began amassing her following in 2013. It’s as if all the hard work that Rotana has done to triumph over the adversity in her past is almost for not, because most of what is brought up about her is her past. The story of where she comes from seems to supersede the brightness of where she is headed for so many journalists who wish to echo each other, and place Rotana in the same kind of box she broke out of long ago. Even critics of Rotana, many from Saudi Arabia themselves, spend a majority of their time focused on who they think Rotana should be or who she is not based on where she was born, completely negating the women she has made herself to be.

“A lot of people [from Saudi Arabia] will say harsh things on the internet. They’ll say things like ‘You don’t represent us’ and ‘You should be ashamed’ or you’re this or you’re not that. It gets crazy to listen to because I am just me and it took me a while to figure out who that was and I am happy with who I am now. Now is what is most important to me, but that doesn’t mean that my past and my home hasn’t shaped the person I am.

Photo: Steven Stone

Photo: Steven Stone

I am not finished with who I was or something, I am just able to understand myself and my emotions better now. Music did that for me and now it’s my outlet to tell people who I am, so it can sting when people say such hurtful things. I’m sure that’s how it is for anyone who has had to spend time trying to find themselves only to have someone else try to break them down for it. I try and focus on the people who build me up though. I know I have a lot of Saudi fans cheering me on - I don’t know if there are more Saudi people that love me or hate me for what I am doing, but I choose to hear the voices of the people who are building me up. Plus, I want to focus on my story here in America now. It’s the part of my story I am most excited about.”

“When I started I had never sang before. I had written a lot. Mostly essays - stories about myself that were complete with beginnings, middles and ends. Not even poetry really at that point. That not knowing though - that stupidity I had where I didn’t know what the Hell I was doing but I just did it anyway… I think that’s what has made a lot of my success possible. Not knowing what I was doing helped me not be scared that I was doing it wrong. I just followed my gut in some of the strangest ways. I can’t believe it’s worked out so well sometimes, actually. I literally moved to LA because I had seen it on TV in Saudi Arabia and thought ‘Well, that’s where people who are trying to be artists go’, so that’s why I got here.

Rotana has put time into becoming who she is. She stepped out onto ledges and put everything on black just to live a life less ordinary than the one she had back home. She seems happy and thriving in Los Angeles. The release of her single “Daddy” was featured on Spotify’s “New Music Friday” playlist, as well as Apple Music’s “Pop Hot Tracks”. Before one of her performances during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a tearful Rotana spoke to an audience that included Peter Dinklage, Jenny Slate, and Nick Offerman about her gratitude for everything that has happened to her since she made her way to America in the hopes of following her dreams.

In many ways Rotana’s story embodies the “American Dream.” The young artist has shown that even in these times of convolution and divide, there is still so much possibility for the dreamers of the world to build a life for themselves here.

Rotana’s story is by no means complete. With the release of her newest music video for the song “The Cure”, Rotana continues to present new sides of her complex self. It would be of no surprise to find the artist in a constant state of metamorphosis throughout her life, taking the things she has learned and adding them like jewels to a crown. For now, you can find the singer performing on stages around Los Angeles, and you can watch her music videos by following her social media channels. What you definitely won't ever see the young American expat doing these days is hiding her true self. Not anymore.

Listen to Rotana’s music on Spotify, here.

Words: Kalvin Lazarte