“I’m talking to you at such a delicious time,” says Rotana Tarabzouni over the phone from Los Angeles.
The singer/songwriter is talking about the artistic renaissance in her home country of Saudi Arabia, where 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has begun a wave of reforms, allowing the first public concerts in years and recently permitting women to drive. But it’s also a delicious time for Rotana herself. The 28-year-old, who goes only by her first name, has been exploring and exhaling into her musical talents, honing a hypnotic dark-pop sound as she works on a four-song EP and generally tiptoes on the crisp edge of stardom.
If everything goes to plan, she’ll soon plunge right over.
This isn’t the future Rotana imagined. Music videos. Fendi collaborations. Singing in English while stomping and slithering around opulent mansions. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, the life Rotana leads today wasn’t even on her radar.
“Music, it was never in the realm of possibility for me,” she says. “It’s forbidden for you as a woman to even sing in public or be on stage.”
Though Rotana lived in the Middle Eastern kingdom until 2013, the singer has always existed between worlds. She grew up in the Eastern city of Dhahran, inside a gated compound owned by Saudi Aramco, one of the largest oil companies on the planet. Today, it’s fully controlled by the Saudi government, but the business was once a joint operation between American companies and Saudi Arabia, and inside the camp, Rotana existed in a sort of liberal enclave.
“It’s nickname was ‘Little America,’” she says. “None of the rules of Saudi Arabia applied.”
Within the community’s walls, women could drive, boys and girls played together and there were movie theaters, which are still banned in the rest of the country. “My dad worked for that company, so I grew up there in a cookie-cutter American home. I left those gates everyday and I went to very strict Saudi schools in Khobar.”
That cross-cultural childhood manifested in different ways. Rotana poured her feelings into long personal essays in English and got teased by classmates for mixing English with her Arabic. In middle school, she says, she became religious, “not because I wanted to, but because I wanted to belong.” As she got older, she embraced the country’s doctrine more and more. “[T]he Saudi system curriculum was the dominant part of my identity.”
And so Rotana did what she was expected to do: She went to college, graduated and got a job at Saudi Aramco on the executive management track. She was “killing it,” but something still felt off.
“I knew something was wrong when I started baking hash brownies in the middle of the night and I didn’t even give a shit if my parents knew. … I fell into this really weird depression, because I wasn’t satisfied and something was missing. That led me to music.”
The epiphany that she needed to sing came out of nowhere, a lightning-bolt instinct that demanded to be heeded. So Rotana talked her company into sending her to the University of Southern California for a masters program, and in 2013 she arrived in LA.
“I moved here to sing,” she says. “I was stupid enough to follow a gut feeling. I credit a lot of what’s happened to me to how naive and dumb I was. In a lot of ways, that was such a blessing.”
On October 26, 2013, more than 60 women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheel of cars to protest their nation’s ban on women driving. Wearing full veils and head scarves, they navigated city roadways, posting videos of their demonstrations on YouTube despite threats of arrest.
Eight thousand miles away in Los Angeles, Rotana missed home.
“So many of the women that organized and participated in this protest, that were going to drive, were friends and mentors and women that I looked up to and knew personally,” she says. “I really wanted to be there, so badly.”
Instead, she filmed a video covering Lorde’s “Team,” changing the chorus lyrics to “but we sure know how to drive free.”
The production is simple, just the wild-haired singer on a hillside overlooking LA, but Rotana’s talent is clear. Her voice booms with frustration and determination as she sings to women half a world away defying the law to demand a better life.
“I was going to send it to my friends and be like, ‘Hey, I love you guys and I’m with you,’” Rotana says of the amateur video. “Huffington Post picked it up and shit hit the fan.”
In less than a week the video had more than 80,000 views, and word of Rotana’s demonstration of solidarity trickled back to her company at home.
“That video was the point of no return for me,” she says. But it was also a moment of clarity. “I realized this is it. This is why I want to do this. I have so much to say, and I know how to communicate it with my body and with my voice. This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The video also pulled the teachers into Rotana’s orbit who would help her shape her voice, sound and writing over the next four years. While her early writing dealt heavily with guilt over leaving a way of life and rejecting its teachings about modesty and sexuality, today, a more mature artist stares into the camera in the video released in October for “Over You.” A single tear slides down Rotana’s cheek as she pulls strength from pain, crying, “I’ve been everywhere but over you” while she crawls across a massive dining table.
“People think because I’m Saudi I’m always writing these Saudi warrior princess songs, but I’m not. Whatever’s happening in my life right now, I’m just writing about it.”
And though she’s hyper-aware of how her narrative fuels her music, Rotana is determined not to be pigeon-holed. “I always want the music to lead,” she says. “This truly is a craft. I’m not fucking around.”
As she comes into her own, Rotana has also found herself caught in a sort of cultural no man’s land, trying to withstand the competing pressures of two diametrically opposed societies. On the one hand, is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Rotana was “vividly taught how I was going to be punished if I did any of all of the things that I’m doing now in the states.” On the other is Los Angeles, where sex and youth are prized commodities, worshipped with a holy furor.
“I don’t know where I belong in a sense. People in the East want me to do something, and people in the West want me to do something. A lot of times I’m just doing what I’m doing, and no one can understand it,” Rotana says.
Still, there’s an energy in the space between. While Saudi Arabia continues a wave of cultural reforms, including an end to the ban on women driving that Rotana calls a “defining moment in our history,” the singer is also defining herself as artist, sculpting her sound and image and expressing her sexuality on her own terms.
“I don’t really feel like I belong in Saudi Arabia, and I don’t really feel like I belong here. I’m like, ‘Cool. I just belong to the world.’”