Rotana Rebels Against Saudi Arabia’s Strict Rules With “Daddy”
Rotana Tarazbouni, or just Rotana, is a singer from Saudi Arabia. She came to the U.S. to do her master’s degree at USC, and pursue singing as a career, because that wouldn’t otherwise be possible if she stayed in Saudi.
Saudi Arabia has some of the most strict laws against women’s rights. The hyper-conservative country has rules concerning nearly everything a woman does; from prohibiting travel without their male guardian’s permission to trying on clothes at a store before buying them. Women aren’t even allowed to drive, let alone sing.
Especially because of the current political climate, and Trump’s travel ban (which doesn’t include Saudi Arabia), Rotana says it’s important now more than ever to use your voice to speak up. And that’s why her latest song, “Daddy,” serves as one giant middle finger in whatever stands in your way, be it an oppressive system or person.
We talked to Rotana about what it was like growing up in Saudi, and how she’s going to continue using music to stand up for herself.
What was it like growing up in Saudi Arabia?
It was awesome as a kid. It was beautiful and safe. It was a happy place to grow up as a kid. When you’re young, there’s not a lot confusion, and I got to preserve my innocence – more than I would have if I had grown up in the United States. The confusion didn’t start until I was a teenager, and I didn’t know what was going on. I graduated school, and finally asked myself, “Who am I and what do I believe in?”
I had a unique experience because I grew up in this gated community that’s owned by Saudi Aramco, which is the largest oil company in the world, until I was about 15. Basically, my entire life had been within those gates.
It had become like America, there were a lot of American people, and in fact we called it “Little America” because none of the rules of Saudi Arabia applied. There were Girl Scouts, movie theaters and everyday I would leave those gates and go to school. It was very religious, and it was like moving between two worlds everyday: awesome and confusing. It was a place where everything was drawn so clean and in order. A lot was expected.
I think the thing about Saudi that’s different from the west is that individuality is really hard to get in touch with, and unless you’re really on top of your sh*t, it’s difficult to not subscribe to the mold. Most of the girls from Saudi are not consciously doing [subscribing]. I was a good Saudi girl, and I did all that stuff. I was happy, but I didn’t realize the kind of limitations that placed on my career until later.
What were the limitations in Saudi Arabia that were keeping you from pursuing your career?
For me, music and being a singer was never in a realm of the possible in Saudi.
In Saudi, I was in the environment and because of the religiousness and conservatism, it depressed the creative parts of me. I was a woman, and that was all. There’s no singing in Saudi, and there’s not an example to look up to of the girls who are doing pop music or dancing, and that’s the thing that’s limiting.
The truth is that once I decided that pursing singing was okay, and eventually possible for me, then there was nothing that could stop me. The biggest challenge, not just for me, but for so many people, is that you can connect with so many people through music, and not having that connection is hard. There’s no industry for music in Saudi. There are musicians, but they all go to Lebanon where there are recording studios. We don’t even have shows.
When did you decide to come to the US and what was the most shocking to you about American culture when you got here?
I traveled, and I was lucky my father made sure to send me to summer schools, and I think that even people in Saudi know the U.S. quite well because of the internet and TV. The culture shock was just internal where I realized now I’m in this environment where I do have freedom. Understanding that I had independence over my music was scary and empowering at the same time because coming from an environment that sheltered you, and forced male guardianship, this was all new.
Even though my father is very liberal, it was still like I had to go to my dad for travel permission. It’s weird to be a full fledged individual, but because I’m a woman, I can’t do it without permission from my male guardian.
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What were the inspirations for your new song “Daddy”?
“Daddy” is a song that I started writing about my ex-boyfriend because I felt like I was compromising some of myself to gain his love, and then I realized it was bigger than that, and I was actually writing it to the societal boundaries I felt growing up.
It’s really a letter to an oppressor or a bully. They take so many shapes and forms, so really it’s about anyone who requires you to dilute yourself, and “Daddy” is to anyone else that I consider stepping into power, and saying this is who I am even though you’re oppressive.
So, I invite you, like what are you going to do: stay or walk away?
How do you feel about the Muslim immigration ban even though Saudi Arabia wasn’t included?
I think that it’s this moment in time where, as an artist, we have to step up and I think we can either crumble and accept the powers that be as the rulers of the world, or we can understand that the true powers are the story tellers. To me, I believe in inclusion and, as a Saudi woman, I know what it’s like to feel unwelcome, or what it’s like when your freedom is challenged. I have empathy in my heart for the decision that was made, and I think it can be acknowledged and it inspires my music even more.
I have a song called “Never Going Back” that’s coming out, and it’s really more about the royal “we” and how to move forward. It’s kind of about howling out your essence even though no one understands it. Announce who you are, and what you believe in, and it will be accepted.