We sit down to discuss stereotypes, societal pressure, and of course, singing in karaoke bars.
By Zarna Surti
These days polarizing, extreme women are highly celebrated—from the ones who break stereotypes and go against the values and customs they grew up with to the ones who hold tradition in its purest form, everyone loves a revolutionary. But what about the ones in the middle? The ones who are pushing the boundaries of their culture and religion, while also remaining true to the traditions and family they hold close? These women are often times looked over, but not in this case. That’s why the day I met Rotana, a Saudi-Arabian singer who is rebellious and resilient, while also remaining respectful of heritage, I knew I was in for a different kind of interview.
In all honesty, after interviewing hundreds of people, you get used to the routine—you ask the questions, they answer, repeat. But there was something about Rotana I found completely refreshing—she was interested in me and our surroundings just as much as I was interested in her. “Rotana, what a beautiful name,” I said, “Well, it’s a very quirky name, just like my parents—what does Zarna mean?”
Her Saudi Arabian heritage has charged her to be curious and exploratory, but the culture itself is one with many restrictions—especially for women. From dating to singing, the conservative environment of her native country can hinder creativity and the exploration of sexuality. “When I speak about the struggles I have about expressing my sensuality and sexuality or anything that’s different from the structure of our society, it’s seen as me rejecting it,” says Rotana, “when really what I’m trying to say is that there is a broader definition of what it is to be a woman and Muslim than what people are labeling it to be.”
“There is a broader definition of what it is to be a woman and Muslim than what people are labeling it to be.”
Rotana has been under fire many times from those who don’t see eye-to-eye with her, especially on social media. For the most part, she doesn’t engage in negative conversations about her sexuality and what certain people see as “suggestive performances”—AKA moving her hips, baring “too much” skin, or anything that might be deemed even slightly sensual. Instead, she believes anyone who’s that angry is most likely rejecting a situation because, “even if they ultimately come back to not agreeing with you, if they’re that pissed, than they’re clearly waking up a part of themselves they aren’t ready to face.”
When it comes to waking up certain parts of herself, Rotana has definitely had her fair share of discovery. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she didn’t realize singing and performing was in the realm of possibility of something she could do as a woman, and saw it more as an “intimate, private experience.” Rotana tells me that most female Arabic singers are based in Lebanon or Egypt and not only is it religiously looked down upon, it’s also considered a profession of second class citizens. Even so, the singers are still incredibly conservative in the way they dress and perform.
Growing up in that environment took away certain dreams of grandeur when it came to performing, Rotana always knew she could sing, but followed a safer, more corporate career path instead. She came to the U.S. for college and worked for the world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco (owned by the Saudi government), after graduating, but was still different from the start remembering, “I was one of the few women who was excited speaking in front of hundreds of men and I always loved storytelling.” She climbed the corporate ladder until it all came crumbling down saying, “I was on this executive management track and just killing it at work, but then, I just became incredibly depressed for the first time in my life.” She was only 21.
“I was on this executive management track and just killing it at work, but then, I just became incredibly depressed for the first time in my life.”
Facing the fact that she wasn’t doing what she loved, Rotana says, “I had no idea who the fuck I was or what I believed in or if I really believed in the system I grew up in.” She was also faced with thoughts she never dreamed she’d be thinking about like, “Did I really think I was going to burn in hell if I moved my body a certain way? All of a sudden, everything was in conflict.” Within that conflict was the idea of challenging culture and, therefore, challenging religion. In Saudi Arabia, religion and culture are so intertwined that challenging societal norms is essentially challenging a system and religion. Things we would never even consider scandalous, like singing and dancing on a stage, are seen to many as Rotana starting her own rebellion.
Instead of being reclusive, Rotana decided to face the problem head on and took a few months off in India. Through writing, traveling, and finding peace of mind, she discovered her own truth—music. From there she decided to quit her job, but her company simply asked her, “What do you want?” Knowing she needed to be in Los Angeles, Rotana decided she’d get her masters in communication management at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism because it was the only way she really knew how to get to LA. But within five months of living in the city, the women in Saudi Arabia protested the ban on driving, so she recorded an “awful cover of this Lorde song ‘Team’” which was a genuine expression of wanting to show solidarity. Without any intention, the song went viral and ended up on many international media outlets—so at the time, she was speaking out against the government, but also technically still working for it.
“Did I really think I was going to burn in hell if I moved my body a certain way? All of a sudden, everything was in conflict.”
Rotana remembers this as her “moment of no return in music,” because that’s when people discovered her on social media and saw her singing and moving to what some saw as “very jarring and offensive.” Soon after, she just started playing in Los Angeles, from karaoke clubs in Koreatown like the Brass Monkey to clubs downtown, she played everywhere and anywhere she could pick up a mic. She even completed graduate school and did her thesis on the role of narrative in creating a pop star’s brand (yes, she really is one of the most amazing people we’ve ever met).
All of this culminated a year and half ago when music truly became a career—Rotana remembers this as a time she started “writing aggressively.” She spent her time recording demo after demo and refused to put anything out because she felt like it just wasn’t good enough. Eventually she came up with 30 songs she’d “fight anyone for,” because, “that’s how strongly I think you should feel about your work.” In those 30 songs, she decided to release her first in January called “Daddy”—an unapologetic anthem tackling societal norms. Then she followed it up with her etherial and sensually-charged single “The Cure.” Next up? “Over You”— her latest drop we have on repeat. But don’t expect an album anytime soon, “it’s just the beginning,” says Rotana, “it makes no sense. Also, I find more freedom in putting out singles as a writer.”
With her complicated history and the burdens of societal pressures she’s experienced, Rotana’s life could have gone hundreds of ways, but she leaves us with a sentiment we should check ourselves against: “I understand now that when there’s this screaming inside of you, it’s really a responsibility to quiet the noise around you so whatever is inside can get a little louder. Because, when it’s loud outside you can’t hear yourself—and at the end of the day, that voice is the most important.”
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