You’re probably getting tired of me introducing to you the “next big superstar”, right? But the truth is – and I am trying to be humble – that’s kind of what we do here at Lemonade. When I first heard Rotana‘s “The Cure”, I literally had chills. I knew that I was listening to an artist who had that intangible that you can only be born with, the natural talent, self-confidence and self-awareness that can’t be taught. It sounded way too easy for her, but the truth is that nothing about Rotana‘s story has been easy. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, the now Los Angeles resident had to “challenge boundaries” as she puts it and are we glad she did.
I had the absolute honor of speaking with this amazing talent recently, here is how the conversation went…
Brandon: Since you are a brand new artist, tell us a little about yourself.
Rotana: Sure, my name is Rotana. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and spent all my life there. I moved to Los Angeles four years ago to pursue music, to pursue myself and just figure out who the hell I was. Saudi is one of the most beautiful places, but also one of the most conservative places in the world, so I just grew up following the rules and being the person that I thought I needed to be in order to be loved, accepted and to be safe.
Music was never in the realm of the possible for me, because it’s forbidden for women to sing in public in my country. It didn’t really come into my life until I graduated and started working – and there are a couple long stories there – but I got depressed while I was working and music just popped out of nowhere in my thoughts and wouldn’t go away. I moved out never having written a song before and had never sang. I mean I knew I could sing, because I had sang in private and I knew I could write, because I had written a ton of essays. So yeah, I moved out here and just started writing and performing as much as I could. This year is the first year I have put out any music at all.
B: So many questions and so little time!
R: I know!
B: Having family in Europe, there are so many misconceptions about the USA. That it’s all just like New York or Los Angeles. I imagine there must be so many misconceptions about Saudi Arabia from the USA. Which are the ones that stand out and what was it really like growing up there?
R: Yeah, there are so many. It’s not so much misconceptions as it is, I think, an “us” and “them” feeling here in the West. You can’t really blame people too much, because media-wise that’s all that they see. I think that here in the West, we forget that a 16 year old girl in Saudi Arabia is listening to Katy Perry and watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians just like a 16 year old girl over here.
She still falls in love with boys even though she’s technically not allowed to see any boys that aren’t related to her, but the fact that they are humans going through the same things as humans here are going through seems to be lost. It’s a reminder that we’re all the same, just with different context and different languages. I think the other common misconception is that, although Saudi Arabia does have restrictive laws that do need change, especially in regards to women, there is this misconception that women are total victims. They’re not, they’re incredibly empowered, especially my generation. We are becoming more organized and understanding the importance and necessity of being a fully functioning individual as a woman. So many people will think of a Saudi woman and see someone covered from head to toe, but there is so much fight in us.
B: It certainly can be so black and white here…
B: You mention the fact that women aren’t allowed to sing in public over in Saudi Arabia. Once you moved here and started down that path, did you have the support of your family?
R: Yeah and just to clarify, a woman can sing at a private venue there, I just wouldn’t be allowed to hold a concert and have men and women come to it. You can do things in the privacy of your own venue or home…
R: Still though, when it comes to the public, you’re just not allowed to do that. As for my parents, even though my mother is religious – my father is not at all – but my parents are incredibly open-minded. When I first told them, “Mom and Dad, I am going to be a singer.” They were like, “What? No…” They were worried about my safety simply because it has never existed in our culture that a female would try to get into the North American music industry. They were so scared about how the culture would react and how the government would react. It took them a while to finally be able to look back and be like, “Okay, cool, shit is actually happening. We still think this is a scare route, but we accept it.”
My parents are the most loving and understanding people in the world. I have friends and family members who look at my way of life and don’t approve of it. They see it as way too far left, but that’s the nature of doing something new. It’s the nature of introducing a new path to society.
B: So before we get into the music, I have to ask…I don’t think it’s too much of a secret that although we are open to many views here at Lemonade, we aren’t fans of the current President and consider ourselves progressive. What are your thoughts on what has happened with American politics recently?
R: When I see it, I can only digest it on an individual level and look at myself and say, “What am I going to do about this?” When I saw Trump get elected, I saw it as an opportunity for me, as an individual and an artist, to tell a story of what it is to be an entity that many people in this country are made to be afraid of. As an artist, that’s why I moved here in the first place because in my country people are afraid of what I am becoming and the artist that I am. I look at the climate here and I just feel so lucky that I am a Saudi woman in 2017 who gets to write my music and share my work under Trump’s administration. It’s a shitty situation, but it’s also a chance for me to share my stories and ease people’s fears and have everyone feel that we can be together, we can be okay.
B: Your single “Daddy” sort of deals with that subject material, right? The oppressor.
R: Yeah, “Daddy” started as a song to my ex-boyfriend, but there is a lot more of a message in it. I wrote it as a love song, but kind of this moment where you step into your power and you tell your boyfriend, or your President or the bully at your school, “This is me. This is all of me and I am going to take up this space even though you are here and if I make you uncomfortable, I am sorry, but I am here. And I am not going anywhere.” To me it is an all encompassing song about the ex-boyfriend, country, President, anyone who is requiring you to dilute yourself to make them feel bigger.
B: The first song I heard of yours was “The Cure” and I remember hearing it and thinking, “I’ve been here before with superstars like Ellie Goulding. I am really lucky to be interviewing this girl now, because everyone will be fighting for an interview very soon.”
R: That is really kind of you…
B: No, but really I swear, I am not just trying to kiss your ass, you’re really incredible and that’s why I think it’s so crazy to hear that you just decided this was what you were going to do suddenly. I mean, you’re a superstar. That song is incredible. Where do you go from here now with these three songs out?
R: Aww, thanks so much! The next step is I am putting out my fourth single, “Bad Weather”. I really adore the song – it will come out in a couple months. Then the plan is to have a supporting slot for a fall tour and I have been writing like crazy, so I have an enormous body of work and naturally because I just started writing three years ago, it’s changing and moving so quickly. Right now my stuff is a little more to the left and a little more cinematic, so I want to take a step back and look at it and come back with a total package EP. I put out these singles without ever even considering an EP for them. I just wanted to get them out there and start talking to people. There’s such a freedom in the industry right now that I can do that, I don’t necessarily have to put out an EP. Now though, I feel like I know more about me. I know more about my gut and I feel like it’s time to put forward a package. It will be in 2018, when in 2018? I do not know, but that’s the plan, to just give it the love and care that it needs.
B: Three years…that’s just incredible! *laughs*
R: *laughs* I know! It’s incredible for me too, because when I started writing, I sucked! But when the universe comes together and it’s something you feel you have to do, it just fucking works, man.
B: I think it’s incredible to me too, because English is your second language, right? I mean you can’t tell listening to you, but it is, right?
R: Yeah, I know, everyone is very perplexed by my “American accent”. English is my second language, but my mother has an American accent, because my grandfather was one of the original employees of this oil company called Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world. They used to be a Saudi and American company, so there was this gated community city-like place where there were a bunch of Americans because their parents worked there, so my mom grew up within those gates because my grandfather worked for them. So that’s where I picked up my American accent, from my mother. Saudi consumes media from the West, so we pick up on the language and the accent quite a bit.
B: It is kind of interesting, because a lot of the time you’ll here someone learn English as a second language and their accent will be closer to British, but you sound like someone from California or Washington where I live.
B: What’s even crazier than the accent though is the fact that you write music in English so well. Sometimes people who write with English as their second language, there’s this disconnect from the lyrics.
R: Yeah it’s strange, I’ve always dreamt in English and I wrote essays, when I was sad or scared I would just write. It was always in English, I have always expressed myself in English and I am not sure why since I learned it after Arabic, but creatively, it’s just always been English.
B: The production, the writing, the vocals, you have it all going for you and on top of that, you have these awesome music videos. There is a – pardon the expression – shit ton of passion in those videos. Does that same thing happen when you play live?
R: Yeah, I play a lot of live shows and it’s probably the best way to experience my music. What you see in the videos, it’s not contained, but when I am on stage, I give myself permission to be very animistic in my behavior and so yeah, it’s very, very passionate and very unrestricted. it’s truly just the most beautiful place to be.
Editor in Chief of Lemonade Magazine