How This Saudi Arabian Singer Is Fighting for Women’s Freedom From America

Mar 10, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Image: Amber Marie Chavez; Michaela Early/

Close your eyes for a second and picture this: You've got a dream. A really big one. To be an athlete, a CEO, a lawyer, an astronaut, a performer. This dream — whatever it may be — calls to you; it hijacks your thoughts and it leaves you filled with despair when you're not pursuing it. You can't imagine doing anything else because it's not just your passion, it's your purpose. It's what you feel you were put on this Earth to do.

Now imagine this: You're not allowed to do it. Actually, your society forbids you from doing it. You have to leave everything you know — your friends, your family, your home — to pursue your dream in another country because it is impossible in the only one you've ever known.

That's exactly what happened to Rotana, a Saudi Arabian woman who left everything she knew because her freedoms as a woman were (and still are) limited, and she wasn't allowed to pursue her true passion: singing.

Now, four years after moving to the United States with no professional singing experience, Rotana is a rising star. She hopes to not only continuing gaining recognition in the States but also enact change back in Saudi Arabia so that other women have the right to dream, the right to express themselves and the right to live the life they're meant to lead.

Get to know Rotana now, because she's about to take the world by storm.


SheKnows: Tell us about the town you grew up in. What did it look like? What was your upbringing like living there?

Rotana: I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. Growing up there was really special and magical. As a kid, I lived in this gated community that is more like a city called “Saudi Aramco,” which was an oil company. There were a lot of expats at the time, so I was immersed in America, Pakistani, Asian and other cultures as a child. I would leave the gates every day and go to Saudi schools, so I was really getting the most diverse experience you could possibly get in Saudi Arabia.

SK: When did you first discover your dream of becoming a singer?

R: It happened later for me. it was never in the realm of the possible for me. I didn’t know that was an option for me, that that could be real. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, an environment where that kind of pursuit just didn’t happen. Especially as a woman. I grew up aspiring to be an executive in the corporate world. I was aggressive in that pursuit, and one day, I woke up incredibly depressed, realizing that I had no idea what I believed in or what I actually wanted. That was when music out of nowhere started to come up in my mind as a thought of “What if I tried this? Could this actually happen?” 

I remember listening to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and even as a little girl being so excited!! She was exploding and you could feel her wrath and passion. I remember understanding how much I loved that as a kid. I was a weirdo child that listened to that record on repeat.


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SK: Tell us about the first time you told your parents you wanted to be a singer. How did they react?

R: They reacted the way any parents would, honestly. The arts were just not a thing we did back home. No one in my family had ever pursued it. I was a woman. I had never written or sang professionally before. I am Saudi. They were worried, but also I don’t think they understood that I could actually be successful at this and compete with the industry. At the time, I didn’t really believe that, either. I was just following a hunch inside of me that wouldn’t go away.

They let me go, though; they understand that when I set my mind on something, I'm not messing around. I am a very passionate person, so if I am happy, I am passionately happy and vice versa. My parents ultimately just want me to be passionately happy.

SK: Tell us about your move to Los Angeles. How did you feel? Why did you make the move?

R: It was terrifying. I had never sung or written before, but I knew I could. I knew nothing about the music industry. I was leaving my family and the familiar/safe. I was so fresh off the camel's ass.

I moved because I was depressed and I couldn’t stop thinking about music. It made no sense to me. For the first time in my life, I was hearing this “inner voice” thing I kept hearing about so clearly telling me I needed to pursue music. In Saudi Arabia, it would be forbidden for me to do a show, so needless to say, there is no industry. I moved to Los Angeles to find opportunity and because if I was going to do this, I wanted to be around the best and play in the big leagues.

You wake up one day and you feel this sensation of “Holy shit! What do I believe in? What do I want to do with my time on this planet?” All those questions for me led to the thought of music.

rotana quote

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SK: What’s been your experience being an immigrant in the U.S.?

R: I am very inspired to tell stories through my music. I truly believe that the ultimate powers that be are not world leaders but those that tell the greatest stories. As a writer and artist, I feel there is no better time to reflect the times!

I'm just going to continue doing my work and writing about the human experience. Love, darkness, fear, courage, heartbreak. These are my experience as a human and an artist, just as they are everyone else's. We are all human. We are so much the same. I intend to show that as deeply as I can with good music.


SK: How did you find the courage to be different and resist societal expectations?

R: I just do what I love. It doesn’t feel like a choice. I feel so strongly as a human being; I'm an emotional overflow most of the time. How amazing that I get to put that into a medium that moves people all around the world! That can break down fear and expectation and create new cultural norms. When you think of all that, it doesn’t take much courage. Sure, there's opposition, and yes, I'm terrified much of the time because I have given up a lot. But I am so much more inspired by living a full life with no apologies and inspiring others to do the same.

SK: What is your relationship like with your family, now that you’re in L.A. pursuing your dreams?

R: Beautiful. They love and are proud of me. They love my music and see that dreams are not just for the movies and people outside of where we come from.

SK: Now that you have a platform, why do you think it’s important to use your voice to inspire women both in the United States and Saudi Arabia?

I think that no matter where you are from, we come into this world and it serves as an understanding of what is possible for us, what we are “supposed” to do, look and feel like. Especially as women. We are bombarded with societal norms and media that limit what we think is possible. I don’t think you can really be a happy person if you listen to all that. I want to get in touch with the animal in me, the intuitive compass in me. I think we would all be so much more badass if we got a little more animal with it all. A little less conditioned and a little wilder.

My single “Daddy” is about that. “Daddy” is the bully, the oppressor. Anyone or anything that is coming in the way of being fully who you are. The song is about the moment you step into your power and decide that you aren't going anywhere or diluting yourself to please anyone. In that moment it's all heat and “Whachu gon' do, Daddy?”

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SK: What are some causes or movements you're most passionate about?

R: The movement of being fully independently you, doing it out loud with all the passion and lust for life. It is the most peaceful form of rebellion that this world so desperately needs.

SK: In 10 years, where do you see yourself?

R: I see myself performing on a massive stage or a very intimate room. I'll just always be performing. I'll be on the Asian leg of my world tour and will have just finished a show in a city most pop artists don’t perform. I will be preparing for my TED talk or will have just given it. I will have at least two films out. I will have started infrastructures of support for young Saudis wanting to pursue the arts. The brand of Rotana will be established in all mediums, all marketing the same value of getting animal with [who] you are and living out loud.

Listen to Rotana's first single, "Daddy," on Spotify and follow her journey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

Michael J Fox
Image: WENN