Rotana isn’t your average artist, she’s creating music with a purpose. The singer-songwriter uses her voice to tell her experiences of the oppression females face in her home country of Saudi Arabia. Named one of BBC’s 100 Most Powerful Women, the singer-songwriter arrives with an unwavering love for her home and continues to fight the good fight for freedom.
Rotana is determined to disrupt the generational narratives that say our bodies are bad, the erotic is wrong, and pleasure is for men only. With the release of her pop ballads, she touches on heavy topics from self-realization and religion to family and immigrant experiences.
Describing herself as “an artist, a liberator, a pleasure activist, and a human being,” Rotana sees her music as a compilation of sensual prayers. Her newest single “Sin Again” is paired with an equally powerful visual, holding fans over until the release of her debut album. She even had a one-woman musical in the works titled Alien of Extraordinary Ability which was scheduled for a 6-week residency at the Manhattan Theater Club, but unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19.
Flaunt caught up with Rotana via FaceTime to discuss her sound, her music being prayers, the story behind “Sin Again,” shooting the visual during COVID, her sexuality, and more!
How would you describe your sound?
It’s funny, my first manager, who’s still a dear friend of mine, the other day said “this body of work is a bunch of really sensual prayers.” It really does feel like that’s what a lot of this stuff is. A prayer of sorts, it feels really meditative to me. But it’s also pop music.
What’s prayer to you?
I’m from Saudi Arabia, born and raised there. I grew up inherently with a lot of virtues. It’s a very religious environment. I really fell in love with the ritual side, I carry a lot of that. Even if you can’t overtly hear it in the songs, the way that these songs were formed all comes from a place of ritual. “Sin Again” specifically, the first song I put out, is a coming out party of sorts. It’s the first time in my life where I said I’m an Arab, I’m a Saudi woman and I’m a sexual being. I’m an erotic being. I have sexuality, it’s not dirty, profane, gross, or something to be hidden.
When each of us own the parts of us that makes us feel the most alive, that’s a prayer. That’s you moving through the world with the frequency that’s going to best serve the world, yourself, and ultimately your family. Even though in my personal experience sometimes it doesn’t immediately feel like a prayer, it feels like a lot of destruction. [laughs] Because who I am is a disruption to a lot of different systems. Despite all of that, this is who I am and this is the shit that makes me feel alive.
How was it growing up Saudi Arabia? When did you come to the States?
I moved here almost 7 years ago, it’s been a minute. I was working at an oil company before I moved here. I didn’t even think of music as something possible. When I was growing up Saudi, women weren’t allowed to sing in public. I had a beautiful upbringing, but I did grow up in a very religious environment. I went to Saudi schools, a very religious system. I’ve always been in touch with the erotic part of me. A part of me always inherently knew that this body and the impulse to listen to my body, move my body, the sexual energy in my body was really fucking powerful, that creative impulse is the thing that creates universes essentially. I knew that, but it was very much blocked, suppressed, shamed, really really pushed down.
That’s why it’s taken me so long to make a song like “Sin Again,” because there’s so much emotional blockage and intergenerational inheritance of oppression to work up against. Growing up in Saudi is what gave me access to ritual, understanding what it means to be devoted and not being afraid of devotion. I wouldn’t trade those things for anything. It’s part of the natural ecosystem over there, everything’s a ritual. Everything’s devotion, and sometimes to a fault. It was really beautiful and fucking complicated, like every other place in this world.
Who were you listening to growing up?
I was such a Brandy fan. Brandy’s “Sitting On Top Of The World.” That record was huge. Alanis Morissette, TLC, and Sade. Growing up in Saudi, we only had one music store called MegaStar. I didn’t have access to much but those were really big for me. Sade was big, TLC was big, Brandy was big, Alanis Morissette really changed my life. Alanis was the first time I’d ever experienced a woman get really fucking angry, get really loud about it, and take up a lot of space. I’m like “oh, we’re allowed to do that!”
How have you evolved since releasing “Sin Again”?
A lot of evolution has happened since then. The music video itself created a lot of destruction. A lot of people who’ve known me since I was young and knew the older version of me, people from home were deeply disappointed. Deeply disgusted, really fucking confused. People who really love and care about me said “you’ve lost your way.”
I feel a lot more empowered as a woman to create a body of work that’s very sensual and erotic, to know it’s in no way tailored to the male gaze. Sure if men look at it and get turned on, then great. Good for you, that’s awesome. But it’s not why I created this. It’s a fuck ton of intention. My tits are speaking, they’re singing in the video. Our bodies, especially as women, are constantly talking to us. Innately, that’s where we get our freedom. All the love, all the intuition, all the knowing if we’d just listen. Knowing that I can be erotic, sensual, and sexual, to know and feel grounded in that I didn’t make this for the male gaze. Enjoy if you like, but I didn’t make this for you. Before, I was really trapped in the construct of I’m going to shut down all my pleasure and eroticism. Female pleasure’s been corrupted by the male gaze, so I’m going to completely shut down my pleasure. Now I understand doing that exists in the construct of oppression.
What you were trying to convey with that visual?
On the surface, “Sin Again” is a song about self-pleasure, touching yourself, and masturbating. Really that song’s about self-intimacy. I say “I touch my sin again, I touch my skin again” because I grew up in an environment that told me my body as a woman was a sin. That my sexualtiy was sinful unless it’s being offered up to man or being used to give birth to children. “Sin Again” really came from a very visceral moment. I have a one woman show, I was going back to my memories of when did this instinct start? I’ve always known that female sexuality, sexual energy, and holiness aren’t separate.
I remember a very specific time, I was about 16. I was praying with a group of people. Praying in Islam is like a bunch of different yoga positions. I was praying in what is sort of like Child’s Pose and brushed the skin of my thigh. I remember feeling shockwaves go throughout my whole body, feeling really turned on and alive. Understanding in that moment, whoa this doesn’t feel any different than prayer. It’s all feeding into each other. I wrote “Sin Again” from that moment. “I move my hands alone along the carpet and I can’t stop it,” that’s going back to that moment. The visual of my tits singing is me really wanting to communicate that our bodies are constantly speaking to us. Our bodies are the only vessel we have to communicate with the divine, to tap into our intuition and knowing freedom. Let’s put lips on my tits and have them speak. [laughs] The visual’s really striking.
How was shooting it during COVID-19?
It was awesome. I made this visual with 2 of my best friends who are both Arab. They’re men, which meant so much to me. They’re in my COVID pod. A guy name Tayeb who’s Palestinian, another guy named Wesam who’s Egyptian. We decided because of COVID, we have to shoot this at my house. Not going to shoot this at a location. 3 people shot this music video. Everything you see in the music video is my living room, my backyard. It felt very ritualistic. Especially creating it with 2 Arab men, I wasn’t alone in breaking this intergenerational oppression. I had 2 Arab men by my side saying “yes! We see you, this isn’t profane. This is a prayer.” That was fucking awesome, really really important.
Talk about your one woman show called Alien of Extraordinary Ability.
Alien of Extraordinary Ability is my immigration status here in the U.S. I named my show that because that’s incredibly offensive and such a compliment to be called an Alien of Extraordinary Ability. That’s so fucked up, but also amazing. This one woman show is a combination of my music, spoken word, and dance. Before COVID, it was supposed to do a run at the Manhattan Theater Club. I’m really hoping I get to do that show again, because that’s my version of a concert. I used to do shows with just music, I recognized that’s not the kind of artist I am. It’s all a part of a narrative and a ritual.
What can we expect next?
The next song coming out is called “Stuck in America.” For the music video, I worked with Shibari rope and suspension. I’m continuing to drop these prayers, these songs that document my experience as an immigrant, an Arab woman, a Muslim and a human.