Rotana Talks Saudi Arabia, Sexuality, And "Daddy"
Rotana is the strong, rebellious Saudi Arabian artist writing songs about love and freedom. Her music is loud, true, and courageous. So is her story. Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, Rotana’s path into music is an unconventional one. She moved to the LA four years ago and discovered her love for music, soon releasing track “Daddy” that put her on the map. Now, she’s releasing the “Demo Series”, a collection of raw and stripped back love songs. Each song is accompanied by a lo-fi animation Rotana created in her Los Angeles apartment. She wears the same gold locket throughout the series; it’s of scripture from the Quran, the holy book in Saudi Arabia.
Rotana is a rebel through her words and lifestyle, and continues to create her artistic identity. Every song she writes, whether it’s about love, freedom, or rebellion, is an invitation to experience an eruption of self.
“In a lot of ways I feel like I’m a teenager in a grown woman’s body,” she says. “Pushing up against the walls of freedom, boys, sex, self governance, psychedelics.”
Milk sat down with Rotana to talk more about Saudi Arabia, sexuality, and womanhood.
What are only a few sentences that best describe you as an artist?
I’m hypersensitive and everything feels like the first time. There’s a lot of heat and angst in my music because I grew up without an outlet of expression. I’m super fragile but will fuck you up in a song if you cross me. I’m sexual and feel the world through that lens often. I do what I do so my little sister doesn’t have to struggle with freedom of expression.
What was the first song you ever made?
It’s a song called “Never Going Back”. It was this moment where I was questioning everything in my life cause I realized I had been sleep walking. I had no idea what I believed about God, sexuality, my gut feelings. I still sing it to this day, it’s sexy and dark.
Where did you grow up?
Saudi Arabia. I was born and raised in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. It is truly one the richest cultures in the world. I grew up in this gated community which is more like a city called “Saudi Aramco”, it used to be nicknamed Little America cause none of the rules in Saudi at the time applied. You could drive in there as a women, we had a movie theatre, girl scouts etc. All that stuff didn’t exist outside the gates.
I was lucky cause I got to live there but then would leave the gates and go to Saudi schools which is a whole different more conservative ballgame.
And where do you live now? How was the change?
I live in LA now, I moved here a little over four years ago to make music. It’s been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I came here so fresh off the camel’s ass. [Laughs] Never written a song before or had any formal training. But I’ve been a writer and performer my whole life in my privacy.
It’s been a trip. In a lot of ways I feel like I’m a teenager in a grown woman’s body. Pushing up against the walls of freedom, boys, sex, self governance, psychedelics. Things most people get to when they’re like 16. [Laughs] It’s been amazing.
What influence, if any, did growing up in Saudi Arabia have on your music?
Melodically the eastern scale is just in my blood, I listened to so much Fairuz growing up and I would recommend her to anyone even if you don’t understand Arabic.
I grew up very out of touch my with sexuality and body as a woman. I was this loud, expressive, sensual creature but didn’t know where to put it and had no examples of what do with it. So a lot of my music lyrically explores sexuality and brings power to it. It also explores feeling like a teenager that’s lost and confused by themselves at moments. I write about that stuff because I don’t think you need to grow up in Saudi Arabia to feel that.
Lyrically as well, Arabic is a very poetic language, it’s tragic almost. I have that tendency, to make even the most beautiful things tragic. I love that.
“Daddy” is such a powerful song, can you tell us about its creation?
“Daddy” is about bullies. I wrote it about people and societies that sometimes make us feel like we need to shrink or modify who we are to make them feel more comfortable. Fuck that. The truth is, bullies are scared as hell. It started as a song about my ex then morphed into a song about societal restrictions, then it landed on it being a song about me cause really I was the biggest bully to myself. I realized that it was me that felt I needed to change or be smaller to be loved.
Tell us about your current project, The Demo Series.
The DLS are a collection of five love songs, all in raw demo form. There was this notion of freedom I wanted to put into this. Freedom for a Saudi girl to talk about shit other than protest. Each of these songs is strictly about love. And freedom to share music that isn’t mixed or mastered or tuned. I also just love these songs. I smoked some weed and made all these visuals with my best friends in one afternoon.
Your most recent release was “Bad Weather”, out last Friday! What was the inspiration for this song?
“Bad Weather” is just the moment when you realize, damn it’s inevitable that this relationship is going to end. It’s like bad weather, you can’t really do anything about it. I’m the worst at letting go but this was a moment of OK, I prayed about this, I talked about it, I fought about it and now it’s just time to accept that it’s over. For now.
What can we expect next?
More music. I’m working on my EP right now which is a more bold and evolved representation of my sexuality and being. I’m bringing sounds from home back into the music in a way I’m really excited about. I’m going to shoot the visuals to the record in Saudi Arabia, and I can’t wait for that.
I’ve also developed this talk/live music experience where I take people on my journey of coming into my voice and body as a woman, artist, immigrant, and interwoven into that is my live set. It’s sick. You can follow me on Spotify or Instagram for show updates.
Featured image courtesy of Rotana
Stay tuned to Milk for more rising stars.