5 Minutes With. . . Rotana


When Rotana was a little girl living in Saudi Arabia she was obsessed with music, but she never would have guessed that before age 30 she’d become the L.A. success she is today. Rotana creates music about her life as a young adult who is experiencing many things for the first time. In just 4 years, she has become renowned for her authenticity and beautiful voice. She was featured in Fendi’s Spring 2017 campaign for Vogue Arabia, Lucky Brand’s Class of 2017 and she is a Nasty Gal brand ambassador. Most recently, she gave an innovative, unique performance at the Emerge Impact + Music festival. Keep reading to learn more about Rotana’s talk and how she became the successful entrepreneur she is today.

How did you get involved in music?

I was and raised in Saudi Arabia and I have always loved music, but for me it was very much forbidden for a woman to perform in public. So, even though I loved music I just kind of ruled it out as something that wasn’t possible for me and just went about my life. I was very inundated in the religious system because I went to Saudi schools and they were super religious. Then I studied in Boston for University, then graduated early and started working for an oil company called Saudi Aramco, which is the largest oil company in the world. I was super young and had just gotten out of college, and within five or six months I got this huge raise and I was on this executive management track as a 21-year-old kid. With that I went into a very deep depression and that’s where music actually came to me because when I went into that depression I realized that I was depressed because I was living this life that I thought I wanted but really I didn’t have a single opinion of my own in terms of what I believed in, who was god, what my rights are as a woman. I didn’t have any of my own opinions. With that, I just couldn’t stop thinking about music and that was such a strong opinion that I always had – that I should be making music and performing. So I truly just from that place took some time off work and left to India for three months and it was just from that place alone that I decided blindly- having never been in the music industry or even written a song at that point- that I was going to do it. I moved to L.A. four and a half years ago and really just hit the ground running.

Do you still use anything you learned at the oil company?

Totally. I think it’s one of the biggest things that differentiates me as an artist, especially here in L.A. it’s so competitive and I think that because I was in the corporate world, I know this is boring, but organization is so appreciated in the creative community because there’s a huge lack of it. When you can organize people you can literally make their lives a little bit easier so they just kind of want to work with you more. So I definitely feel that the organizational perspective is always very appreciated. Also I think that in a corporate world, because you’re just around people in close proximity you really learn how to gauge where people are emotionally and meet them there. It’s hard to name everything, there’s just so much that I still use. Even when it comes to negotiation, I learned so much about men. Obviously in Saudi Arabia there were women in the workforce, but … they put me in public speaking and in a lot of rooms with a bunch of men.  [So] I really, really learned how to navigate men. Like, if a guy is just sitting there and not really listening or mansplaining, there’s just an art to letting them be and then taking your space unapologetically after that or before it. I really learned patience and developed both a very strong head and a very patient heart with men.

So many people move to L.A. to become pop stars. Why do you think you were able to find success as a musician?

I think that I’m telling a very honest story and that is at the core of so much of the success that I’ve found. I’m not telling a story, I’m living my story. So, Rotana, the immigrant, the Arab woman, the artist, the girl that sounds like she’s going through this late adolescence because I feel like I’m this teenager in a grownup woman’s body pushing up against the walls of freedom and there’s boys and sex and drugs and all these things that most people experience in their teens. I’m now experiencing these things as a woman in my late 20s, and I think that is a universal feeling that anyone can relate to.  I’ve just been really honest in my music and in my life and [it’s] consistent. I really think the only way I’ve been able to be honest and consistent is because it is my life, not something that I’m creating to make a story to use here- it is just my life. Also, given the political climate, to be a Saudi rising pop artist is just something that’s new, and I think that people are just really hungry for stories that are untold. So I think it’s a combination of things- honesty, it’s a lot of hard work I put it and I’m at the cusp of the growing pains that America is going through in understanding that they aren’t the only superpower and most knowledgeable force in the world. I’m [also] at the cusp of the growing pains of Saudi Arabia that’s now going through a reform and trying to become a more moderate country. I’m this product of both of these movements. So I think it’s also a little bit of right place, right time, but I can’t give all the credit to that.

Tell me about the talk you gave at EMERGE music festival?

I created this keynote experience- it’s kind of like a TedTalk, but woven into it is my live music. So, essentially what it does is it takes the audience on my journey of really coming into my voice and my body, as a woman; as an Arab woman, as an artist. It starts off with me in Saudi Arabia and the systematic oppression I went through over there and my schooling and kind of how I left my job and moved to the States. It really lands on also exploring the systematic oppression that I found here in the U.S. and really people wanting to pigeon hole me into the “protest Barbie” that left Saudi and all of a sudden came to America. And there’s so much more to the narrative than that. So the speech really lands in this place of encouraging artists to understand that there’s so much more than the protest and there’s so much more than the growing pains and it’s very wrong to identify a whole culture- like Saudi culture- or a person, like me, by my “struggle” because I’m not always struggling. I’m also in love and trying all these different things. So, it lands on this place of urging artists to fight for their right to be a 360-human. It does kind of more obviously speak to minorities or those that are under-represented in the media. I think we’re often coerced to talk about our oppression and our trauma so it lands on that note of encouraging people to sometimes say no to opportunities because they may not line up with our humanity, and sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to stop stereotypes.

How did you come up with that idea?

When I was at the oil company, one of the reasons I got promoted so quickly was because I absolutely loved public speaking. So when EMERGE approached me and said they wanted to do this thing, I said, ‘Ok, cool, but can I also do this?’ I just wanted to craft it so it was really a gut feeling that I could make it. But it really started at the oil company- where I realized that I had a gift for this.

What advice do you have for young women trying to become entrepreneurs?

Follow your gut. Follow your gut. I think it’s the only thing that’s gotten me to where I’ve been and my gut has gone against so many executives and people who are more experienced than me and every time that I’ve followed it, it’s been a success, and every time I haven’t followed it, it hasn’t been. Obviously there’s a balance of taking advice, but my gut is what got me here and my gut is what continues to propel me. I think as women we’re not empowered enough to listen to our guts and our bodies and that’s just something I can’t stress enough.