In a sonic landscape filled with pop princesses and hip-hop queens, Rotana Tarabzouni stands out. The doe-eyed, curly-haired Tarabzouni hails from Saudi Arabia, a country where a woman is allowed to be a professional singer, but where the vocation is generally frowned upon and viewed as a vain pursuit. However, music is coded in Tarabzouni’s DNA; she requires music to live and thrive, and her passion was not fully realized in her home country. So, she moved to Los Angeles to strike out on her own. Her story is one of bravery and creativity, and its narrator is one of the most inspirational young women Savoir Flair has ever had the honor to interview.
Tarabzouni’s love of music has been with her ever since she could remember. “I was that obnoxious kid who was singing everywhere all the time,” she tells us. “The truth is though, growing up in Saudi Arabia, I never looked at pursuing music professionally as something that was in the realm of the possible. It was a dream that was confined to me and my hairbrush in my room.” Growing up, she had restricted access to music from the Western world, but she laughs as she explains how she circumvented those restrictions, saying, “We did have one radio station that played U.S. hits! I listened to pop music through that. My father played a lot of The Beatles at home, a lot of Pink Floyd, and a lot of Nina Simone. I was also lucky enough to make summer visits to the U.S. where I would binge buy every CD I could get my hands on at the time, then live off of those for the year.”
After studying abroad in Boston, Tarabzouni returned to Saudi Arabia, where she began work at an oil company, “all the while, singing and continuing my almost obsession with music, but never attempting to pursue it,” she shares. Even though she was excelling at her work, she could not shake what she describes as “a great rumble inside of me.” Although she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was, she “felt something was missing.”
As with all innate passions, Tarabzouni was determined to actualize her dreams, and this determination led her back to Boston to visit friends, where she chanced upon an open casting call for a talent agency. “I have NO idea why I decided I was going. I had never done anything like that in my life. But sure enough, the next day I went to Fedex Kinko’s, printed out my Facebook photo and corporate résumé, and went to the talent agency. There were about 200 professional actors and singers there. The owner brought us in and asked us to read a script and sing if we could. I sang ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles in a very dark and vibe-y way. The woman began to cry. It was in that moment where I realized, ‘holy crap, my voice did that.’ My voice moved this woman to such a real and powerful feeling that it brought her to tears.”
Clearly, fate was driving her toward a new path, but before she leapt into the unknown, she returned to Saudi Arabia. The “great rumble” followed her home. “The itch was developed and it never went away,” she says. “It was the first time in my life where I was experiencing that ‘inner voice’ or ‘gut feeling’ we so often hear about. It was essentially this nagging feeling of, ‘I know nothing about the music industry. This is a path no one takes in my culture, but I want to do it anyway.’ It just wouldn’t go away.”
It was with great trepidation that Tarabzouni decided to share her thoughts with those around her, but, “noise, opinions, doubt, and fear” clouded her convictions, leading her to embark on a solo journey to India for two months “to be alone, to think, to write, and to silence the outside noise, so the inside noise could get louder.” India provided the respite she needed from the confusion. When she returned, her decision was made. “I am 100% going for this,” she shares, “even though I have no idea what I’m doing, or how I’m going to do it.”
That crucial moment in Tarabzouni’s life proved to be the turning point for everything. She headed to Los Angeles, a city known for its thriving music scene and abundance of recording studios, agencies, and venues, but she went “with zero training in anything.” At this point, she had never had a voice lesson in her life, much less written a song. Regardless of her inexperience, Tarabzouni knew her passions had merit, and she also knew that she was a raw vocal talent. She is also far from naive, and backed up her plan to move to Los Angeles by enrolling for her Master’s Degree at the University of Southern California, where she recently finished her thesis on pop artists as brands, and the role of a good narrative in creating a personal brand. Delving further into explanation, she says, “It expanded on the importance of an authentic narrative, a distinctive feeling and story that the artist embodies in creating a successful brand. Music doesn’t sell anymore, it has just become a marketing tool for the larger entity that is the pop star’s personal brand.”
I believe that the choice to unapologetically be yourself is the truest form of independence.
Tarabzouni’s initial goal when she moved to Los Angeles – as with all star-struck hopefuls – was to “make it.” Her primary goal now is more solidly rooted. “My primary goal is to grow into ‘Rotana’ — to be in my skin and no one else’s, to unapologetically be the individual that was for so long dimmed by layers of fear, expectation, shame, and conformity,” she says. One driving force behind her commitment to music and creativity is summed up in her core values and beliefs, which she shares, saying, “I believe that the choice to unapologetically be yourself is the truest form of independence. It is the most peaceful rebellion that this world so desperately needs.”
When asked who her biggest creative influences are, Tarabzouni states, “I couldn’t possibly name one person. Or even a few. I think that more than anything, what has formed my identity as a singer and artist is where I come from and the journey I traveled to pursue my dreams. That is a common thread that moves through everything I write, the way I move and breathe on stage, the words I choose in my sentences. It’s in me and all over me.”
“Having said that,” she continues, “Sade was my queen. She is the queen of sensuality, yet she owned her space and was an absolute force. There was such pain in her lyrics and voice and that just marveled over. I worshiped Alanis Morissette and how raw and uncontained she was as a human. I loved Brandy and how cool she was; I wanted to be her friend so badly. Then, of course, there is Celine Dion. She was just a diva, and I would very much imitate her as a child when I was just discovering I could sing. I can do a killer guttural Celine imitation.”
Although she started off in Los Angeles as a fledgling newcomer, she has quickly become one of the city’s best attractions. Although she is petite, she possesses a commanding stage presence and an innate sense of style that keeps people flocking to her performances at venues like The Viper Room and The Whisky. Most of her songs are written with the help of her two best friends, JP Saxe and Carrie Haber. “Many times, they will start playing something on the piano, and then we begin spitting out gibberish melodies and words and, well, eventually we feel something clicking. It could be something as simple as a word that we like. And we go off of that and build on that,” she describes.
However, when Tarabzouni is writing solo, the experience is different. “It’s usually the case that I am overwhelmed with an emotion to the point that I don’t know how to contain it in my body or what to do with myself,” she confesses. “I’m an emotional wreck and this happens pretty often. I’ll sit at the piano and just close my eyes, turn my phone recorder on, and let myself get possessed and let whatever melodies and words that need to come out, come out. I’ll eventually stop, and listen back. There is, 99% of the time, a story that is telling itself amidst all the gibberish. Sometimes, it’s not magical at all.”
It’s risky to put yourself out there without any guile, the way Tarabzouni does. Her performances are mesmerizing, because you feel like she’s speaking directly to you, even though her songs are personal in nature. For most, her talent and her message are impossible to ignore. Her convictions and inner beauty radiate through every note of her songs. However, she has been on the receiving end of negative feedback on the Internet, a danger that befalls many passionate artists in the modern era. Instead of engaging in the negativity, Tarabzouni deals with it by allowing it to be what it is. “Look, whenever you do something that is not predominant in a culture, there are going to be opinions, she states matter-of-factly. “Whenever you decide to be yourself with no apologies, when you live out loud, you are forcing other people to meet parts of themselves that they are not necessarily ready to meet. You are making them feel things that they might not be ready to feel. You are challenging their values, beliefs, and perceptions. That can make some people angry. It can make people elated. It can make those elated and angry people then disagree with each other. I say, great. We are not in a zombie state. Everyone is feeling something. There’s a dialogue. Good. Keep it coming.”
People started treating me differently when I started treating myself differently.
Has Tarabzouni noticed a pronounced difference between the way she is treated in Saudi Arabia as opposed to the U.S.? In a word, no. “My treatment hasn’t changed in either place,” she says. “People started treating me differently when I started treating myself differently. When I stopped apologizing for who I was, what I desired, how I moved and walked through life as a person, people reacted to that. There is no geographical place in the world that affects that, except in my mind and my heart.”
As a final parting note, Tarabzouni has important advice for young women in the Middle East who aspire to take a similar path: “Know that it’s supposed to be scary, that you’re supposed to be confused, and that it’s supposed to challenge everything you’ve ever known. All great things require those experiences. I know that’s not specific to the Middle East. I hope that’s not a disappointment. I know I come from the Middle East, and it’s not that I don’t understand the challenges, constrictions, heightened expectations, and social or cultural constructs we ‘have’ to abide by here. It’s just that I think there is a bigger, more universal concept at work. We come into this world and they tell us, ‘This is how the world works. This is what you should look like. This is a path you should probably take.’ This is a human struggle felt by every individual, whether you’re from Saudi Arabia or Kathmandu. But you can throw away all of what you know and were taught for a while. If you can completely strip yourself bare, you can then choose what you want to clothe yourself with, because it feels right to you and no one else.”
On March 1, Tarabzouni launches her crowd-funding campaign to fund the recording and production of her debut EP. You can visit her website, www.HerNameisRotana.com, to sign up with your e-mail to gain access to information about the fund, personal blog posts, free downloads, and more.
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