The LA-Based Saudi Singer Challenging Arab Stereotypes
Tamtam opens up about dual identity and why she loves LA
Sarah Ben Romdane
“When I turned 13, I sang Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ at a school talent show, it was the first time I’d performed live and it was the best feeling in the world”, says Tamtam referring to the moment she decided that she wanted to become a singer.
Born and raised in Riyadh, Tamtam moved to LA when she was a teenager, but even when she lived in her home country of Saudi Arabia, she somehow never felt a sense of belonging. And as she cites both Michael Jackson and Fayrouz as her biggest musical influences – it’s obvious that Tamtam’s music is an introspective exploration of her dual identity.
While her music loosely straddles contemporary classical, pop and electro, the LA-based singer isn’t afraid to make a statement with her bold autobiographical lyrics. As part of a younger generation of progressive and thought-provoking Saudis ready to speak up, Tamtam is the rising artist whose creative impulses perfectly embody Saudi Arabia’s current youthquake.
Having recently dropped her latest music video for “Rise”, directed by Saudi director Meshal Al Jaser, which beautifully explores patriarchal traditions in the Kingdom and women’s resilience, MILLE caught up with Tamtam to find out how she navigates her dual identity, what she thinks of the representation of Muslim women and why LA is so inspiring.
How did it feel moving from Saudi Arabia to post-9/11 America at such a young age?
I definitely had a culture shock when I first moved to the US from Saudi because I didn’t know anybody in the US and everything seemed so different. But the more people I got to know, and the more I got used to my surroundings, the more I realized that we are not so different after all. We may come from different places in the world, and we may believe in different things, but at the end of the day our humanity is what unites us, and that is the most powerful thing.
You released a song last year entitled “Identify Myself”. Who is TamTam?
Tamtam is my alter ego. She is confident, direct and honest. “Identify Myself” is one of my favourite songs because it’s about identity, which is something I’ve been thinking about since I was a kid. My mother is originally Syrian, so I don’t look Saudi at all. In fact, growing up in Saudi, people would often speak to me in English, or ask me where I was from because they couldn’t believe I was Saudi. This confused me a lot growing up. I wrote the song because I know I’m not the only person in this position, and I wanted to tell everyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong, that they do actually belong, because at the end of the day we can all identify as human beings.
What do you think of the representation of Muslim women in Western societies, and in the music industry? Do you feel like you have to be some kind of political spokesperson?
I’m so proud of being an Arab artist in the US. I think there needs to be more authentic representation of Arab women and Arabs in general in the industry, especially since most people just listen to the news and forget that the news is often one sided. But I don’t feel like I have to be a political spokesperson, all I know is that I have to be authentic and honest with my fans, and if my honesty comes off as political, then I’m ok with that.
What is it about living in LA that your particularly love?
I love being in LA because there are so many opportunities in music here. I have another music project that is more EDM oriented, with DJ/producer Accidental Muse. We’ve released a few singles already, and there’s more to come. My community consists of really diverse people! I also have friends who are in the art and broader cultural circles. They are American, Mexican, Indian, Iranian, Saudi, and Kuwaiti… The list goes on. That’s another great thing about LA – it’s such a diverse city.
Do you still visit the Middle East often?
Yes, I do! I have a lot of family in the Middle East and I love going home. My favourite time to visit the region is during Ramadan. It’s such an amazing time of the year, and you really feel a sense of community and togetherness.
How did the story for the music video “Rise” come about?
The song is about rising above the noise of society and following your gut. Meshal came up with the concept about arranged marriages and I loved it! We used the metaphor of the mannequin because you don’t really know who you are marrying when a marriage is arranged. I’m so proud of Saudi embracing all the youth that are in the arts, music and film. It’s really amazing to see all the talented people who are doing what they love and succeeding.
Photo by Yanin Varela, Courtesy of Tamtam