Featuring dancing children and Ayasel grooving around a cafe, the music video for “Mecca Girl” has been celebrated as an anthem for female empowerment in socially conservative Saudi Arabia, home to an increasingly popular rap scene.
Yet the video has also led to a wave of religious criticism, including from the Saudi government, that pressured the performer into taking the video offline. Authorities in Mecca are now calling for the woman’s arrest, saying that the 2½-minute feature on YouTube constituted an act of blasphemy against Islam’s holiest city.
Prince Khalid bin Faisal, the governor of Mecca province, said on Twitter on Friday that the video “offends the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca and contradicts the elevated identity and traditions of its sons."
After bin Faisal ordered the prosecution of Ayasel and her production team, the performer deleted her official channel and took down the video with it. It is unclear if any legal action had been taken against her as of early Monday morning.
But many Saudi critics say that Ayasel did nothing illegal or harmful toward Mecca, which millions of Muslims visit each year to make a pilgrimage to the Great Mosque. Instead, they say, she was merely being targeted for performing as a black woman in a country that stigmatizes both female identity and dark skin.
“The consequences are not equaling the crime, because there is no crime there,” Amani Al-Ahmadi, a Saudi activist in Seattle who has been vocal about the matter online, told The Washington Post. “It’s obviously targeted against a woman who they feel doesn’t represent what Saudi and Mecca should be."
While the majority of Saudis identify as descendants of tribal Arabian groups, she said, Mecca and other cities near the country’s western coast have long been home to immigrants, particularly those from Muslim parts of East Africa.
Notably, the video for “Mecca Girl” includes mostly black backup dancers, as Ayasel raps about the beauty of dark-skinned women in particular. “She’s white, shines like a lightbulb,” she says in the video. “She’s dark, her beauty stings."
Despite the country’s conservative reputation, a vibrant rap scene featuring both international and homegrown rappers has blossomed in Saudi Arabia over the past decade. Qusai, a Saudi hip-hop star also known as “Don Legend the Kamelion,” mixes English and Arabic lyrics and appears regularly on Saudi television.
In 2018, the female rapper Leesa went viral for a car-themed music video celebrating the end of a decades-long ban that prevented women from driving. With lyrics such as “I don’t need anyone to take me/ I put the seat belt over my abaya,” her performance was largely well received, drawing more than 2 million views.
Yet even as the country moves toward more-relaxed social codes, fostering a rap scene there has not been without its challenges. The performer Mohammed Al-Ghamdi was once sent to jail for making videos laced with profanity, according to the Wall Street Journal, and he more recently took his videos off the Internet following a request from Saudi officials objecting to the content.
The cultural climate has presented a dilemma for American rappers, many of whom have been invited to perform for growing fan bases there. In July 2019, Nicki Minaj backed out of a concert in Jiddah she was set to headline, citing her “support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.”
And now, there is backlash to Ayasel and her video to “Mecca Girl.” The song also includes English lyrics, including the lines: “Drop the beat, a Mecca girl, you can’t compete, just running the show, look at her glow, is it the mood or her, you’ll never know.”
Besides the government order, the song provoked a strong set of reactions on social media, Al Jazeera reported. Officials doubled down on their statement that rapping about and filming in a holy city was obscene, and the hashtag #You_Are_Not_Mecca’s_Girls went after Ayasel for her African ancestry and suggested that she was not the true face of Mecca.
The writer Mona Eltahaway called that an act of “misogynoir,” the term that refers to the double discrimination faced by black women, and said it was a “reminder of Mohammed bin Salman’s hollow reforms."
How do you explain call to arrest Black Saudi woman rapper & misogynoir thrown at her in the country that invited Nicki Minaj to perform?— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) February 23, 2020
Nicki cancelled citing concerns for women & LGBTQ people & this is a reminder of Mohamed Bin Salman’s hollow reforms https://t.co/mg3wkzdn7K
#MBS spends millions on events to promote his vision of an open & tolerant society. But when a #Saudi woman of color raps about women like her in a beautiful tribute to her city, she’s detained!— Amani Al-Ahmadi | أماني الأحمدي (@amani_aal) February 23, 2020
Where’s the woman empowerment!?Where’s #vision2030, or is that for westerns only!?
Indeed, while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tried to change some of the country’s social codes, bringing in concerts and movie theaters, critics have said his efforts fall short when it comes to creating lasting change.
The call to arrest Ayasel was an example of racism and hypocrisy, Al-Ahamadi told The Post. Rappers from the United States and elsewhere have performed far more obscene lyrics elsewhere in the country, she said.
“It was very modest in nature. If anything, it was just talking about how strong women are in the city compared to others … If you changed that city to any other city, you wouldn’t even know the difference,” she said. “If she wasn’t a woman of color, they wouldn’t have seen her as a minority to target.”
Asser Khattab and Sarah Dadouch contributed to this report.