A Saudi Arabian rapper is facing possible arrest for the ultimate crime: having pride in being a woman of color from Mecca, one of the most sacred places in the world for Muslims.
The rapper, who goes by the name Asayel Slay, uploaded a video to her YouTube channel last week of her performing a song titled “Mecca Girl,” in which she raps about the pride she has for her city, her womanhood, and the color of her skin.
In the video, which has since been taken down, Slay raps in both Arabic and English. Modest in dress and in tongue, she praises the women of her city for their beauty and strength. She raps in a cafe, surrounded by young male and female backup dancers. Asayel has also had her YouTube channel suspended, according to BBC News.
“Yo, drop the beat, with Mecca girls you can’t compete,” Slay raps.
Saudi officials tweeted that the governor of Mecca, Khalid al-Faisal, has called for the arrest of Asayel Slay as well as those responsible for the production of the song, for offending “the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca.”
The tweet uses an Arabic hashtag that translates to “#You_Are_Not_Mecca_Girls,” which is now being used by other social media users to criticize the video and Slay.
One popular tweet, which I translated from the original Arabic, reads, “Who gave this foreigner the right to speak about Saudi Arabian women in general and specifically about girls of Mecca?”
Many tweets specifically mention the color of her skin and her perceived African origins. Slay is reportedly of Eritrean descent and has brown skin. One tweet, which I translated from the original Arabic, reads “Mecca is not African #You_Are_Not_Mecca_Girls.”
The hashtag brought to light a larger issue surrounding the controversy: anti-black racism.
A Saudi woman who appears 2 be of African descent made a cute video rapping about Makkah & her culture using witty lyrics. The video went viral, she was reported to authorities. The twitter backlash against her is full of racist pricks like this person .. #لستن_بنات_مكة https://t.co/8IdN08akXN— MS SΛFFΛΛ صفاء (@MsSaffaa) February 20, 2020
This isn’t the first recent instance where anti-black racism has reared its head in Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi security official was accused of anti-black racism over a video posted by Middle East Eye in 2019 that purportedly showed him ignoring children with darker complexions at an award ceremony for orphaned children of security forces.
But the controversy over Slay’s video goes deeper than just the race issue: It also exposes deep tensions that are roiling Saudi society as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attempts to liberalize some aspects of the conservative Muslim country.
The Meccan authorities’ distaste for the song lies not only in the lyrics, but also in the place Slay is rapping from. Mecca is the holiest site in the Islamic world and is the place of pilgrimage, or hajj, which all able-bodied Muslims are required to do at least once in their lifetimes if they are financially able.
Having a rapper — and a woman rapper, at that — make a music video in the holy city seems to have crossed a line for many more conservative-minded people in the country (even though, again, Slay is rapping inside a cafe, not a holy site). One Twitter user wrote that Mecca “is not meant for trashy songs and anything that is considered haram [forbidden].”
It’s a sign that the crown prince’s efforts to open up the country and lift some of the country’s strict restrictions on citizens, especially women, has its limits.
Saudi Arabia has undergone a massive image transformation over the past few years. From the expansion of the tourism frontier by opening the country up to non-religious citizens to the introduction of mixed-gender concerts to the lifting of the ban on women driving, Saudi Arabia continues to shake off its ultra-conservative image.
The crown prince has been hailed by some Western media as a feminist reformer for making strides for Saudi women. But the reality is that Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality.
In fact, in a recent US News & World Report survey of more than 20,000 global citizens, it ranked as the third-worst country for women in the world based on perception, behind Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
When the driving ban on women was lifted, bin Salman took most of the credit, while the women’s rights activists who fought for the ban were left in the dark — and in some cases, were actually arrested.
And while Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws were changed so that Saudi women could travel without permission and other basic human rights, activists who fought those very laws remain behind bars.