MENA

“Blacklash” and the case of Asayel Slay: Injustice and hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia

Nicki Minaj and Saudi’s attempts to modernise

In July 2019, world famous rapper Nicki Minaj pulled out of her planned headline performance at Jeddah World Fest music festival in Saudi Arabia due to irreconcilable personal values between herself and the Kingdom. Beyond the embarrassment that this caused the Kingdom, I would like to highlight the various other instances Saudi Arabia has encouraged artists to perform within the Kingdom:

  • Nelly -2017
  • David Guetta – 2018
  • Black Eyed Peas – 2018
  • Mariah Carey- 2019
  • Sean Paul – 2019
  • BTS – A Korean pop band who performed in Saudi Arabia in October 2019 for their world tour
  • 50 cent (Jeddah World Fest)
  • Chris Brown (Jeddah World Fest)
  • Janet Jackson (Jeddah World Fest)
  • Future (Jeddah World Fest)

This new direction from Saudi officials in addition to economic and social reform is the beginnings of a prolific attempt to bolster the nation’s image serving as a smokescreen for the human rights abuses and infringements that the Kingdom has become notorious for. Inviting global celebrities in the minds of Saudi officials is a concrete and efficient way to reinvent the nation’s image. However, onlookers are not blind, and hollow tokenistic measures do not detract from the trajectory Saudi is on as a result of decades of restrictive policies. While reform from Mohammad bin Salman has seen the lifting of the ban on female drivers, we have not forgotten the assassination of journalist and news editor Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 under bin Salman’s watch as well as the general draconian measures taken against activists and dissidents in the Kingdom since his appointment.

The case of Asayel Slay

Asayel Slay is a Saudi Rapper of African (Eritrean) descent who in February uploaded a music video to her Youtube channel for her song ‘Mecca girl’. The song is in praise of her heritage and is a positive expression of her identity and the women of Mecca. The song has clean uplifting lyrics and the video depicts Asayel in a Café in Saudi Arabia, modestly dressed with young male and female children dancing and smiling.

The duplicity and hypocrisy of the Saudi kingdom in light of their recent ‘reform’ outlined above, is such that upon the release of the video, Mecca’s governor ordered that Slay as well as her production team be arrested and charged for besmirching “the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca and contradict[ing] the identity and traditions of its high-ranking children.” The message which was delivered in a tweet goes on to read “…His highness included directions to refer them to the competent authorities for investigation and applying penalties against them.” Asayel has also had her Youtube account suspended and the video has consequently been taken down.

The “Blacklash”

There is an interesting manifestation of cognitive dissonance and selective amnesia here: inviting Nicki Minaj who often raps sexually explicit material to perform in the Kingdom on the one hand and chastising an African Saudi national for a clean music video and innocent lyrics on the other. There is an element of accepting and using the currency of foreign blackness and exoticizing the other for social and economic gain whilst maintaining a gross intolerance of creative expression from within the Kingdom from native Saudi’s of African origin. The racialised element of Asayel’s treatment is highly apparent. A comment on twitter with several hundred likes reads: “Immediate deportation is the answer, in addition to holding every foreigner who claims to be from Mecca accountable”. This is one of many tangible proofs of the sentiment towards Black Saudi’s crystallised in the hashtag used against Asayel #you_are_not_Mecca_girls.

When Mohammad bin Salman lifted the ban against women driving in 2018, Saudi rapper Leesa A released a rap video in celebration of the end of the restriction. Leesa A was not prosecuted nor did she receive a fraction of the treatment Asayel has been subjected to both by government and Saudi society. Very simply put, a truth that most black people are aware of is that had Asayel been a light skinned Arab, the story would have been very, very different. For many non-blacks, Black is offensive. Black is debauchery. Black is base and Black evokes a visceral fear and intrinsic disgust.

While Saudi citizens take to social media and continue to reprimand her in the name of religious honour and upholding the sanctity of the holy city of Mecca, the stench of anti-black racism continues to expose the true sentiment: that blackness beyond tokenistic appointments has no place in Saudi Arabia and is unwelcome in its emerging cultural formation.

“Blacklash” and the case of Ayasel Slay: Injustice and hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia

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