Shortly after her song “Bint Makkah” (“Girl of Mecca”) went viral, Asayel Slay – the Black Saudi female rapper behind the anthem celebrating the girls of Mecca – was arrested by local authorities. Though she has been released from custody, not only did Slay face legal repercussions for a rap song, but also a barrage of anti-Black racism and sexism.
“A Mecca girl is all you need/ Don’t upset her, she will hurt you,” Slay rapped in a now deleted video she had uploaded to her YouTube channel. “With her, you can complete the Sunna [marriage]/Your life with her will become Paradise.”
Slay, with the prevalent braggadocio mannerisms of hip-hop, also rapped about her Blackness: “Samra [dark-skinned] and her beauty stings.”
Mecca, the province home to both Slay and the Kaaba – the black stone, cubical structure which Muslims around the globe pray toward five times a day – was not amused. Almost immediately, Slay faced legal backlash and an online wave of bigotry.
On February 20, Mecca’s municipal authorities reported that orders were issued for the arrest and prosecution of Slay and her video production team.
“Prince Khaled bin Faisal of Mecca has ordered the arrest of those responsible for the ‘Bint Makkah’ rap song, which offends the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca and undermines the identity and traditions of its esteemed people,” Mecca’s regional authority said in a Tweet.
The official statement concluded with a problematic hashtag carrying strong racial undertones: #YouAreNotMeccaGirls. Social media users, picking up on the government-issued hashtag, wasted no time in policing Slay and her music as well.
The commentary around preserving conservative values was just a mask covering uglier, older forms of social gatekeeping.
However, the commentary around preserving conservative values was just a mask covering uglier, older forms of social gatekeeping. Anti-Black racism is not a new form of bigotry across Arabia. Indeed, sexist commentary by the public ensued.
In one particular case, a Twitter user with over 51,000 followers posted a picture of Slay without a hijab, presumably found and shared after digging through her online history. Slay, despite wearing a hijab in her rap video, may or may not adhere to the Islamic head-covering. However, the Twitter user’s act comes with a heavy misogynistic vein given it is a form of shaming women, by publicly exposing something considered to be private—in this case Slay’s hair.
In the same post intended to defile Slay’s womanhood in retaliation for the belief that her music desecrated the holiness of Mecca, the user wrote: “Who benefits from displaying the original Arab girls of Mecca in this unacceptable manner?”
Others came to Slay’s defense and applauded her artistic expression. One prominent Saudi artist and women’s rights activist, who goes by Saffaa, expressed critical commentary on “Bint Makkah.”
“Had it been an affluent, well connected, light skinned Saudi influencer who created the video it would have been used in MBS’s propaganda as a sign of progress and reform. Double standards and hypocrisy at its best,” she wrote in a tweet.
Saffaa, who is also from Mecca and is the creator of the #IAmMyOwnGuardian artwork for Saudi women’s rights to abolish male guardianship, also wrote “the only thing I find offensive is your racism, misogyny, and your war on a young woman and her artistic expression of her culture and her people.”
Behind the Double Standards
Since the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, the Gulf Kingdom has exerted extensive efforts to polish its global image. From music festivals and international expos to an Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Wrestling Entertainment event, Saudi Arabia keeps the public relations machine well oiled.
Although the Kingdom has seemingly opened the doors to foreign cultures and not so conservative events, homegrown artistic expressions like Slay’s “Bint Makkah” receives only bigoted controversy.
Although the Kingdom has seemingly opened the doors to foreign cultures and not so conservative events, homegrown artistic expressions like Slay’s rapping receives only bigoted controversy.
Predating the uproar around “Bint Makkah,” one clear instance of hypocrisy is as old as July 18, 2019, when Saudi Arabia invited rapper Nicki Minaj to headline the Jeddah World Fest music festival. Like Slay, Minaj is a Black female rapper.
Minaj, citing human rights abuse – specifically the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, and freedom of expression – declined the offer.
Although sharing some common traits, Slay is unlike Minaj in other, more substantial ways dismissed by Saudi society. For one, Slay is from Mecca and presented herself conservatively in accordance with the confinements of Saudi society. Moreover, Slay’s “Bint Makkah” and the song’s video included not one ounce of profanity, obscenity, or sexual themes whatsoever.
Whereas, Minaj – whose image is overtly sexual and racy – remains understandably preferable to Saudi society, as the U.S. rapper would only be a temporary foreign injection, shot into the Kingdom for a concert and out of it before her identity becomes a permanent part of the culture.
These are privileges not given to Slay. Being a Black female rapper with organic roots in Saudi society, Slay doesn’t have the luxury of cultural detachment like Minaj does.
From the conservative stance, it’s apparently only shameful if the source of disruption comes from within. What’s more ironic and hypocritical is that selectiveness permits another fallacy: that it isn’t shameful for conservative powers to behave in ways they claim to abhor and reject.
To legitimize the flimsy maneuvering around this social norm by authorities, the Saudi authorities sought the public relations help of a local company called Gateway KSA. Over the course of two years, the firm, in which Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud is an executive board member, invited blue-eyed, blonde-haired white female Instagram travel bloggers—with all expenses paid.
Despite the obvious fact that skin color and nationality have played a role in her song’s reception, Slay’s case further exposes her society’s racism. After Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lifted the ban on women driving in 2018, Leesa A – another female Saudi rapper, released a viral song.
Unlike Slay, Leesa A’s rapping was well received. The light-skinned rapper, who shot her video rapping while driving a car in Morocco out of legal fears, did not face the kind of backlash Slay did.
Discrimination against Black or Afro-Arabs is not a new phenomenon and favoring lighter skin over darker skin is not a newly imported Western trope.
Discrimination against Black or Afro-Arabs is not a new phenomenon and favoring lighter skin over darker skin is not a newly imported Western trope. For many Black Arabs like Asayel Slay, being labelled as a foreigner or having their national identity questioned is only the tip of the iceberg.
Before the controversy surrounding Slay, there was one surrounding Nawal Al-Hawsawi, a Black Saudi female airplane pilot originally from Mecca who often comments on race and gender relations to her nearly 66,000 Twitter followers.
In 2013, during a Saudi National Day event, Al-Hawsawi was verbally attacked by an attendee calling her “abed”—slave in English—multiple times during their tirade.
Al-Hawsawi took the attendee to court and later rose into prominence as a commentator on Saudi race relations. Saudi Arabian social media dubbed her the “Rosa Parks” of her country.
The derogatory label of slave is not entirely different form the n-word. It is used to demean Black identity, dehumanize Black people, and keep Blackness trapped inside a tiny box of subhuman subservience.
Similar to the U.S., Black representation in Arab media and society surpasses bigoted language and seeps into larger venues impacting Black identity.
Similar to the U.S., Black representation in Arab media and society surpasses bigoted language and seeps into larger venues impacting Black identity. For example, black face and other derogatory tropes remains common in Arabic television.
In 2018, “Azmi we Ashgan,” an Egyptian comedy series, featured a medley of anti-Black racism from main characters donning black face and repeatedly saying the n-word, to portraying Black people as servants and sorcerers speaking in broken Arabic.
Another 2018 comedy show produced in Kuwait, “Block Ghashmara,” featured an entire episode where actors played Sudanese people in black face. The actors depicted the Sudanese characters as sluggish and cynical, echoing tropes of minstrelsy.
The Arab world is both young in abolishing slavery and reluctant to engage, let alone allow, public discourse about race. With roots outdating Islam, the last bastion of slavery in the region was Oman. The late Sultan Qaboos abolished it in 1970.
Albeit half a century later, Arab societies remain greatly silent on the topic and often dismiss it as falsehood.
In 2013, Palestinian-American author and activist Susan Abulhawa published an essay on the connections between Black identity and being Pro-Palestinian. Like Asayel Slay, she was confronted with controversial backlash.
Abulhawa later retorted with examples of modern-day anti-Blackness stemming from the Arab slave trade. She mentioned the racist mistreatment of Ethiopian housekeepers in Lebanon, specifically the case of Alem Dechasa.
Dechasa hung herself in a Lebanese hospital room where she was receiving treatment after being physically abused and beaten by her employer.
While some may deflect anti-Blackness as a newly imported social trait passed down by previous colonizers like the British or outside forces like the U.S. media, Abulhawa argues otherwise.
Anti-blackness is a notion that has been ingrained in Arab society through the slave trade, empowered by colonialism, but ultimately brought into fruition by pan-Arab ideals.
She believes it is a notion that has been ingrained in Arab society through the slave trade, empowered by colonialism, but ultimately brought into fruition by pan-Arab ideals.
“It was the coercive pan-Arabism ideology that established the hegemony of a specific, racialized Arab identity over all others,” she wrote. “It has contributed to systemic socioeconomic discrimination and created strict racial hierarchies, which relegate black people to a subordinate position within the Arab society.”
Perhaps those who are so hellbent on defaming Slay and reducing her to racist tropes can contemplate some of her “Bint Makkah” lyrics: “I’m a well-bred girl from Makkah that deserves hard work. In tough times, she doesn’t back down, she props up the back,” Slay raps.
Despite the anti-Black and misogynistic undertones embedded in the controversy surrounding her hometown anthem, Slay’s words suggest she will stand up for her right to artistic expression and continue to celebrate her Afro-Arab identity.