It was written to be an anthem of empowerment, expressing joy and affirmation in being a woman from Mecca:
“A Mecca girl is all you need,” rapped Ayasel Slay in her recent music video, “Bint Mecca” (or “Mecca Girl”). “Don’t upset her, she will hurt you.”
Slay, a black Saudi woman, features other black women prominently in the video as she brags about how women from her city are stronger and more beautiful than other Saudi women.
The lyrics—in fact, the entire song—fits into the hip-hop tradition of regional anthems, a standard of the genre enshrined on songs like Clipse’s “Virginia,” Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” or Lil Kim’s “Lighters Up.” But in Saudi Arabia, the same country that has extended lucrative invitations to high-profile rappers to perform in the kingdom—officials have accused Slay and the music video’s producers of blasphemy, saying they offended Saudi customs and traditions with the song.
Last Thursday, the mayor of Mecca—Saudi Arabia’s third-largest city and home to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site—called for Slay’s arrest.
“Prince Khalid bin Faisal of Mecca has ordered the arrest of those responsible for the Bint Mecca rap song, which offends the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca and contradicts the identity and traditions of its sons,” authorities posted in a tweet.
But others in Saudi Arabia and abroad see rampant hypocrisy, sexism and racism at play. The issue is less that a rapper was shouting out Mecca, they say, but that it was a black woman foregrounding herself and others like her:
“Drop the beat, a Mecca girl, you can’t compete,” Slay raps in English. “Just running the show, look at her glow, is it the mood or her, you’ll never know.”
The backlash against the video, which has since been taken down, hints at the racism undergirding people’s criticisms of Slay. Under the hashtag #You_Are_Not_Mecca’s_Girls, Ayasel’s African background was directly referenced.
“Enough of this depravity,” one user said, referring to the video. “I hope the punishment for this African woman will be imprisonment then deporting her back to her country.”
“Immediate deportation is the answer, in addition to holding every foreigner who claims to be from Mecca accountable,” one user said.
“Including all Somalis living here,” another replied in agreement.
As the Washington Post notes, the vast majority of Saudis are white, though immigrants from Muslim parts of East Africa have long established themselves in the kingdom’s western coastal cities, including Mecca.
Slay certainly isn’t the first Saudi artist to be accused of obscenity. In another instance, Mohammed Al-Ghamdi was sent to jail for making profanity-laced videos, though Slay doesn’t appear to use any actual obscenities in her video. But the Saudi government has been conscious of presenting a more modern face to the world in recent years, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attempting to allow women more freedom and permitting more concerts and movie theaters in the country (notably, a 2018 music video from Saudi woman rapper Leesa, which celebrated the end of the kingdom’s ban on women drivers, was positively received).
The tension between the country’s aspirations and its actual track record concerning women’s and LGBTQ rights was on display last summer, when Nicki Minaj bowed out of a music festival in Jiddah. Minaj was scheduled to be the headliner but backed out after human rights groups and many of her fans expressed disappointment in her accepting the gig.
The backlash against Slay shows how shallow—and hypocritical—the reforms are, critics say. She has since deleted her YouTube channel, and it’s unclear if any legal action has been taken against her.
Amani Al-Ahmadi, a Saudi activist based in Seattle, told the Post that if Slay weren’t black, “they wouldn’t have seen her as a minority to target.”
“[The song] was very modest in nature. If anything, it was just talking about how strong women are in the city compared to others,” she said. “If you changed that city to any other city, you wouldn’t even know the difference.
“The consequences are not equaling the crime, because there is no crime there,” Al-Ahmadi continued. “It’s obviously targeted against a woman who they feel doesn’t represent what Saudi and Mecca should be.”