Interview by Christine Thompson
AMFM: You are a filmmaker, an activist, a feminist, and a voice for an opressed gender. You’re taking on a lot. There are hundreds-no, thousands of years of history. It’s a very difficult thing that you’ve chosen to do. So I’m sure you’ve faced backlash. What I’d like to know first is why you made the transition to Los Angeles? It’s known for eating it’s young, a very tough place.
TAMTAM: That’s true. But my family is Saudi, and they’re open-minded. They wanted me and my sisters to see another perspective of the world, and then come back home and bring that with us to see it too.
I went to UC San Diego, and I’ve always wanted to do music since I was eleven years old. In the beginning, my family thought in the beginning I was just going through a phase, or it was just a hobby. They didn’t see it as a career.
I think subconciously I came to California because I knew I wanted to be in Los Angeles after school and pursue music. So I studied economics so that I could do that. I knew that if I studied economics they would be more inclined to let me try what I wanted to do.
So then I moved to L.A. I don’t know why I chose L.A., because when you’re in another part of the world and you think about music…I grew up watching Michael Jackson. He was before my time actually, but I loved him so much even though he was from the 80’s. I really admired him, and all the people I admired seemed to be in L.A.
There are so many musicians in L.A. It’s crazy, I’ve never been in a city where you meet so many musicians, producers, managers. It’s good and bad in that way. It’s great, but on the business side, it can be tricky.
AMFM: Tricky is a good way to put it. Fortunately for you, you met Andrew Cole, he’s a good guy. So Andrew produced the song “Blue?”
TAMTAM: Yes, he and Siren co-produced it and Siren, Andrew and I wrote it.
AMFM: There’s an overarching theme that comes through your music…and by the way, I’m a mother of an artist, it’s not just your culture that doesn’t want kids to be artists, because it’s a difficult thing to do. You are a voice, and you will express your opinion, regardless of opposition. I was looking at your other videos on youtube, and the comments seem to be overwhelmingly in support of what you are doing. They are applauding you. There were a few negative comments, and they were of course, men. You have to push through that. How do you mentally prepare yourself to push through knowing that what you’re doing is going to create a little bit of controversy?
TAMTAM: When I see those negative comments, I understand them. I know what kind of mentality it’s coming from. I don’t think they’re right and I’m wrong. That’s not how I see it all. I just see it that we think in different ways. And it’s time for every human being in the world that we live in a world where not everyone is going to agree and think the same way. You can’t start thinking “Oh, I’m right and they’re wrong” – that’s what causes war and hurting other people. That’s why they’re writing these negative comments, they think that I’m wrong, and they are right.
So I ignore it, I don’t think that they are wrong, because I know how they grew up. At one point in my life I thought similarly, because I didn’t see the world the way I see it today. You can’t blame someone for growing up the way they did, or believing what they do. I respect their beliefs, but I don’t want them to change their beliefs, because you can’t do that, you can’t tell somebody to believe something else. So I just want them to learn to respect other people.
AMFM: Yes, and your supporters are overwhelmingly positive. The few comments that I saw weren’t positive actually werent’ nasty or terrible, which as you know trolls on youtube can be awful – they actually seemed to be respectful. So what you’re trying to do is bridge not just your culture, but a belief system – who’s right and who’s wrong – by using art. Which is what art is actually for in the first place.
So your parents were the ones who decided you should have an alternate view, and to be a world traveler and bring it back. So your friends at home that you grew up with, what do they think about all this?
TAMTAM: They support me. They’re always excited to hear new things that I’m putting out. Some of them choose to live a more traditional lifestyle, and mine is so not-traditional for a Saudi woman. I mean, to my face they support me, and I appreciate it. I’ve known so many of them since I was 5 years old.
AMFM: I know that every little drop in the ocean feels so tiny, and yet adds up. What do you hope for your music to do, first of all for the people in your country that are your age, and then what do you hope it does for the rest of us?
TAMTAM: I have to give the example of my song “Gender Game,” some of my friends and family did not want me to put out a video on youtube for a song called “Little Girl.” They didn’t want to show my face or my name, so I changed my name to TamTam, and I put out the video blurry. After that happened, I wrote “Gender Game” and again it’s because something happened to me. When I was filming that music video, all these women from all over the world, they came up to me and said they really related to that song.
I wrote “I won’t share my face, I won’t share my name in this gender game.” because of something that happened to me. But when I shared the video for “Gender Game,” all these women from different parts of the world – different ages, different races, and they grew up in different places all came to me and said “Wow, I really relate to this song.”
That amazed me. I wrote this because I’m from a more conservative culture, and they didn’t want me…they thought it would be dangerous for me to show so much of myself on youtube, a public place. But then all these other women from other places, including the U.S., which is so liberated and you think people are free to do what they want…that’s when I knew that even though I write my music based on my experiences, other people in the world could relate to it. We all go through similar things. And the degrees to which we go through them are similar but different according to where we grew up.
Someone in Saudi feeling that women don’t have as many rights, is the same degree as someone in the U.S. because they experience similar things. Does that make sense?
<AMFM: Yes, each culture has it’s own definition of a woman’s place. You’ve probably found out that there are some similar things in America – of course, look at the #metoo movement. We’re not actually as liberated as we’d like. Yes we can vote, yes we can drive,but there’s still some basic things going on between men and women that transcends any culture. Your family is very progressive, no matter what country. They allowed, even encouraged you to travel to different places in the world.
Your voice is amazing, How did you develop your voice?
TAMTAM: When I was 11, I really wanted to pursue music, so I started voice lessons when I was 13, while in boarding school in Switzerland. Then I took a break for three years from ages 15-18, and I was learning guitar instead. When I moved to San Diego and L.A., I was taking voice lessons.
AMFM: Now a personal question, how do your parents feel about it now?
TAMTAM: They support me and they’re excited, they want to see me succeed. A lot of times, people who are on the outside of the music business or the art world…or any business actually, like for example it takes a long time to be a doctor, years and years school and training. People can be impatient because they don’t see it in that way.
AMFM: Yes, I’ve seen people become impatient with artists because they want a product from you and they want it right now because they need to sell it. What they don’t understand is that what it takes to create something original is very difficult, and not an easy process. Although I know sometimes you can write a song in five minutes, although that’s true, to really refine it and master it takes a long time. Your voice is so beautiful though, and you have a network of people like Andrew, so you’re ahead of the game there.
I did see your music video at the Austin Music Video Awards a few years ago…it was great. Are you going to be coming out with any more music videos, and will you be directing?
TAMTAM: Yes, I am. But no no directing.
AMFM: So let’s get back to the bridge you’re providing between cultures. You’ve experienced our culture, and you’re singing to people who’ve not experienced yours. What is it that you’d like to bring out about your culture to Americans?
TAMTAM: I want people to see that Saudis are…when somebody thinks of Saudi Arabia they think of one person, and that’s what people think about any country, they just have this one image in their minds. I want to change that. I want people to understand that there are so many people. There are so many perspectives, and there are really open-minded people. The arts are flourishing there, I think now is the time for artists from the Middle East, and it’s amazing. I would love for people to see that and have an open mind when they are thinking about Saudis and Saudia Arabia.