In her song, “Girl of Mecca,” Ayasel Slay, who is of Eritrean origin, praises women from Mecca. The artist sings proudly about how a woman from that city exceeds all other Saudi women in beauty and strength while a group of smiling children dances in the background.
Yet Saudi authorities claimed the song is "offensive" to the customs and traditions of the holy city. The video was removed from the artist’s YouTube channel.
Mecca’s governor Khaled al-Faisal ordered the arrest of Slay and the video production team for "insulting the customs of Mecca" and “contradicting the identity and traditions of its esteemed population.”
The song sparked sharp responses from social media users in Saudi Arabia. The hashtag “You are not Mecca’s girls” went viral, and racist posts poured in reference to the rapper’s African origins.
"Immediate deportation is the answer, in addition to holding every foreigner who claims to be from Mecca accountable," one person tweeted.
But many -under the hashtags “Mecca girl represents me” and “Help Ayasel”- defended the rapper and her song, and denounced racism in the kingdom.
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 & hypocrisy at its best. #لستن_بنات_مكة
They also highlighted what they described as hypocrisy and double standards on the part of Saudi authorities.
"What a contrasting situation ... [the government] invites singers and dancers to the country, and no one objected, but this girl did this song, and now everyone is against her?" a social media user said.
In recent years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has attempted to implement a series of social reforms in Saudi Arabia, including giving women the right to drive and creating an entertainment industry in the conservative kingdom.
For the first time, the country has invited globally renowned artists like Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj to perform there. Minaj, however, canceled her concert, citing her support for the rights of women and the LGBT community.
"This is so typical of the Saudi government to do - bring western influencers to art wash the regime but attack real Saudi women who try to artistically express their cultural identities," tweeted one Saudi-American, Amani al-Ahmad.
Severe crackdowns accompanied MBS’s measures to improve the country’s reputation on those critical of the regime. Activists - both men and women - journalists, political opponents, and dissents in any way have been imprisoned with some reportedly tortured.