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Last fall, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media invited Saudi Arabian-born singer TamTam to perform her plaintive, rhythmic equality anthem, “Gender Game,” at its Global Symposiums. Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the institute, said the song “really resonated with our mission” of researching and combating problems with media representation.

TamTam also wants to foster better understanding between different countries and people. In fact, it’s an ideal she infuses into every facet of her career — even her chosen moniker. “It’s universal, and everyone can say it,” the LA-based, 22-year-old singer (who declined to give us her real name) says. “That’s the kind of message I want to put out there — that everyone can and should communicate easily with each other.”

The symposiums were a big break for the budding singer, but she wasn’t always taken seriously — especially during her formative years in conservative Saudi Arabia. “My family thought I was going through a phase growing up, while I was writing songs and lyrics. It wasn’t until I was 17, and I took a song to a producer in Kuwait without them knowing, that they started to take me more seriously.”

TamTam then attended a boarding school on the west coast of the United States before enrolling at the University of California – San Diego, where she majored in economics. Since graduating, she has been focused on getting her career off the ground by recording her first EP, a collection of six pop-Arabic fusion songs also entitled “Gender Game,” and securing representation from Qews Entertainment.

She’s influenced by a diverse range of artists, from Michael Jackson (“I feel like he’s really speaking to you when you listen to him sing.”) to Arabic performer Fairuz (“Her songs always had so much meaning.”). But more than anything, she’s inspired by a vision of a more compassionate and open-minded world. “I just want to encourage people to think for themselves. I think many people are afraid to do that.”

When we spoke with her, TamTam explained the moment that inspired her most well-known song, the business side of making music, and why she’s passionate about positively influencing Western opinions on the Middle East.

Edited interview excerpts below.

The Story Exchange: What inspired you to write “Gender Game?”

People told me to be cautious before posting my music videos on my YouTube channel. If you watch my video for “Little Girl” now, you’ll see that my face is blurred. It wasn’t always like that, but people didn’t want me to share it the original way. People would ask, “Why should you show your face?” or “Why should people know who you are?” That’s when it hit me — if I were a guy, they wouldn’t really care, or be so concerned. Why is it only okay for a guy to show his face on YouTube?

The Story Exchange: Where did funding come from, and how difficult was it to raise the money you needed to get “Gender Game” recorded?

In the beginning, you have to make a [financial] investment, to get things off the ground. After that, it’s all about working with the right people — people that believe in you, people that are going to invest in you. It’s not easy, and it does take more time when you’re working that way.  Live shows are also a big part of where the money is coming from.

The Story Exchange: How has your economics background helped you in your music career?

I think majoring in economics is going to help me more later down the road, when I have more material to market. For now, though, it definitely helps in terms of navigating the business aspect of the music industry. A lot of artists tend not to understand that part — they just want to make music. But it’s really important to understand it when making decisions. And being out there, making those calls, has taught me more than I could have learned in a classroom.

The Story Exchange: What motivates you to promote a greater American understanding of life and culture in the Middle East?

I feel the perception of people — young people especially — in the Middle East is different than the reality. I would like to be an example of that positive reality. The media shows a very negative image [of those who live in the Middle East], and people are very influenced by that. My boarding school friends didn’t even know what Saudi Arabia really was — they just saw it as a place where everyone was covered, and they wondered why I wasn’t as well. Through my music, I want people to see that there is so much more to who we are.

The Story Exchange: What are some of the biggest obstacles that women universally face, based on your experiences?

People expect men to try, and to make mistakes. But with women, many people feel they should play it safe. It’s so important to make mistakes though. Growing up, I was always told to learn from other people’s mistakes. But the biggest lesson I learned this past year is that you have to make mistakes yourself; that’s how you really learn. I think [women being held back from that] is the biggest obstacle we face.

The Story Exchange: What have been some of the biggest challenges in being a professional musician?

I think the most difficult part is not giving up, staying focused and being patient. Also, in the music industry today, it’s not enough to be an artist — you have to be a brand. When I moved to LA, I had to create a website (and take photos for it) and start up social media pages (like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) as a way of introducing myself. I also started posting song covers, and working on booking live shows. 

The Story Exchange: What’s next on the horizon for you?

I have some new songs that I’m working on now, and I love them. What I want to do in 2015 is take my time with making decisions, increase my fan base, and do more live shows now that I have more material. I’m really excited for this year.

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