American rapper Nelly, famous for songs such as “Hot in Herre” and “Dilemma,” will visit Saudi Arabia next month for a concert in Jiddah with Algerian singer Cheb Khaled.
The Dec. 14 concert will probably be a big event for a country where, until recently, public music performances were heavily restricted.
However, the Saudi kingdom is in the midst of ambitious reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. One element of these reforms was the creation of a new General Authority for Entertainment, reporting to have $2.7 billion worth of funding to rejuvenate Saudi leisure activities.
Though largely positively received on social media, Nelly’s planned appearance in Jiddah may also highlight some of the growing pains for Saudi Arabia’s entertainment sector: Notably, tickets to the event, which cost as much as $120, are available only to male attendees.
On Instagram and Twitter, some female fans complained about being excluded from the Grammy Award winner’s concert, with one dubbing it a “stupid” policy to have a “male-only event.” Other critics have pointed out that Nelly was recently accused of sexual assault, though the rapper was never charged, and that in 2015 he pleaded guilty to the possession of marijuana. Smuggling drugs is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and possession of drugs is also a crime.
Nelly is the second major American star to appear in Saudi Arabia this year. In May, country music star Toby Keith appeared at an event in Riyadh, the capital – notably, arriving the same weekend that President Donald Trump was in Saudi Arabia. Like Nelly, Keith also appeared at a male-only event, performing to a sold-out crowd alongside the well-known local lute player Rabeh Saqer.
Keith later said that he had been given strict instructions to not sing songs about drinking, marijuana or sex – no easy task for a country singer famous for songs like “Whiskey Girl,” “I Love This Bar” and “Beer for My Horses.” Speaking to the Atlantic, Keith said, “There were only four or five things that I could play that were famous.”
Such a dilemma may also face Nelly, whose most famous song references alcohol, alludes to marijuana and implores women to take off their clothes – all three no-nos in a country where alcohol is banned, drug smugglers face the death penalty, and women are expected to cover their body and head while in public.
Representatives of Nelly did not immediately respond when asked for comment. The rapper does have experience playing in unusual venues in the Middle East – in 2015, Nelly performed at a charity concert in Irbil, Iraq.
Watch: “Hot in Herre”