- “Now we have platforms, and you know they could even have careers. So it’s really amazing,” says Saudi DJ known as Vinyl Mode.
- For Naif, women DJs succeed because they are better than men at “reading people” and playing what they want to hear.
- Naif has benefited from official attempts to trumpet Saudi Arabia’s new entertainment-friendly image.
JEDDAH: Standing behind her control tower with headphones around her neck, Saudi DJ Leen Naif segues smoothly between pop hits and club tracks for a crowd of business school graduates noshing on sushi.
The subdued scene is a far cry from the high-profile stages — a Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah, Expo 2020 in Dubai — that have helped the 26-year-old, known as DJ Leen, make a name for herself on the Saudi music circuit.
Yet it captures an important milestone: Women DJs, an unthinkable phenomenon just a few years ago in the traditionally ultraconservative kingdom, are becoming a relatively common sight in its main cities.
These days they turn few heads as, gig after gig, they go about making a living from what once was merely a pastime.
“A lot of female DJs have been coming up,” Naif told AFP, adding that this has, over time, made audiences “more comfortable” seeing them on stage.
“Now it’s easier than it used to be.”
Saudi DJ Mohammed Nassar, known as Vinyl Mode, said until recently that a DJ with a lot of “unexpected” women was likely to be greeted at a public event.
“Now I see more female artists.” said Nassar.
In the past, “expressing myself in a room was my hobby.”
“Now we have the platform and we know that they could have a career. It’s amazing.”
Winning over sceptics
Naif first encountered electronic music as a teenager through one of her uncles, and almost immediately she began to wonder if DJing was a viable career.
Her friends dreamed of becoming doctors and teachers, but she knew she didn’t have the patience to study in those specialties.
“I work, not study,” she said.
Unlike most female DJs, she was immediately supported by her parents and siblings.
But she needed to convince the other Saudis.
Several years ago, a man came up to her mid-performance, declaring she was “not allowed” and demanding “Why are you doing this?”
His complaints got Naif’s set shut down, but she doubts the scene would play out the same way today.
“Now I bet that same guy, if he sees me, he’s going to stand first in line just to watch.”
Naif has benefited from official attempts to trumpet Saudi Arabia’s new entertainment-friendly image, which is often criticised by human rights groups as a distraction from abuses.
Her nomination to play at the Saudi pavilion of Expo Dubai 2020 gave her an international audience for the first time.
But it’s the work at home that supports her day-to-day, earning her 1,000 Saudi riyals (around $260) per hour.
Here to stay
Other female DJs faced greater resistance.
Lujain Albishi, nicknamed the Biirdperson, has been experimenting with DJ decks during the pandemic.
Her family did not approve when she started talking about her professional DJing as she aspires to become a doctor.
In any case, she developed her skills at private parties while adhering to it.
Her big break came last year when she was invited to perform at the MDLBeast Soundstorm, a festival held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The festival attracted more than 700,000 spectators, including a performance by French superstar DJ David Guetta.
This experience made her “really proud”.
“My family came to Soundstorm and saw me on stage. They were dancing and happy,” she said.
Both Naif and Albishes believe that female DJs will remain permanently in the kingdom, although their claims are different.
According to Naif, female DJs succeed because they are better than males at “reading people” and playing what they want to hear.
Albishi believes there is no difference between men and women when wearing headphones, so it has a female DJ in it.
“My music is not for women or men,” she said. “This is for music lovers.”