Standing behind her console with headphones around her neck, Saudi DJ Lynn Nayef seamlessly switches between pop and other music in front of a crowd of business school graduates eating sushi.
The scene is a far cry from other podiums she has performed at major events, such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah and Expo 2020 in Dubai, which have helped the 26-year-old, known as DJ Lynn, rise to fame in the conservative kingdom ‘s music industry.
This is an important change in the kingdom, as the presence of DJs, a phenomenon that was unthinkable only a few years ago, has become a relatively common sight in large cities such as Riyadh and the more open Jeddah.
Little by little, DJs went from amateurs at private parties to professionals who made their living from the profession.
“A lot of DJs are out in the open,” Nayef told AFP during a short break, adding that it made fans “more comfortable over time seeing them on stage.”
She emphasized that: “It’s easier now than it was” before.
Naif and her colleagues embody two major reforms in the Kingdom, one to provide new opportunities for women, and the other to expand entertainment options, especially in the previously completely marginalized music sector.
Muhammad Nassar, a prominent Saudi DJ known as “Vinyl Mode,” said that the idea of having DJs in public events, as well as having a number of them be women, was something “we didn’t expect not” until recently.
“Now we’re seeing more of them pop up,” Nassar added, noting that in the past it was just a hobby to express themselves in their bedrooms. Now they have platforms, and they can take it up as a profession. So that’s really cool.”
Bypass the naysayers
Naif was first introduced to electronic music by an uncle in her teenage years, and immediately began to wonder if she could really work as a DJ.
While her friends dreamed of traditional jobs in medicine and teaching, she realized that she lacked the patience to follow the path of study that these professions required.
She said: “I cannot continue my education. I like to work and I am not a person who likes to study.”
Unlike other DJs, Naif had instant approval from her parents and siblings who expressed no concerns about her unconventional career plan.
But that required overcoming the objections of some dislikes in conservative Saudi society. On one occasion several years ago, a man appeared in the middle of a party and said that “who shouldn’t” do this job, and asked her, “Why do you do it?”
At the time, his complaint succeeded in getting Nayef to withdraw, but today she doubts whether this scene can be repeated in the same way.
“Now I bet the same man, if he sees me, will stand in the front lines just to watch,” she said.
Nayef has benefited from official efforts to promote the image of a new Saudi Arabia that welcomes entertainment, which human rights organizations often criticize as whitewashing, including the crackdown on human rights defenders and activists.
For example, her nomination to coordinate CDs for the Saudi Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai saw her talent showcased to an international audience for the first time.
But her work in Saudi Arabia is her main source of income, as she earns 1,000 Saudi Riyal (about $260) an hour, with a minimum of three hours per booking.
Other DJs faced more rejection and resistance when starting their careers.
Faljeen Al-Bishi, who presents her performance under the name “Birdbersen”, began the experience of formatting slides during the Covid-19 pandemic. But her family balked when she started talking about professionalism, preferring that the young daughter choose a more traditional profession.
Al-Bishi said that in several Saudi families, the girl is “either a doctor or an engineer.”
“So it was difficult for me to continue with the music,” she added.
But she still stuck to her passion, performing the music at private parties, often putting on her headphones while her barefoot friends danced around.
And she won her big prize last year when she was invited to coordinate songs at the “Middle Beast” music festival in Riyadh, which attracted more than 700,000 attendees during four days that included concerts by Arab and international artists, including the French David Guetta.
It was her first time participating in a festival of this magnitude, and the experience left her “really proud”.
“My family came to see me on stage. They danced and they were happy,” she said.
Both Naif and Al-Bishi said they believe female DJs will establish themselves in the kingdom.
For Naif, DJs succeed because they can do this job better than the guys thanks to their ability to “read people” and choose the music they want to hear, and that’s what makes the party a success.
But Al-Bishi said: “My music is not for women or men. It is for music lovers.”