Standing behind her console with headphones around her neck, Saudi DJ Lynn Nayef switches seamlessly between pop and other music in front of a crowd of sushi-eating graduates.
The scene is a far cry from other podiums she has graced at major events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah and Expo 2020 in Dubai, which helped the 26-year-old, known as DJ Lynn, rise to fame in music . industry in the conservative kingdom.
This is a significant 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, “DJ” changed from mere amateurs in private parties to professional professionals in this profession.
“A lot of DJs are out in the open,” Nayef told AFP during a short break, adding that over time it made fans “more comfortable” seeing them on stage. “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 music sector, which was previously completely marginalized under a strict interpretation of Islam.
Mohammed Nassar, a prominent Saudi DJ known as “Vinyl Mode”, said that the idea of a “DJ” at public events, as well as a number of them being women, was something “we did not expect not” until recently. “Now we’re seeing more” of them appearing, 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 as a profession. So it’s very 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. “I can’t continue my education (…), I love to work and I’m not a person who loves to study,” she said.
Unlike other DJs, Naif had instant approval from her parents and siblings who had no qualms 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 she was “not allowed” to do this job and asked her “Why are you doing this?” 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 saw me, would be 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 abuses, including the crackdown on women’s rights activists. For example, her nomination to coordinate records 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 hosts under the name “Birdbersen”, began experimenting with slide formatting during the Covid-19 pandemic. But her family refused when she started talking about the professionalism of this job, 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. 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 confirmed that they believe female DJs will establish themselves in the kingdom.
For Naif, DJs succeed because they can do this job better than men thanks to a key characteristic is their ability to “read people” and choose the music they want to hear, and this is what makes the party a success. But Al-Bishi said: “My music is not for women or men. It is for music lovers.”