Cosmicat, Kayan and Nada AlHelabi – meet the women dancing to the beat of their own drum.
What do you think of when you hear the word DJ? More often than not, the popular image is a white man with state-of-the-art decks and uber-cool headphones – à la Armin van Buuren, Calvin Harris and David Guetta. Let’s be honest: if you asked people to name three female DJs, they’d, well, struggle. Moreover, Arab women playing to mixed crowds isn’t the first thing that comes to people’s mind, but in Saudi Arabia that’s fast becoming the norm. Meet the Saudi women spinning a new tune.
Right now, Saudi Arabia is carrying out its final mic checks for MDLBeast Soundstorm, the biggest music festival in the Middle East. Now in its third edition, the beast is back and runs from 1 to 3 December. Think of it as the Glastonbury of the Middle East, just in the middle of the desert without the camping and rain. The stellar line-up includes Bruno Mars, DJ Khaled and Post Malone. Best of all, it ticks the inclusivity box in unexpected ways – we’re talking artists that are international and local, established and upcoming, and, more importantly, men and women.
While you may think that so many music festivals have female artists, that’s not exactly the case. In neighbouring United Arab Emirates, the F1 Yasalam After-Race Concerts 2022 were all male; in the UK only 13% of the music festivals in 2022 had female headliners; and Adele, Beyoncé and Billie Eilish were the only female Glastonbury headliners since 2007. Janet Jackson even went so far as to photoshop her name onto the Glastonbury poster, so that she could appear as a headliner – control, eh.
Saudi Arabia tells a different story. Due to His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030, the rules for women in the kingdom are rapidly changing. The most symbolic change came in 2018, as the 30-year ban on women driving was lifted.
Following this, women could register for divorce and marriage, apply for passports, travel abroad without their guardian’s permission and were no longer required to wear the headscarf. Plus, cinemas, hotels, museums, restaurants and shops were no longer segregated by gender.
Drawing back the curtain on MDLBeast Soundstorm
It’s December 2017 and the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh is packed with excited women. Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji is about to make history, and become the first female to perform a public concert in Saudi Arabia.
“This is a very proud moment for Saudi Arabia,” declares the master of ceremonies. What follows is a night of Arabic classics as well as Whitney Houston and Céline Dion covers, which are accompanied by singing and dancing.
In 2018, a classical music concert has the first mixed gendered performers and audience. And in 2019, MDLBeast Soundstorm is launched and crowds of men and women can rock along to records being spun by men and women.
This year, Saudi Arabia kicked off Riyadh Season, its biggest arts and culture festival, with British female singer Anne-Marie. AlUla welcomed American soul singer Alicia Keys, who didn’t just sing her heart out at Maraya concert hall, but hosted a talk with Her Royal Highness Reema bint Bandar Al Saud on women’s empowerment. These girls are on fire.
Nada: The woman behind the beast
Nada AlHelabi, Strategy Director at MDLBeast and Director of Programming at XP Music Features, is the Emily Eavis of the Middle East. She has gone from being a sound therapist to gatekeeper of the blockbuster festival, and makes sure that everyone gets some stage time.
Nada reveals: “I know first-hand the positive impact music can have on people and the power it has to bring people together drives me to do what I do. I have pride in delivering that to people of all sexes, colours and creeds – that is the ultimate reward for me. There’s no better source of inspiration for young Saudis than to see someone living out their own personal dream right there in front of them. That’s why having a line-up packed with amazing women is so key to us at MDLBeast”.
Today, Saudi is home to an ever-expanding youth population, as 70 percent of the country are under 30 years old. The festival organisers have tapped into that, not just with its surefire music festival but also XP Music Features. The beast goes on from 28 to 30 November, as the programme hosts panels and workshops from industry experts.
“We have one of the most engaged, young populations anywhere in the world. Look at the hundreds of Saudi women working across XP and Soundstorm. Look at me – a woman leading one of the most exciting music events in the world,” she explains.
This year’s line-up includes Beyoncé’s father and former manager, Matthew Knowles, and Jeddah-based rapper, Lil Eazy, but also Palestinian-Chilean singer, Elyanna, and Swedish House Mafia’s former manager, Amy Thomson.
Nada adds: “We made it an objective to ensure we have a fifty-fifty female to male ratio of speakers. Last year, it was the first edition and we were nearly successful with around 46% females. I believe this year will reach our goal.”
Cosmicat: From the home to headliner
MDLBeast Soundstorm is a game-changer for homegrown female artists. Biirdperson, Dorar, Kayan and Solskin are just some of the artists taking to the stage and redefining what it means to be Saudi women.
Cosmicat, real name Nouf Sufyani, is one of these artists. Born and raised in Jeddah, when she was growing up, there were no music shops, lessons or concerts. She originally trained as a dentist, but later swapped the drills for decks. So, everything she learnt was at home, behind closed doors. Plus, she has even reclaimed the stereotype of the crazy cat lady and used it as her moniker.
Cosmicat is truly a pioneer as one of the first Saudi female DJs and producers. She divulges: “Sexism sadly exists everywhere in every field of work, I had to battle it when I was a working as a dentist, just as much I had to face it in the music industry. The industry is very male-dominated, and this applies regionally and globally. It all boils down to the way we condition young boys and girls. It shapes their interests and career choices. I believe, together as a community, we can beat this.
“I was lucky enough to have the full support from my family and friends, especially at the beginning of my musical career. This was extremely important to me at a time when many people underestimated my abilities as a Saudi woman and DJ in the industry. I don’t believe the same doubt and worry would be directed to a male. Let me assure you, women must work twice as hard to get to where they want to be.”
Cosmicat is now a MDLBeast regular, she has performed at MDLBeast Soundstorm and its spin-offs including Azimuth in AlUla, Avaria in Doha and the upcoming Balad Beast in Jeddah. Plus, she is hosting a talk at XP Music Conference on women in the music industry.
She shares: “Unfortunately, anyone who has never been to Saudi would assume that the role of females in the music industry and in the work force is non-existent. That is far from true. We are very much here, bringing a significant value to multiple industry fields and bringing our best work to the table. We are educated, experienced, excited and ready to show the world what we can achieve.”
Kayan: The next generation
Kayan is a Riyadh-based violinist and DJ, who blends Eastern and Western influences to create her own electronic sound. She originally worked in radio and was trained by the BBC. As she is part of a new generation, she had a different journey into the music industry.
She enthuses: “I was inspired after watching a violinist perform on the street using a loop machine. The next day, without question, I bought a violin. I registered at a music institute and took various violin courses.”
Kayan is getting festivals under her abaya, as she has already performed at MDLBeast and Noor Riyadh. Despite growing up at a time when she could cultivate her passion, she still faced sexism in the music industry. She recalls: “I have worked so hard on defining and refining my sounds through the various musical experiences that I share with people, so I don’t appreciate it when fellow male artists say something like ‘you are getting opportunities because you are a girl’. In reality, it is far from that.
“If anything, there are many opportunities that are taken away from me because I’m a female. My advice to women is to be genuine and confident about what they do. Do it for the love of music, art or for the love of whatever it is they are passionate about. Do it to earn the respect you deserve in the industry. No matter what you face, believe in yourself and keep going.”
Opportunity is knocking
So, what’s the best thing about being a woman in Saudi Arabia right now? When we ask all of the women this question, they have the same resounding answer: opportunities. There is always international speculation about what it’s really like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, often from people who have never set foot in the country rather than the women themselves.
Kayan confirms: “The biggest misconception about a Saudi woman is that she is not allowed to be the woman that she wants and dreams to be, and that she is not the master of her craft. The best thing about being a woman in Saudi Arabia is the limitless opportunities. Private and government entities have become great believers in our artistic visions and are supporting us to showcase it both nationally and to the entire world.”
Nada echoes: “These opportunities don’t exist everywhere, but they exist here and we as women are embracing them.” Cosmicat concludes: “The opportunities are flowing in at an unbelievable pace. The trust that society is putting in us to be leaders in our professions and industries is so great and we are ready to prove our potentials.”
Ladies, the stage is yours.
GO: Visit https://mdlbeast.com for more information.