Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
Saudi DJ Leen Naif stands behind her control tower with headphones around her neck, smoothly switching between pop hits and club songs in front of a crowd of business school graduates eating sushi.
The understated 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 himself on the Saudi music circuit.
Still, it’s an important milestone: female DJs, an unimaginable phenomenon a few years ago in the traditionally ultra-conservative kingdom, are becoming a relatively common occurrence in the major cities.
Today, they make little money as they, gig after gig, earn a living from what was once just a pastime.
“A lot of female DJs are coming,” Naif told AFP, adding that over time this has made audiences “more comfortable” to see them on stage.
“It’s easier now than it was.”
Naif and her colleagues embody two key reforms championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia: new opportunities for women and expansion of entertainment options – most notably music, which was once discouraged under Wahhabism, a rigid Sunni version. of Islam.
The possibility that DJs would be welcome at public events, let alone many women, “was not expected until recently,” said Mohammed Nassar, a Saudi DJ known as Vinyl Mode.
“You’re seeing more female artists come out now,” Nassar said.
It used to be “just a hobby to express themselves in their bedrooms”.
“Now we have platforms, and you know they could even have careers. So it’s really great.”
Naif was first introduced to electronic music as a teenager by one of her uncles, and she almost immediately began to wonder if DJing was a viable profession.
While her friends dreamed of a career as a doctor and teacher, she knew she didn’t have the patience for the education those paths needed.
“I’m a working person, not a student,” she said.
Unlike other female DJs, she had the immediate support of her parents and siblings.
Other Saudis, however, needed a victory.
A few years ago, a man approached her halfway through the performance, declaring that she was “not allowed” and asking, “Why are you doing this?”
His complaints put Naif’s set on hold, but she doubts the scene would go the same way today.
“I bet that same guy, if he sees me, will be the first in line to watch.”
Naif has taken advantage of official efforts to promote Saudi Arabia’s new entertainment-friendly image, which is often criticized by human rights groups as a distraction from abuses.
Her nomination to play in the Saudi Pavilion of Expo Dubai 2020 brought her an international audience for the first time.
But it is the work at home that sustains her from day to day and earns her 1,000 Saudi Riyals (about $260) per hour.
Here to stay
Other female DJs encounter more resistance.
Lujain Albishi, who performs under the moniker “Biirdperson”, began experimenting on DJ decks during the pandemic.
Her family disapproved when she started talking about DJing professionally, preferring to become a doctor.
She persevered anyway and developed her skills at private parties.
Her big break came last year when she was invited to perform at MDLBeast Soundstorm, a festival in the Saudi capital Riyadh that attracted more than 700,000 revelers for performances, including a set by French superstar DJ David Guetta.
The experience made her “really proud”.
“My family came to Soundstorm, saw me on stage. They were dancing, they were happy,” she said.
Both Naif and Albishi say they believe female DJs will remain fixtures in the kingdom, though their reasoning varies.
For Naif, female DJs pass because they are better than men at “reading people” and playing what they want to hear.
For her part, Albishi believes that there is no difference between men and women when they have their headphones on, which is why female DJs are part of it.
“My music is not for women or men,” she said. “It’s for music lovers.”
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)