Female DJs are so unconventional that if you identify as a woman while standing behind the mixing board, the word “female” gets stamped in front. Throw “Saudi” before “female DJ” and you’re in even further uncharted territory.
Today’s Swana Sounds feature — Nouf Sufyani, aka DJ Cosmicat, is all three:
Female. DJ. Saudi.
This feature has been my favorite so far, and closest to my heart. I’ve always had a deep rooted obsession with all types of electronic music and especially with female DJs. It was the first genre that I loved. I’ll never forget the first track I heard at 15 years old - Astronomia by Vicetone and Tony Igy. Right away I knew electronic music was my “thing.” From that point on, my obsession with EDM has evolved to love for attending festivals and live music events and even picking up DJ-ing myself.
Folks all over the SWANA region share my love for EDM. Venues across the area throw massive house parties with hubs in Lebanon, Egypt, and even in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The lyric-less tracks keep you dancing. The beats are entrancing, and inclusive of everyone and understood by all, no matter where you are from. The mesmerizing ambience is the cherry on top. Elaborate house venues in Beirut like Uberhaus and The Grand Factory, and festivals like MDL Beast in Riyadh provide the ultimate out-of-world experience. Attendees are immersed in countless hours of house and techno music. I haven’t personally been to any, but I can imagine the feeling. House music and community go hand-in-hand. It’s an all accepting genre that has always embraced unity of all peoples and cultures.
Despite what Western media outlets may have made you think, there’s an abundance of these spaces in the SWANA region. With that said, today we’re going to give you a glimpse of Saudi Arabia's evolving electronic-music scene and the young talent emerging under the spotlight, like DJ Cosmicat. We’ll be diving into the progressive changes in Saudi Arabia, Nouf’s career development, and we even had Nouf answer some of our questions herself! Hopefully by the end you’ll see that house music not only exists, but literally thrives in the SWANA region - with some of it even transitioning from the underground world to the mainstream.
Part 1. Saudi Arabia’s Music Scene
Historically, Saudi Arabia’s music industry has consisted of two sectors. One’s more traditional, including solo artists that perform at weddings and produce pop songs. The other is alternative or “indie.” Production is mainly done in private and shows are predominantly invite-only and underground. Anyone interested in the alternative sector was forced to keep their skills as secret hobbies outside of the regular jobs. Recreational careers were not encouraged, deemed as extremely risky and those who engaged were guaranteed to encounter trouble.
In the past, women were required by law to cover their skin in public with a long cloak (abaya) or a hijab, and until very recently were not able to drive vehicles in developed parts of Saudi. Not to mention the requirement of a man to be present if a woman wanted to get a job, travel domestically or internationally, attain any sort of legal document, and the list of rights women did not independently have goes on and on.
But Saudi Arabia is changing, and changing fast.
Careers that were once considered taboo are actively being pursued by Saudis of all genders. In 2019, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman lifted the ban on women driving and traveling without their male “guardian.” There’s no longer a legal requirement to wear cloth coverings, and young adults are being encouraged to pursue non-traditional careers. The push for economic expansion has led to the nation opening their borders to international tourism, for the first time ever, as well as hosting festivals and events that highlight Saudi creatives.
“Growing up in the 90’s and early 2000’s pursuing music as a career used to be very difficult because it had been frowned upon in Saudi Arabia for years, [which is] a very conservative community that believes that music is a sin [and that] every creative field leads to a dead end. Luckily in the past two years things have flipped 180.” - Nouf
Part 2. Nouf Sufyani’s personal background
Now, you can’t talk about Saudi’s blossoming music industry without catching a glimpse of one Saudi Arabia's first female DJs: “Cosmicat." Nouf Sufyani, aka DJ Cosmicat, is a Jeddah-based former dentist, DJ, and TV host. The name Cosmicat comes from her love for cosmetics and cats - how fitting! At only 27 years old, Nouf is part of the young generation in Saudi thirsty for social change, ready to exhibit her creativity that has been suppressed for years.
Born and raised in Jeddah, Nouf was first exposed to electronic music at the age of 20 while she was in college. Though intrigued to be on the production side, Nouf didn’t have the background or instruments available to pursue her passion. So she decided to go to dentistry-school and secure a career her culture would deem acceptable; music became her side gig, as it does for many Saudi’s.
Nouf’s family supported her decision to pursue a career as a DJ, but they’re not totally convinced. They expect her to pursue a master's degree; she pushes back by reminding them of the progress Saudi Arabia has seen. The amount of opportunities within the music industry are above and beyond what the previous generation could have imagined.
Nikki: In other interviews you mention how your family’s been supportive of your career pivot. Was it always like this? What message do you have for people who want to pursue a career outside of what their family considers “successful”? Nouf: My family is always supportive in everything I do. Of course, it took a lot of effort to change their traditional beliefs but once they saw the changes happening in the country they understood the big picture. For everyone who would like to establish a non-traditional career I advise them to be brave and follow their heart.
Part 3. DJ Comsicat’s career trajectory
Before she performed at her first music festival, Nouf perfected her craft. She purchased her own mixing board and taught herself how to DJ with the help of friends and online research. Then spent hours practicing and promoting her DJ work on social media — all while working six days a week as a dentist.
“My time and money went into music. I was obsessed with collecting cassettes and would record my own mixes off the radio, after which I moved on to making playlists on CDs. I am one of those people who has a huge music library with lots of underground tracks and undiscovered songs”
Her big break came when MBC, the largest TV network in the SWANA region, found her social media, and asked her to host their new show. She agreed immediately and juggled her day job, music, and now TV career before deciding to put dentistry on pause to focus entirely on music. She made her debut as a DJ when producer Vinyl Mode discovered her and put her on the lineup at Saudi Arabia’s first electronic festival, White Oasis (hosted in March 2019) where she was the only female DJ alongside 12 other artists. Since her career change, she now hosts her own show “Youth Hub” on MBC, performs regular gigs at fashion shows, private lounges, international consulates and was most recently featured at MDL Beast in December of 2019, and again at their virtual 12-hour festival earlier in June 2020 (World Gulf).
Nikki: Which one of your songs or mixes would you recommend to someone who's never listened to your music? And which one of your new releases is your favorite? Nouf: So far I have one EP released with Yann Dulche that contains 3 tracks, we also have Baltra as a remixer. I recommend everyone to go listen to Dilemma. It's a very personal emotional track and I would love to share that emotion with everyone who likes electronic music.
MDL Beast, or as I like to call it, the EDC of Saudi Arabia, was a multi-stage, multi-sensory experience in Riyadh. Hosted for the first time in December 2019, the three day festival brought 400,000 ravers together. Cosmicat was yet again one of the only females to play at MDL Beast.
I'm so proud of the fact that we're hosting this festival in Saudi; it's a great reflection of the Saudi audience being able to experience the music they love, both local and international, right here in Riyadh. As one of the first female EDM DJs here, I'm excited to be flying the flag and representing women on the scene...This is going to be the set of my lifetime." (PR News Wire)
Cosmicat’s set at MDL Beats was cut short due to crowd rioting and fights. At the end of her set there’s footage of men pushing against guards and gates, and security informing her that she will be escorted safely out of the venue. Still, festivals allow locals to get their sound and name out.
Nikki: You’re clearly paving the way for Muslim women in EDM. How does it feel? What are some barriers you have faced being a female DJ in Saudi? Nouf: It's not just for Muslim women but for all women, we should be a unit of support for each other. I have faced many barriers of course, like all women in all fields, I was facing a lot of trouble trying to manage my time between my day job as a dentist and my passion in music. I was eventually forced to choose between these two so I chose to be a full time musician, it was difficult to establish a name and get recognized as a professional in a male-dominated industry but surprisingly I have been getting a lot of support, especially by women, which I’m very grateful for.
Nouf's popularity went through the roof after her festival set. But she didn’t love the limelight. She told the Insider that: Saudis are raised to fit in and not attract attention. But now artists like herself are being put in the spotlight and it's uncomfortable. "Some people just like to do their music and don't want to be exposed, or show themself, they don't want to be under the spotlight." Nonetheless, Nouf’s bold public appearances set off a ripple effect throughout Saudi Arabia. The country's seen a massive increase in electronic music classes, with various DJs offering tutorials and tips on everything from composition to production. Aspiring artists have reached out to Nouf asking details about her career, how she got into the industry, and coolest of all - other women writing Nouf fan mail on how she has encouraged them to step behind the decks.
Part 4. DJ Cosmicat is an inspiration
Cosmicat’s journey inspires me for a number of reasons, all of which boil down to: believing in yourself. Objectively, Nouf’s desire to pursue a musical career outside of what her culture views as “halal,” is probably inspiring to the average person. But for me, an ex-raver who listened exclusively to electronic music a large majority of my life, it hits differently.
Nikki: Who would you say your music is for? What do you want to tell those people? Nouf: My music is for everyone who likes electronic dance music or anyone who's curious about it. I would love to share with them emotions that can only be expressed with music
I see a lot of myself in Nouf. In the time I’ve spent curating November’s playlist and researching different artists to hone in on, I’ve felt a subconscious gravitation towards making serious moves towards what I also consider one my life’s calling: DJ-ing. When Nouf speaks to the depression she felt going to her 9-5 job, asking herself what the point of financial success is if she felt miserable everyday, it really hit home for me. That’s pretty much the short story of my life working for corporate America. I bought my own mixing board awhile back and have been teaching myself. But to Nouf’s credit, finding the motivation to self-learn is easier said than done.
I admire her determination to step outside of her comfort zone. We’re all looking to tap into our life purposes and share our craft with the world. But chasing your dreams isn't all fun and games. It takes guts, motivation, passion, and courage to dedicate yourself to a project. Especially when you already have an unfulfilling 9-5 job draining all your energy. I'm sure you can relate to what that feels like, even if you're not an aspiring deep house DJ like myself.
Oh and — Vice Arabia released a mini documentary on Nouf in late 2019, after her appearance at MDL Beast. This documentary was what did it for me. Nouf speaks to the social changes in Saudi Arabia, her lifestyle and experience as a DJ so far. There are many memorable quotes from her throughout the documentary but I’ll leave you with my favorite one:
“Music is a sort of breather or leeway you give to yourself. It motivates you. You experience spontaneous feelings. Suddenly, you look around and see everyone in the same place and time having the same feelings. The differences between you and others vanish. All distances and barriers disappear. You feel closer to everyone around you. This type of music specifically for how expressive it is, it doesn’t always have lyrics. There’s no lyrics or someone telling you the type of emotions. You just listen to it and feel it. I express things through sound I can’t express in words. I communicate with those people . I move with them. I sway with them. It's beautiful. Its complete unity. It’s vital for your mental health so you don’t lose it.”
Nouf embodies passion. She inspires me to have courage and to believe in my dreams. I hope her story inspires you too.