Dubai cityscape on a cloudy evening...UAE
Getty Images
  • Nouf Sufyani is Saudi Arabia's first female DJ. She plays to crowds all over the Middle East, and hosts her own TV show.
  • The rise to fame of the 27-year-old, also known as Cosmicat, comes as attitudes to women and house music in Saudi Arabia are changing.
  • Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has silenced critics and logged an abysmal human-rights record.
  • But at the same time, cultural shifts like the one around women's careers are opening up new possibilities for young Saudis.
  • Insider visited Cosmicat at her studio in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia last month. She told us what the upheaval feels like and how she got to where she is now.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider South Africa.

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia - In 2014, 22-year-old Saudi dental student Nouf Sufyani was attending an industry conference in Dubai when she heard a song that made her stop in her tracks.

"I was hit in the face by the most beautiful house music, out of nowhere. It took me places. I spent the rest of the year, and the years since, looking for this specific type of music," she said.

Five years later, Sufyani was on the other end of the sound system and as Saudi Arabia's first female DJ. She performs under the name Cosmicat.

It was December 19 2019, and around 130,000 Saudis descended on the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for MDL Beast. It was the country's first bona-fide pop music festival.

Cosmicat's rise to fame comes as young Saudi women begin to explore careers independent of their families, and as the country adjusts its attitudes to dance music.

Women in Saudi Arabia have historically been considered second-class citizens, legally granted only the same rights as children.

But in the last 24 months, a series of dents have been made in that norm, largely a result reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

Women can now travel without male permission, visit sports stadiums, and join the military.

Young Saudi women are flooding to Riyadh, the kingdom's capital, to chase their dreams, Ahmed al-Omran of the Financial Times has reported.

Many women are even taking up smoking, and doing so openly in public, an example of how perceptions around women are evolving.

In February 2019, Saudi Arabia even appointed a woman - Reema bint Bandar - to be its first female ambassador to the US, its most important ally.

Cosmicat is 27, one of the tens of millions of young people in Saudi Arabia, where 60% of the population is under 30. Her rapid career change and subsequent success are an example of the new paths open to Saudi women, and show how industries like music are opening up.

Speaking at her studio in Jeddah, on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast, Cosmicat told Insider: "We never had actual career opportunities for musicians, no one took them seriously at all, since we never had platforms for them, but now: everything! All our dreams are served to us, 'there you go!'"

Crown Prince Mohammed's efforts to modernise Saudi Arabia also mean that careers previously shunned by religious and social conservatives, like non-religious art and music, are now considered permissible.

'We can barely keep up'

In January 2019, Saudi Arabia's first-ever music school opened in Riyadh, soon after the public Taif University started offering extra-curricular music lessons for the first time. A number of institutions have since started offering courses in music.

"A lot of us wanted to make art for so long, and in our culture, our reality, having a stable job is a 'must.' So we've always kept these things on the side," Cosmicat told Insider.

"They never took [artistic careers] seriously but now we're discovering this new era of opportunity that never existed before. Suddenly out the blue, it's like 'yeah, let's do this!'"

"Things are changing drastically, and at a speed that even me, my generation, we can barely keep up," she said. "So it's really like a dream."

Jeddah, where Cosmicat lives, is the center of Saudi Arabia's house and techno scene.

"The Berlin DJs even told us Jeddah feels like Berlin after the fall of the wall," male Saudi DJ Desertfish told Mille World, an online magazine on Arab culture, in late 2018.

And at MDL Beast, where Cosmicat played, young and uncovered women were videoed dancing alongside men to famous DJs like David Guetta, Steve Aoki, Martin Garrix, and Tiësto.

Such scenes would have been unimaginable as little as three years ago.

But that's not to say Saudi Arabia has transformed into a haven of female empowerment and musical expression.

The tension between the kingdom's conservative Islamic values and modern festival was clear at the festival, where dancing and dressing in certain fashions, if considered indecent, also warranted arrest.

Riyadh police arrested 120 men and women at the festival for "offending public morals," including some for wearing "inappropriate clothes."

In the days after the festival, women also said on social media that men sexually assaulted them in the crowds.

'I'm not a politician, I'm a musician'

And while the festival showed the change taking place, critics say it does little to erase wider problems in Saudi society.

The Saudi state murders and imprisons its critics, punishes homosexuality with the death penalty, and presides over a long and bloody war in Yemen.

Celebrities attending MDL Beast were accused of helping the government divert attention from persistent human-rights abuses.

"There is no doubt that at the personal level there is more freedom," Walid al-Hathloul, brother of imprisoned women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul told Agence France-Presse earlier this month.

"But the reforms in favour of women are part of a public-relations campaign to improve the kingdom's human rights record," he said.

Cosmicat told Insider that her focus is only on her job. "I don't know about politics. I'm not a politician, I'm a musician. I'm really involved in the music," she said.

From dentistry to the dance floor

Cosmicat's road to fame hasn't been easy. Two years ago she was a dentist, working six days a week at a clinic in Jeddah, and playing gigs and promoting herself on social media in her limited spare time.

"Music has been my life since as long as I can remember but I only got to do it professionally in the past two years," she told Insider. "Everything skyrocketed last year."

Her big break came last year when MBC, the largest TV network in the Middle East, found her on social media and offered her a job as a music presenter.

"I was just doing my thing, playing gigs, painting, posting everything on my profiles," she said. "The network were looking for a young, new host for this new TV show on MBC, and they stumbled on my page and contacted me."

She took up the offer immediately.

"I was still working as a dentist, and was trying to handle music, being a DJ, and putting in eight hours a day at my work six days a week," she said. "I was exhausted."

"So I decided to put the clinic on hold, and focus on music."

Quitting her job has paid off. Cosmicat started working on her show, which in English is called Youth Hub, in July 2019. It is recorded in a studio in Lebanon every Tuesday.

She commutes back and forth to from her base in Jeddah, a flight of almost three hours each way.

In December, MDL Beast touted her as "Saudi Arabia's first female DJ" on its billing, playing one of her sets alongside several male Saudi DJs.

The music industry in Saudi Arabia has historically revolved around singers who are men. Dance music, long considered un-Islamic, is suddenly no longer taboo.

The new challenge for a generation of young Saudis - who were brought up to avoid sticking out - is learning how to live in the spotlight.

"Here's the thing about the music industry here in Saudi: Not a lot of people want to appear under the lights," Cosmicat said.

"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."

Cosmicat is currently producing her first track of her own.

"I love recording vocals, and I sing a little, but I'm no full-on Mariah Carey. But we'll get there," she told Insider.

But is there a unique sound to Saudi dance music?

"I feel like the Saudi audience love groove, percussion, the sounds of drums. They love whatever gets them moving from the waist down. They love vocals, but some slower tempos maybe," she said.

Receive a daily update on your cellphone with all our latest news: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: