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Cosmicat:Music Is Freedom

by Ben Jolley

For Cosmicat - one of Saudi Arabia’s first female DJs and producers - the Jeddah-born artist never imagined she could make music her career.

Growing up in the late 90s/early 2000s, Nouf Sufyani developed her love of music from an early age. Influenced by pop and R&B artists like Destiny’s Child, *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, she started to write her own songs; however, rather than sharing her new skill, Nouf kept them a secret in her notebook. “I never took any of this seriously because, back then, you couldn’t just decide to be an artist – especially as a woman, it was really difficult,” she says. Undeterred, Nouf persevered and later experimented with producing music – “solely driven by passion” (and watching Daft Punk’s music videos; “‘Discovery’ had a huge impact, I love that album”).

When she was in high school, Nouf recalls using FL Studio with the aim of making hip-hop beats. But, after progressing with college, she got into dental school rather than picking up something artistic. “Back then it wasn’t really possible for everyone to pursue arts and make a living out of it.” Nonetheless, music was always on her mind: as a “collector” who started building her song library aged 10 (and still has every track she’s bought), Nouf would constantly be listening and exploring, buying and downloading “everything I could put my hands on”.

After graduation, she suddenly had more time on her hands – and more money. “I was a grown adult who was free to do whatever I wanted,” Nouf recalls, adding that her interest in electronic music was then at its peak. “When I first explored the sound, I didn’t really have a name for it. I didn’t know if it was deep house or regular house,” she remembers. Instead, Nouf was “looking for nice melodies, beautiful sound design, vocals that reminded me of my R&B and pop background, and really nice beats.” While she discovered DJs and producers like Carl Cox, Nicole Moudaber and Deadmau5, it didn’t matter to Nouf who was making the music. “For me, it was all about the sound.”

Finding people who listened to similar things she did was no easy task, though. “It was difficult to communicate in real life with different groups who were into the same activities”. As a way of meeting like-minded people, the internet became “a very powerful tool for me and many other young Saudis”, Nouf says. Going online enabled her to connect with other musicians; similarly, discovering and then exploring the underground scene in Saudi introduced her to many hip-hop groups, rock bands, metal bands, and most importantly, electronic music artists. These included house DJ/producer Vinyl Mode, and Saudi DJ, Baloo; “I saw them DJing and it made me think: ‘if they can do this, why can’t I?’”

In 2017 this internal determination inspired Nouf to buy her first DJ mixer and teach herself to use it by watching online tutorials. “I was a bedroom DJ for the longest time,” she says. “It simply did not exist in Saudi. Generally, it wasn’t something that you could go ahead and do. Most people would not approve.”

Despite this, she started shadowing friends. “I’d look at what they were doing and listen closely to how they mixed.” Nouf’s music career as Cosmicat picked up in early 2018, around the time that changes in Saudi Arabia – such as Vision 2030 – began to happen. “We started having more of an active event scene and more music events, which had never happened before. This meant there were more opportunities to get booked and enjoy good music.”

Such a cultural shift was transformative, Nouf says, because “without these platforms and music events, us underground musicians had no option but to organise our own, which was… mostly illegal, and highly risky”. Although everyone involved loved music and wanted to “celebrate this one thing that we loved doing, we needed official platforms”.

Similarly, being brought up in a family where the focus was on education and gaining a solid academic background, she recognises that things are really starting to change. “My parents were focused on college and wanted me to pursue something that they believed had a future. Any traditional job, but I ended up very far from that.”

Now, though, her family are more than happy with their daughter’s career choice of music (which came after several years of Nouf owning her own dental practice). “I’ve always felt more freedom every time I do something music related,” she says, admitting she would ditch work whenever a DJ booking landed.

Over time, as the requests increased, Nouf realised “I was doing this one thing that I love for the first time. And I had people connecting with me over this music,” she adds, recalling that it was a new experience for her. “Back when I was growing up, the mainstream was not dance music or any Western music in my country. The people who listen to this music were very few and hard to find.”

After playing several smaller events, she made her festival debut at Soundstorm in 2019, which she says was a huge moment for the country. “Not just for the shift from having nothing to everything over a short period of time, but for the entire region. I hadn’t seen anything like it, in Egypt, Morocco or anywhere else.” Playing the festival proved a massive turning point for her Cosmicat project. “Me and all the Saudi musicians had been used to spending our entire lives playing underground, so it felt like a dream – everything we wished for and more.”

Seeing people come to her set and dance was “beyond anything I could describe, because I lived in a time where you couldn’t even hear music in cafes or restaurants or buy a record or a piano. It was extremely rare.” Nouf even remembers she and her artist friends crying during the first night.

This gave her the confidence to pursue music full-time in late 2019, having previously worked as a dentist. Getting really into production and dedicating herself to music, “good things then started to happen”, including Cosmicat being asked to play the first Boiler Room party in the region, in Bahrain. As someone who would watch random BR videos in her bedroom growing up, she says “I never expected to get the call some day to be booked to play one of their events. I felt like a kid being featured on my favourite cartoon”.

Since then, she’s been making a name for herself internationally, having played at Tomorrowland last summer, and at Ultra Music Festival in Miami in March 2023. But, alongside taking her DJ sets global, Nouf has established her sound when it comes to producing; three-track EP, ‘Ascension’, was born from wanting to showcase her sonic diversity.

As for the future, her goal as DJ-producer-singer-songwriter Cosmicat is simple: “music, music, music! It’s always spoken for me more than anything. I had many things inside that I didn’t know how to express, but music did that for me. I want to recreate that for people who are listening to my music.” And, of course, she’s enjoying travelling the world and connecting with new audiences on different dancefloors.

Having been on such a journey to achieve her dream, it’s understandable that Nouf believes “music chose me; I didn’t choose to be a musician, it’s been there my entire life – when I was working, studying, doing basically everything. Every time I tried to look for something different, things evolved naturally to lead me back to music again.”

Full feature available inside Volume #46 – coming soon.

Photographer
Lina Mo
Stylist
Zinah Kilani
MUA
Safaa Alireza
Hair Stylist
Osama
Producer
Joe Brine
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