Between soft power and youth emancipation: dive into the Saudi festival of MDL Beast

Écrit par Trax Magazine
Photo de couverture : ©Raman3000
Le 08.11.2022, à 10h40
16 MIN LI-
RE
©Raman3000
Écrit par Trax Magazine
Photo de couverture : ©Raman3000
For its economy not to solely rely on oil, Saudi Arabia has attempted to assert its soft power in recent years by establishing itself in the world of culture. How? By creating or subsidizing big events like the Soundstorm by MDL BEAST festival, dedicated to electronic music. Something to cringe at, as the Saudi regime does not think much of the human rights issue. But besides these important questions, how does this festival echo among the country’s youth? The best way to find out is to go directly to the festival and take the pulse of the last edition.

Text & pictures by Julien Rahmani

A mix of young men with make-up and women in jeans on the same dancefloor, the image seems unexpected when talking about Saudi Arabia. Yet this scene closed the year 2021 in the desert north of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where 732,000 people gathered to listen and dance to international live and DJ sets. The Soundstorm by MDL BEAST (pronounced “Middle Beast”) festival is not only the first electronic music festival in Saudi Arabia, it is also a very assertive move towards an opening of this, until now, ultra conservative regime. This opening, backed and financed by the Saudi government, is highly criticized regarding the war in Yemen, the repression towards the LGBTQI+ community, the freedom of expression or the conditions of foreign workers. The announcement of the Soundstorm festival program causes a real outcry every year. Many people call for a boycott of the event and the artists who participate. The festival is also contested by a more conservative part of the international Muslim community who do not want to see the country of the two holy places westernized in this way.

British DJ Dave Clarke introduces the conversation in 2019 in a Facebook post (since deleted) “Everyone must be accountable to themselves, but who in here would perform for an event funded by say, the (British) Conservatives? Is anyone up for a Brexit festival?”. Similarly, Michail Stangl, curator of the Berlin-based CTM Festival, writes on Twitter. “Sure, there is no objective morality and all, but if you like money so much that you take it from a government that kills journalists and has the death penalty for being gay, you really should ask yourself some serious questions.”

If you like money so much that you take it from a government that kills journalists and has the death penalty for being gay, you really should ask yourself some serious questions.

Michail Stangl, curator of the CTM Festival

“With most idiots in the techno business, it doesn’t surprise me. But Sven and Jeff?” writes Berlin artist Oliver Deutschmann on Facebook. “What’s wrong with you guys? Next time at a Taliban private party if the price is right? Or an after party at the Vatican?” In contrast, some artists view it as a political message and deem it essential to differentiate an ideology from a people. Especially in countries with an extremely young population, such as Saudi Arabia, where 70% of the inhabitants are under 30 years old. Jean Michel Jarre believes that it is necessary to create a link with these young people who are preparing the future. “We artists must stage in places where people don’t have the same freedoms as we do, because if we don’t, it’s a double punishment. If not, it is in a way collaborating to a form of radicalization, of alienation” he explains on the set of C’est à vous !

Being in the shadows for the past few years has always made it difficult for Westerners to have a clear perception of the Saudi people and the life they lead. So much so that they never really gave voice to the people on the ground. This is probably one of the reasons why the debate on the event seems to be so sterile. We tried to better comprehend the setting up of this initiative and to question the impact that this type of event can have on Saudi culture, by directly referring to the people concerned.

Vision 2030

First of all, it is essential to understand the context of this country, which is barely 100 years old. It wasn’t until the late 1930s, with the discovery of oil, and then in the 1970s with the explosion of its prices, that Saudi Arabia really began to build infrastructure and cities to become a modern society.

In April 2016, Mohammed Bin Salman the crown prince at the head of the kingdom, launched the guideline for many changes: the Vision 2030. A colossal project with unprecedented economic, social and political ambitions, with the aim of getting the country out of its oil rent by diversifying its economy on new sectors, including culture. New ministries were created and financed numerous projects that were more and more ambitious. It is with strong events that the first power of the Persian Gulf closes its year 2021: a Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, as well as the second edition of the music festival, mainly electronic: Soundstorm by MDL BEAST in Riyadh. With a huge budget, the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund, also known as PIF, is redefining its national identity and creating a new progressive image open to the world. The objective? To define what it means to be Saudi today.

Genesis of the first Saudi music festival

 It quickly becomes clear that the MDL BEAST festival, renamed Soundstorm for this 2021 edition, is definitely one of the most important events for the local youth and culture. The organizers refer to MDL BEAST as a movement dedicated to building the creative industry in Saudi Arabia. Today, the growing entity includes a label (MDL BEAST Records), a TV channel (BEAST TV), a radio station (Frequencies), a livestream platform (Freqways), a conference (XP Music Conference), a festival merchandising brand (Bani BEAST) as well as their flagship project, the festival (Soundstorm). The team consists essentially of young and passionate Saudis, who seem to have a clear idea of the stakes involved in this type of organization. “We weren’t asked to do a festival, we were the ones who sold them the idea. By justifying the positive effects it would have not only on the city of Riyadh but on the whole country.” says Talal Albahiti, who was at the origin of the project.

 Talal is thirty-five years old, he grew up in Jeddah and then studied in Washington DC where he started DJing. Upon his return to Arabia, he organized houseparties where the guest list was scrutinized. He teamed up with his friend Ramadan, with the idea of bringing out this underground culture and revealing the talents that are hiding in Arabia. In July 2019, the two partners managed to convince an entity of the Ministry of Culture to set up their festival project, under one condition: it must be held in the same year.

Within 3 short months, Talal and Ramadan organized the first edition of the festival with a view of recreating the experience the following year in a more successful way. Talal immediately called upon friends and family, such as his friend Baloo, his first inspiration to become a DJ. Baloo is already a figure of the local scene. A DJ since 1997 and passionate about house music, he grew up in Riyadh and studied in the United States. He returned to Arabia in 2002. The music, infrastructure and equipment being almost non-existent at that time, he had his DJ equipment and 8 cases of vinyl delivered via the private jet of a friend’s family.

 “July 2019 I received this phone call. “I have a project for you and I think you gonna love it !” On the phone it was Talal and Ramadan, the CEO and COO that was basically working on this concept. We are doing a 3 days music festival, tells me Talal. My first question was : is it electronic ? …That was the most surreal night of my life.Thanks to this event and this new context, our communities are beginning to proliferate. When I was twenty years old, I could never have imagined that such a thing could happen. Today at 43, it is a blessing to be able to open this door to this youth. This makes more sense to me than anything I’ve had before and it’s just fucking amazing ! I have never been so happy in my life in Arabia.” he concludes with a few tears of joy.

Baloo©Raman3000

The global underground scene claims to be very inclusive all the time. It is not true. Not when it comes to Saudi Arabia.

Baloo

Besides weddings, partying in Saudi Arabia occurs mainly in private international communities, the only areas exempt from the country’s conservative laws being the diplomatic quarters and compounds, the private residential areas reserved for expatriates. It is in these communities that some Saudi artists discovered their passion for music. DJ Vinyle Mode is one of them. His life took a turn the day he received the call to join the MDL BEAST team. His first mission is to tell the story of this Saudi underground electronic scene in the documentary CUE.

Being an artist today also means incarnating a certain number of values in line with his culture. Connecting one’s image to Saudi Arabia’s is necessarily a risk. While some prefer to boycott the festival because of their values, many support it for the same reasons. “The global underground scene claims to be very inclusive all the time. It is not true. Not when it comes to Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, and I don’t understand why.” explains Baloo.

The festival experience

A few kilometers from the capital Riyadh lies the festival grounds built in the middle of the desert, for its first edition in 2019. From asphalt to the numerous monumental installations, we can see this will of the Saudis to do more and more. No surprise, two Guinness World Records are set by the second edition of the festival. That of the highest temporary stage in the world, with 41,268 m height, and that of the greatest number of LED lights used on an event (60,053,376). 3D mapping, lasers, street art, fireworks…all means are used to take the spectators’ breath away and make the festival experience unforgettable. All this for a day ticket, relatively accessible at 36 dollars (135 riyals), when a standard cinema ticket costs 13 dollars. Other formulas are proposed but the interest is quite minimal. A fast track entrance for 146 dollars (549 riyals) and a VIB (Very Important Beast) formula for 798 dollars (2,999 riyals) for an additional access to the VIP lounge, which offers a visibility on the mainstage, not great but nevertheless the possibility to smoke shisha.

©Raman3000

Entry to the festival is fairly quick, with very few searches and no official police presence on the grounds. Fire-eaters, acrobats, dancers, stilt walkers and giant puppets. A carnival atmosphere, even queer on certain aspects, reigns on the festival. Strass, glitter and make-up are available in a stand operated by a big cosmetic brand. Alien costumes, horse head, steampunk glasses, or the awkward Native American headdress; festival goers sport all sorts of disguises and accessories. “SUUUUUEEEE”, between two cries referring to the celebration of Cristiano Ronaldo, some trends can be seen. Like this fun passion for giant stuffed animals or the accessory that seems to be inescapable here: the bandanas with paisley patterns. This fashion trend was launched on Twitter by the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), Turki Al Sheikh, and can be interpreted as an incentive to a sartorial laissez-faire in line with the openness of the country. The audience is young and predominantly male. On each scene, energy and euphoria are felt. With or without musical codes, people simply dance or jump to the rhythm of the BPM.

©Raman3000
©Raman3000

Contrary to what one might imagine, the event does not only affect the privileged and progressive youth of the country. Khallad, a young Saudi tells us: “What surprises me the most is that you can really meet all types of Saudis here. From all regions, even the most remote ones. People in thobe, people in jeans and even people wearing Shemagh. It surprises me, I didn’t think these people could be interested.”

©Raman3000

On the spot, the speeches of the participants are quite similar. Until now, you had to fly to experience this type of experience, which is now just a few minutes from the capital. It is a liberation for this youth who feels for the first time a sense of belonging. “We can finally be ourselves” tells me a boy with a dazzling make-up. “I feel like I belong. And I think it’s the first time I’ve felt that way in Saudi Arabia,” says Rotana, whom we met a few days after the event. Although alcohol is still banned throughout the country (with the exception of compounds and diplomatic quarters), many festival-goers have managed to pass it on, security being quite lax and repressive about it. We are also told that the black alcohol market even seemed relatively saturated the weeks before the event. A rapper on stage quips about taking it easy with “the water”, by addressing his audience: “I had taken some stuff but I felt very safe. And above all, I couldn’t believe that around me guys in thobes and girls in jeans were dancing on the same dancefloor.” confided to us a Saudi a few days after the event.

©Raman3000
©Raman3000

To meet the demands of the Saudis as regards standing, the festival has not skimped on facilities and services, which offers a comfort quite unusual for a festival. One other reason to explain these budgets: a crazy line up that picks up everywhere with mega stars of EDM as well as figures of the Arab world, female djs who obviously are not embarrassed to come here and French like DJ Snake, Acid Arab, The Blaze, Malaa or Tchami. The noteworthy thing is that the line up respects gender parity and keeps a good balance between regional and international artists. We also discover many Saudi artists, who didn’t wait to have the green light to dedicate their time to their passion. For example, the author, composer and performer Tamtam, who shakes up Saudi traditions by taking up the “Ardha”, this parade (which mixes sung poetry, dance and percussion to celebrate the beginning or the end of important occasions), performed this time by a women’s choir for the instrumental and the clip of “Ismak”.

A budding industry

“We will seize this opportunity to create our own scene and music. I understand the impact it can have on a city. I know what disco did for New York and continues to do 50 years later. Techno in Detroit, House in Chicago, acid house and UK garage in London or minimal in Bucharest. These movements generate that unique experience in every city. We are made for a unique Saudi scene, we are building it, and it’s happening right now. “ hints Baloo.

A great deal of things may not be socially acceptable in our culture. But, we are pushing the bar a little further every year.

Talal

 The data on music use in Saudi Arabia is still very superficial, reason why the organizers have chosen to play on the diversity of musical genres. The goal is to offer something that can reach everyone but also to experiment and discover new things. Focusing on EDM seemed like the most strategic choice to reach the Saudi youth. It’s also easier, says Talal, “EDM artists just need a USB stick to come.” “What interests Saudi teenagers aged 17-18 at the moment are stadium DJs. These mega EDM stars that everyone knows here. But, it is by encouraging them to come and see Tiestö or David Guetta that they will discover other artists”, says Baloo on this subject.

©Raman3000

Talal confides in me his concerns about the rappers’ performances. “A great deal of things may not be socially acceptable in our culture. But, we are pushing the bar a little further every year. At the same time, we also want to win the hearts of the parents. This is new for their generation. Some of them don’t back this openness so much, but they see our initiatives, like the Formula 1 concerts and the anti-bullying initiative “Reset & Respect”. They realize that we are children of this country, that we understand the culture and what the culture requires. We’re taking it really slow so we’re not imposing anything on anyone.”

©Raman3000

“I was worried a lot about bringing in rappers because of their performance. A lot of it maybe isn’t socially acceptable in the culture. But, we try to push the bar a little further each year. On the other hand, we also want to win the hearts of parents. It’s new to their generation. Some are not so much in favor of this openness but they see our initiatives, such as the concerts organized for Formula 1 and the initiative against harassment “Reset & Respect”. They are aware that we are children of this country, that we understand the culture and what the culture demands. We are going really very slowly so as not to force anything on anyone.”

 Following the first edition in 2019, a survey had been set up to know which artists the public wanted to see. Unfortunately for the organizers, many refused. “The nice way to say no, was to give us a ridiculous amount. For example, an artist, who you usually pay $30,000 in France, will ask for a million,” says Talal. This defiance has been well mitigated in 2021 to the point where it is the agents who often contact the MDL BEAST team to put forward their catalog of artists. For Talal, it seems obvious that artists do not come to play in Saudi Arabia just for the money. “Most of these megastars don’t have that financial need, and adding the label ‘Saudi Arabia’ to their image might actually put them at risk.” He insists on the fact that it is even the opposite: many of the artists who came to the first edition came back for the second. “People around the world don’t see the evolution of Saudi Arabia because they are privileged. You know why they are privileged ? Because they have nightlife and they take it for granted,” says Baloo.

©Raman3000

Prior to the festival, the “XP Music Conference” was held. Also initiated by the MDL BEAST organizers, this event aims to bring together and create a conversation to build the music industry in Saudi Arabia and give the opportunity to those who wish to consider music as a career. It seems essential to have this conversation from the beginning as the infrastructure such as studios, venues and copyright laws do not yet exist. The Ministry of Culture, created in 2018, has just set up a commission dedicated to music.

Nada Al Helabi, director of programs at “XP Conference” and strategy at MDL BEAST tells us that a trend emerged after the first edition of MDL BEAST in 2019. People who used to organize parties in Saudi, Dubai or Bahrain, started to create their own “brands”.“The country is big, but quite small in the end. At our afters, all these creatives connected between Riyadh, Jeddah and the eastern region of the country. The idea here at XP was to shine a light on this scene of regional developers, to connect them and their respective communities.”

©Raman3000

These Saudi collectives then take possession of the 5 warehouses made available to present their universe and put forward their artists. The public here is not really representative of the Saudi youth: it is more a mixture of professionals of the sector, artists, collectives and quite “trendy” communities. These moments seem like a foretaste of what the party will be like in Saudi Arabia in the near future. Among the most outstanding parties for their energy and their musical proposal, those of Brij Entertainment, which offers the only party entirely dedicated to hip hop and afro beat cultures, is definitely part of it.

Talal had warned us about the last minute planning of the Saudis. “A small but very savvy group shows up on the first day, they spread the word and then everyone comes on the following days.” This was the case for the party of the man who is playing an increasingly important role for the rap culture in Saudi Arabia: Saüd Turki, who is behind Brij Entertainment, a structure that supports artists in their production and development. While four other parties are taking place simultaneously, in front of the full room activated by Brij Entertainment, a queue of about 200 people is accumulating. Inside, Saüd acts as MC. He federates the audience, highlights the DJ, invites rappers, gives big ups  and even invites people to come and express themselves on stage. Bangers, circles, battles, attitude, Brij’s parties have nothing to envy to the rap parties in the west. A particular energy is felt when DJ Shaolin plays “Bad and Boujee”. As if the lyrics “We come from nothing to something” had another meaning here… As if it’s no longer the allegory of DIY that we hear, but the pride of a people who officially asserts its existence in the musical landscape.

©Raman3000

As opinion polls are rare in Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to assess the dissatisfaction of the population with the changes the country is undergoing. However, it was quite difficult to find people opposed to the festival, probably because it would go against the will of evolution of the country and its Vision 2030. It is when talking to a more conservative segment of the population and with a stricter vision of religion that one feels the first suspicions. The main reason? It would distract from virtue and lead to vice. Their daughters should not go to this event! To allow them to do so would expose them to the risk of harassment. For its first edition in 2019, the festival had not put in place any initiative and the cases of harassment and sexual assault had been particularly important.

The harassment issue

“All of us, woman in Saudi Arabia experienced harassment on the daily, whether be misogyny , whether be by the street when you walking and someone is just calling your name or catcalling. This is something we are so use to that we forget or we are so crippled to stand up against. Once it gets to you, it becomes a norm, to the point where you no longer know how to fight against it. Until you start meeting other people. July and Tami who cames in, showed us that harassment is not just a Saudi problem, it’s a worldwide problem. It happens everywhere. No one knows how to deal with it. The most developed countries and the most develop festival have them on a daily and have really intense cases.” explains Sara Bazian in charge of the “Reset & Respect” volunteers.

Working with internationally renowned experts, the festival team is implementing large-scale anti-harassment initiatives at this year’s event. For months, this unit named “Reset & Respect” studied how to address Saudi men and women in order to understand what differentiates them from Western countries. They concluded that the best way to have a positive impact was to use positive language. Dictating behavior to a person can be very unwelcome in the Arab culture, especially if it is an older person. So their goal isn’t to stop people from being who they are, but to encourage them to adopt better behavior. This year, 1,500 people volunteered to counter the bystander effect, promote a positive atmosphere and ensure that each participant has a safer and more respectful experience.  A simple “Are you ok?” can sometimes avoid very intense situations.

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As for sanctions, it was common to see people being expelled. Organizers also try to identify these people to blacklist them from future events. Prosecution can go further if the victim decides to file a complaint. From a legislative point of view, sanctions are also intensifying. The government has just adopted a deterrent measure that consists of publicly communicating the names of the aggressors. This, according to Nada, will have a real impact. ” In Saudi culture, families are quite big and shaming their name can have a strong impact on the whole family” she explains.

But despite these initiatives, harassment still remains the major problem of the festival. Some women believe that the low female presence could also be explained by this. Some who have been assaulted no longer want to come back the next day or prefer to spend twenty-two times more in a VIP seat. Although harassment remains a global problem and not just in Saudi Arabia, the work on this subject seems all the more important in this country where male/female segregation was still practiced only two years ago. Certain values specific to the Saudi culture make it possible to keep hope for the improvement of the situation, such as the collectivist aspect of this culture where the collective conscience goes beyond the family circle. Or like the “Faz3a”, this Saudi concept that goes back to the tribal culture of the Middle East, stipulates that a person will defend his neighbor regardless of the reason.

A controversial new Saudi identity

To think that all these cultural initiatives do not contribute to improving the image, attractiveness and external influence desired by the Saudi government would be quite absurd. This societal engagement practice may be similar to branding, but it does not take away the fact that real creative industries are being built in a sustainable way. New professional horizons in the cultural industry are opening up for young people who have been deprived of them for many years. In a country which remains one of the most conservative in the world, it is finally becoming possible for artists to build a career and express themselves more freely. These new cultural proposals are inspiring for the youth. They create passions, form communities and strengthen social ties, contributing to a significant improvement in the quality of life for a large portion of Saudi youth. Many expatriate Saudis are choosing to return to their country, like Ma’an, who left Saudi Arabia 10 years ago with the hope of studying, working and living in the United States. Though Trump’s presidency and covid influenced his decision, ” to actively participate in this historic phase for his country “ was his greatest motivation.

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This is also the case for many of the artists we met who, until now, imagined their careers only outside Saudi Arabia. “I have always dreamed of going international, touring, meeting people, etc. Today I don’t want to go anywhere, I’m happy to create the scene on our land and educate the whole culture in electronic music.” Says the DJ Vinyle Mode. “When I came back to Saudi in 2017, I felt it was the right time to return, there was so much going on. So many changes, so many things happening in the country.” Producer Saüd was already in the music business before people accepted him or even understood him. However, the conversation with those close to him about his work has changed significantly in recent years. Going from remarks like “Are you serious? What is your future as a musician? “to “Yallah! Now it’s your turn Saüd!” “When I started music in 2010, it wasn’t something I could share with my family or be proud of. Today, we (artists and organizers) have the responsibility to build the proper infrastructure for music in Saudi Arabia. And we don’t need anyone to do it.”

I have always dreamed of going international, touring, meeting people, etc. Today I don’t want to go anywhere, I’m happy to create the scene on our land .

Vinyle Mode, DJ
Music and shows are interrupted on the festival grounds for 30 minutes during prayer time, to allow festival-goers to pray if they wish.©Raman3000

Saudi Arabia is in full transition and its development is very accelerated. Its extremely young population is taking a more and more active part in society and in the actions taken. On social networks, Saudis proudly display a message like “welcome to Saudi Arabia”. MDL BEAST epitomizes the image that a large part of the youth wants to show to the world of Saudi Arabia. Art and culture feed the mindset and shape this new Saudi identity. Despite the fact that contemporary artist Abdulnasser Gharem still feels that there is a real separation from the Saudi people. “Like everywhere else, the government is afraid of this youth, because the gap between the old and the new generation is huge: The old generation holds the money, the power and the rules, the young generation the knowledge and the energy.” It would be quite proselytizing to think that music alone can offer us a more just and loving world, but perhaps it is this ambitious and enterprising youth that will make things change in this country.

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