Guest contribution from Christina Hayek
Today I join Your EDM as a guest contributor to share my experience attending the second MDLBeast Sandstorm Festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia which featured performances by Axwell & Ingrosso, Major Lazer, David Guetta, and Armin Van Buuren among many others. When initially invited, I felt compelled to see how music was continuously evolving in the region, especially in a predominantly Islamic state, so I decided to join the Your EDM team on this journey to witness it firsthand. What unfolded before my eyes was truly something I will be processing for a very long time. As an personally identifying Arab American female whose parent escaped a civil war in the Middle East by seeking refuge in America, seeing a young generation of Arabs in Saudi Arabia dancing freely in a large public space was nothing short of inspiring and truly moving.
There were some reservations about making the long journey and expedition to the Middle East, let alone to a country that historically did not pride itself in having a full spectrum of freedom of musical expression. It seemed daunting and a bit terrifying. But what we came to find there was nothing short of the exact opposite. The journey began with an invite to the inaugural XP Conference, a 3-day excursion full of panels, workshops, Q&As about topics such as feminism and the progress happening in the industry covering Talent, Scene, Policy, and Impact. The newer generation who were leading these discussions were proud of their heritage and progressive in their views. It was impressive and inspiring to witness, especially seeing it run by a team of strong women, which made the beginning of the adventure that much more reassuring.
As we started to get our bearings and recover from the jet lag, we really began to feel the true hospitality of the region and how welcoming the Saudis were to us foreigners; they showed nothing but kindness and hospitality, as well as shared their date fruits with us that tasted like pure melted caramel. We had the pleasure of sharing many conversations with locals that crossed a lot of geopolitical boundaries — we bonded over our love for EDM and our shared hatred of standardized school tests, we even sang along to Ariana Grande together. The Saudi Gen Zs and Millennials had fashion swag that would put the average New Yorker to shame.
As the first day of the festival arrived, we did observe and were affected by some logistical nuances that could be chalked up to new festival jitters in a region not familiar with throwing large scale events. Miscommunication between English and Arabic staff made for a bit of rough-around-the-edges entry into the grounds, but it was quickly made up for by the eight mind-blowing stages, design visuals, pyrotechnics, and the beautiful sculptured art scattered around the large grounds.
One of the most remarkable sights was the initiative called Respect & Reset. Teams of trained responders were available throughout the event grounds, dispatched as needed to intervene and take action to reports of harassment. Anyone violating the MDLBEAST Code of Conduct or Anti-Harassment Policy was faced with immediate removal from the event site and referred to legal authorities.
The most beautiful sight to see, outside of the massive stages and firework displays overnight, was the energy from the attendees. Many coming from the surrounding region, they were nothing short of exuberant in their ecstasy to be there. Even in a sober environment, the energy level was more infectious than most festivals I have attended around the world. They were there to purely just experience the full scale synesthetic immersion into music. I am honored I got to stand alongside them and share in their pure joy. Notably, seeing the attendees share a dance floor with females and cheer on the female DJs that were playing is something that will not only shape the next generation but inspire other countries to follow suit.
As the festival came to an end, and the team was able to reflect on the past week, we realized that the progress being made in the country is clearly showing and authentic, I left feeling rejuvenated and excited about the future. I will never forget the opportunity I had to witness this investment of music and progress in the Middle East alongside the foreign media staff. Saudi, you left a mark on my heart, I cannot wait to see what you are capable of contributing to the global dance music scene in the future.
Featured image by Neville Hopwood/Getty Images for MDLBEAST SOUNDSTORM