Music runs through Saif Alnaji’s blood, but it’s not all about dropping the latest tracks for the young Emirati DJ, who hopes to inspire people in the UAE to follow their dreams.
The 27-year-old Emirati DJ, presenter and entertainer is with us on the radio waves every weekday on the evening drive-time commute and has helped set the tone for good times ahead, opening for international acts like Coldplay and Katy Perry.
But long before he became a household name, Saif was discovering his love of music on the streets of the capital.
“I was born and raised in Abu Dhabi and I have an awful lot of love for this city,” Saif says with a smile.
“What’s really funny, looking back on it now, is that none of my family members or my friends were really into music or entertainment. I don’t know where my passion for it came from. I like to think that music found me rather than me finding music, because I was never really exposed to it at home. Thankfully, somehow, music found its way into my life.”
Once music did find him, he wasn’t content with just listening to his favourite artists like Wu Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G and Michael Jackson.
Instead, the outgoing Emirati decided he wanted to learn how to DJ after seeing a close friend behind the decks at a family party.
Noticing her son’s passion for music and eagerness to develop new skills, Saif’s mother told him that if he saved money for a year she would help him purchase his first set of decks.
One year later, the then-15-year-old had his first DJ set-up thanks to the support of his mother, but the hard work was just beginning, because becoming a top DJ is no easy feat.
“Learning how to DJ was such a huge challenge,” admits Saif. “I’m the type of person that hates asking for favours; I always want to do things myself, learn and find a way to do something independently. Learning from YouTube videos, for example, didn’t exist back then; I had to learn the hard way.
“For most people, you can probably learn it in around three months, but for me it took about two years because I did it all myself from scratch. I would try things, make mistakes and through trial and error I finally found my way.
“I’m proud to be self-taught and even though it took a long time – and you never really stop learning – all those hours I put in helped make me who I am now.”
Despite his passion for music and the enjoyment of DJing at events around the city, Saif never intended to be a DJ full time.
Inspired to pursue a career in entertainment, Saif attended the American University in Dubai to study Communication and Information Studies with a specialism in journalism.
However, choosing a non-traditional career path wasn’t easy for the Emirati and it took time for family and friends to understand his choices and the career that he wanted to pursue.
“My family are amazing, they support me through everything I do in life, even to this day, but back then they didn’t really understand my obsession with music and breaking into the media,” admits Saif.
“We are a very traditional Arabic family. When you come from this sort of background, if you’re not a doctor or an engineer, people think that you don’t have a proper job.
“Even during my first few years on the radio, people in my family would ask me when I would get a real job and I had to try and explain to them that this is what I do: It’s a career, not a hobby.”
To his surprise, Radio 1 UAE, his favourite station, offered him an internship that would help him forge ahead with a career in the entertainment industry.
“After a while, I was offered a part-time job to cover a night shift and that’s how it all started.
“I was such a big fan of Radio 1. When I was a child my mum used to turn the station on for me when she picked us up from school. I always told my friends and family that I would be on that station one day, even though it was a bit of a joke, but fast forward a few years and there I was. When it first happened, it truly was an amazing feeling.”
Taking on the late shift and then moving to an early evening slot, Saif started to develop the necessary skills to become a recognised and well-loved radio personality.
Now, with his popular weekday drive-time show on Channel 4 Dubai, he is able to share his talent with thousands of people on a regular basis and enjoy the fruits of his labour after years of hard work.
“To be honest, I did struggle at first because of the language barrier, that was one of the biggest challenges when I started off on the radio,” Saif admits.
“I’m not an expert in English; I’m constantly learning and it is my second language so I do make mistakes. But I’m okay with that.
“The other massive challenge was finding a way to be accepted by the audience. I asked myself: ‘Will they identify with me? Will they like what I have to say?’ I decided that the only thing I could do is just be myself and that’s the best thing you can do in life.
“Thankfully, a lot of people enjoy listening to me, they know that I’m genuine and honest and I’m grateful for every single person that tunes in to my show every week. I love every minute of it.”
Away from the radio microphone, Saif and Sound has become a recognised name at club nights and events around the capital, having slowly gained a well-earned reputation as one of the leading DJs in the country.
This year, appearing at the Yasalam After Race Concert series during the Formula 1 weekend, Saif took to the main stage at du Arena to warm up the crowd before a performance from British singer Sam Smith.
As he played, he stopped to tell the audience a personal story about his relationship with the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
As the annual event celebrated its tenth birthday, the DJ was also celebrating a milestone.
Back at the first-ever race in 2009, Saif was not the radio personality and popular performer he is now; in fact, he was working at the event as a steward, helping to show people to their seats in the stands.
“When I told the crowd that ten years ago I was working at this event, they all started clapping and cheering and it made me really emotional,” Saif reflects.
“I was overwhelmed; it felt amazing to have those people supporting me, enjoying the moment and appreciating that I started from nothing.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was standing in the crowd watching the acts with everyone else. Now I’m on stage and it’s a dream come true. I hope that it inspires others.
“A lot of people here aren’t rich – they’re struggling to be successful, to achieve something, be better, develop and grow. I think it’s important that people can take inspiration where they can.
“It sounds cheesy but I truly believe that you’ve got to try and achieve your dreams – because they might just come true for you, too.”
WORDS Colin Armstong