by Yalda Mostajeran
If 50 Cent’s laurels rest on his nine gunshot wounds, then Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi’s rest on his death warrant. The Islamic Republic of Iran issued a fatwa, a legal Islamic decree, against Najafi after he mentioned Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi, the tenth Imam of Shi’ia Islam, in his song “Naqi.” Furthermore, Shia-Online.ir, a religious Iranian website, offered a $100,000 reward to whoever kills Najafi. Despite being based in Germany, the Iranian rapper faces death threats for a song that only referenced, not discussed, the Imam.
As tension swells in an unstable Iran, the livelihood of Iranian hip-hop is threatened. Iranian music is severely monitored. In order for an artist to distribute their music in Iran, they must get approval from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who strictly prohibit political and most popular rap. Artists have resorted to online piracy, music blogs, and distribution via the Internet to get their music heard. The artist makes little to no money from these methods.
With heavy restrictions on Iranian music, many hip-hop artists have had to create their music elsewhere. Many artists produce their content across the globe and distribute it on illegal satellite television. Music production studios in Iran are often disguised as old buildings. Iranian artists hold secret underground concerts but sometimes cancel them in fear of interruption by the authorities.
Surprisingly, Iranian hip-hop is not much different from its American counterpart. In fact, part of the ban on hip-hop in Iran is because rappers emulate Western styles. While some Iranian rap is about social and political issues, other songs mirror the vulgar language and vocal styles of American rap culture. For example, the song “Mehmooni” by Zedbazi samples the beat from 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” while also referencing women and parties in an obscene light.
Lewd party songs aside, Iranian hip-hop’s similarity to American hip-hop also lies in its political and social nature. Iran’s first female rapper, Salome MC, produces her music in Japan in order to avoid persecution in Iran. She walked on a dangerous line with her song “Drunk Shah, Drunk Elder.” In it, she raps about the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and how it has forgotten about the Iranian people.
I have things to say that are stuck in my throat like a forbidden bite
Like the temporary marriages of officials, hidden behind curtains
Like a political prisoner stuck in solitary confinement.
But have you [the Islamic Republic of Iran] ever looked for answers in the street?
Have you ever put a camera under your chador [veil] to record the truth?
Yeah, sometimes we take the chance of losing our freedom
To protect our liberty and the meaning of our existence. (Drunk Shah, Drunk Elder)
The Iranian hip-hop scene reflects various themes. Some songs are simply party songs, while others have a political message criticizing the Islamic Republic. This music scene is youth-driven. The major purpose of this music is to challenge the restrictions the Iranian government has placed on the people. Party songs exhibit their creative freedom by referencing what Iran has deemed Western influence, such as drinking. Political hip-hop songs discuss the actions of the regime, often criticizing the lack of freedom in the country. Regardless of subject, Iranian hip-hop is reflective of the dissatisfaction the Iranian youth have with the current state of Iran.
Distributing Iranian hip-hop faces severe consequences in Iran. CD shops, which at times carry numerous illegal copies of foreign CDs, refuse to sell underground Iranian hip-hop for fear of incarceration. For example, in 2009, twelve Iranians were arrested in the city of Orumiyeh. The Iranians distributed and produced hip-hop, an act the Islamic regime viewed as promoting Satanism.
Even with the danger surrounding Iranian hip-hop, the music still has an audience. Iranian college students in their 20’s make up a majority of the listeners; however, the genre has spread, finding an audience in younger and older age groups as well. Iranian hip-hop is the youth culture. It discusses issues and interests present in Iranian youth life ranging from revolution to partying. Iranian hip-hop is a way for the youth to creatively express themselves and comment about the state of affairs in Iran.
In spite of the circumstances, Iranian hip-hop artists continue making music. Najafi, Zedbazi, and Salome MC pursue their passions in the shadow of a looming regime. Although in danger, they do not allow the regime to oppress their efforts. If 50 Cent has built a rap star throne from his plight, then Najafi, Zedbazi, and Salome MC have built empires.
Photo Credits: United4Iran.org
Yalda Mostajeran is a fourth year, Political Science major at UCLA. She is also Co-Producer of the LCC Theatre Company.