The Loneliness of an Iranian Rapper

Contributed by Amir Azizmohamadi

[Warning: This article contains sexually explicit language. If you are offended by such language, please do not continue reading the rest of the article]

Why d’you hate my guts?
‘Cause I’m a rapper?
‘Cause my voice is not tame?
Or ’cause the streets’ deed’s in my name?
Gotta mind your business
‘Cause in this wilderness
The rule’s hard and fast:
"The ones with power
Will the weak devour." (
rap singer Hichkas)

About two hundred years ago in Iran, Moshtagh Ali Shah, a mystic musician, was stoned to death when caught singing the Koran to the tunes of his setar, a traditional Iranian musical instrument. Trying to digest the shock of listening to the noise that Iranian rappers call "Rap-e Fars" (Persian Rap), you are doomed to ask whether the climate is any better today for a musician fiddling around with musical and social norms. Their message is no softer than Moshtagh Ali Shah’s heretical combination of music and the Koran. Erfan in "One Hundred Oaths" sums up their manifesto:

Gonna make mock of every limit.
Gonna overstep every mark.
Yes, after two millenniums
It’s time we broke the cast.

To date no "rap kown" (Iranian rapper) has been stoned, tortured, flogged, or jailed. But only these are what they haven’t been going through. Iranian society has employed all the means of silencing and all the silence of indifference to fight back Iranian rap. From every direction all sorts of knives are out against these street bards.

Rap-e Fars is underground, unofficial, and illegal. It is uncompromising, vigorous, and prolific. It is frank, fresh, experimental, and, most of the time, musically stunning. Even if it sometimes has its musical imperfections, Rap-e Fars is still unbelievably popular. It is everywhere in the Iranian teenage world. Pouring out of the windows of cars speeding on Tehran motorways, brightening up teenage parties, and palely leaking out of teenage headphones where there are infidel ears around. The music and words of Rap-e Fars flow quite audibly in most teenage conversations.

Yet even if it were not popular, Iranian rappers would still have to be given the right to produce and sell their songs freely. The right to be watched and heard and talked about publicly. Their failure would have to be left to the public to decide about and to best-seller lists. The prospect of a boisterous rap vanity fair, however, is what dramatically disturbs the inscriptions carved deep in the Iranian psyche.

The Iranian government has never had a brilliant track record in its dealings with music in general. During the Islamic revolution in Iran, pop singers accounted for a big proportion of political exiles and escapees. Over the last three decades, not even once has a musical instrument been displayed on the state TV. More socially accepted forms of music than rap, like pop and rock, are aging in lengthy queues "before the law" for concert permits. No. The government does not seem to be willing to even start flirting with the idea of legalizing rap even in the far future.

And indeed, the words that Iranian rappers are penning make the prospect of an official rap in Iran out of the question. In an interview with Article 19, a London based human rights organization, Sefryan, an Iranian writer, explains that one of his philosophical works "was rejected because of its failure to reference Islam as a factor in the attainment of human happiness." An Iranian national newspaper, the Hambastegi reported on 18 Jan 2007 that the Farsi translation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying had been denied a publication license and considered "unpublishable." Meticulous censorship has, edition after edition, replaced the word "breasts" with ellipses in the line "I’ll hide you between my …," from a poem by Forogh Farokhzad, one of the biggest names in contemporary Persian poetry.

Such a system will never tolerate the lyrics of Rap-e Fars, whose dictionary does not contain the word "taboo."

Hichkas, one of the founders of Iranian rap addresses the issue in "The Law":

There is an unwritten law
That no one recorded, no one saw:
"Silently silence the bad voice
Voicelessness is the only choice."

Rap-e Fars, however has broken this law. They "won’t stand ceremony," says Yas, an outspoken critic of the follies of society, in a podcast interview mushrooming on fan blogs. Shayan in "Lord" sings: "Let’s define a young Iranian: Prison, stick, and flog." Nor does Shayan shy away from singing about alcohol and teenage parties and the consequent punishment:

It’s evening and party starts
You get drunk and they flog out
All the booze you had tonight.

And Tigheh in "From Yesterday Until Today" shouts:

You, God.
It’s time you stepped down
It’s time, the turn is mine

Iranian rappers do not really bite their tongue when it comes to sexual taboos either. Canbean in "Hey, Hooker" advises Tehran prostitutes:

They’ll tear your cunt
Rip open your bum
Feed you a pecker
But won’t give you a penny.

The unofficial nature of Iranian rap will keep it financially vulnerable and half dead. According to Wikipedia, Zed Bazi, one of the most popular Iranian rap bands, has had more than eight million free downloads. The money they could have made would be enough to revolutionize Iranian pop culture.

However, to consider the government as the only hindrance Iranian rap has faced is an error. Next to "the oppressor’s wrong" and "the insolence of office," one should not underestimate "the proud man’s contumely."

A respected pillar of traditional Iranian music, Majid Kiani, in his article "A Comprehensive Categorization of Different Types of Music in Iran," published on the official website of The House Of Music—a union-like gathering of influential musicians—does not even make a passing reference to anything called Persian Rap. Ironically, if googled in Farsi, his name will be found on 1680 websites, which in comparison with Zed Bazi’s google results, 12500, is not very impressive.

Ali Reza Hejazi, one of the managers of Neinava, a prosperous traditional music school in Tehran, does recognize the existence of Iranian rap but calls it "a load of crap" and labels its fans as "music-illiterate." "It’s a silly imitation of American rap and nothing else," he asserts. I remind him of the attempts Iranian rappers have made to Iranify their tunes, for example using traditional instruments in their pieces. Indignation runs all over his face: "These instruments deserve reverence. This is musical blasphemy." I ask him if they should be allowed to have a music school like Neinava to teach their music and make money. He bursts laughing: "Teaching what? Yelling and swearing?"

Rap kowns are well aware of this criticism. In "I Said" Hichkas raps:

People who know about rap zilch
But keep wagging their chins
Make me feel sick, sick, sick.
Some of these bastard masters
Have called my rapping artless.
So please rap for us once
With my voice and my style.

Surprisingly, the members of the political opposition’s musical wing, based mostly in Los Angeles with a dozen of international TV channels, who sometimes dabble in making anti-government political songs apart from bad quality pop they mass produce, have not been eager to welcome Rap-e Fars either, even to exploit their anti-system potentialities.

In a massive Las Vegas concert for the Iranian diaspora in December 2006, not even one single Iranian rapper was given the chance to appear on stage. Their music videos are not broadcast on their channels and no interviews are granted by their patriotic hosts.

An exiled pre-revolution pop star, Sattar, in an interview on Voice of America Persian on 20 January 2007, while admiring the music his generation produced, did not hesitate to attack the music made in Iran stating that in Iran anybody could sing. "What they need in Iran is an experienced committee to approve of the music and lyrics of every song before their release," he prescribed. I ask Ali Reza Hejazi, the traditionalist teacher at Neinava, why he thinks Los Angeles producers have ignored Persian rap. "As soon as Hichkas and Zed Bazi are established on TV screens, they’ll have to kiss show business goodbye," he puts it bluntly.

Disappointed with musicians, one might as well try to see if anybody else in the Iranian elite has taken any notice of Persian rap as, to say the least, a cultural or sociological phenomenon. You flip through piles of writings by critics, intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers, and you are only stranded in deafening silence. Iranian thinkers have turned a deaf ear to their children’s heroes.

On a chat show broadcast on 16 Jan 2007 by Jam-e Jam, a state run international TV channel, Reza Kianian, a praised Iranian film star and a respected academic teaching theatre and cinema gave a description of Iranian underground cinema which could also echo what he might have said about underground rap too. He said, "They are a bunch of opportunists who stir the filth in society to make a name. It’s not difficult to criticize. A true artist would show a gem in squalor."

Ali Zarnegar, 25, a young poet whose book was not given a publication license by the government, doe not see any literary merit in the rappers’ lyrics. "If I were to give them a mark, it would be 1 out of 10," he speculates. I ask him if he would let them sell their music freely, and he answers "only under a strict word-by-word supervision of their lyrics."

Despite all the venomous self-righteousness around them, these teenage songsters—in the claustrophobic room they live—are fostering some precious values that their critics and oppressors have hardly happened to respect—some values desperately needed in today’s Iran.

Apart from their party raps, songs about their everyday life, and descriptions of their neighborhoods, which are a rich source of detailed documents reflecting the true picture of daily life in Iran—including details as minute as the brands of bootlegged booze Iranian teenagers consume—Iranian rappers enjoy the possession of a sensitive social conscience and determined moral commitment, and at the same time, the bravery of expressing what they are concerned about. They have sung about poverty, unemployment, addiction, prostitution, child labor, economic corruption, homelessness, Iran-Iraq war and the soldiers killed in the fronts. They have also been quick to react to what is happening around them in the world; they have rapped about George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, terrorism, 9/11, the massacre of civilians in the Middle East, peace, and strong defense against possible American military measures against Iran.

They are honest. They are democratically frank in their dialogues and criticism of one another’s rap. They gang up, pan each other in their songs, go solo, and come together again. Their supremacy in rap and credit in society, when claimed in their songs, stem from the power of people and their popularity among their zakhars and baks (fans and friends), not a big boss or a guru. They are self-assertive and individualistic and there is nothing humble in their ways, nothing meek and obedient.

Rap-e Fars has been round for about seven years now with rap kowns struggling underground. It is difficult to predict what future holds for Iranain rappers. They are realistic. Pishro in "Prisoner" weighs the situation: "They stroked me with nightsticks / A rapper with a blind and deaf audience." But he is still optimistic: "You will crowd me some day soon for autographs." So are Hayoola & Felakat:

Let me tell you what the truth is
My rap is not gonna cease.
No one can crack Persian rap
It will aspire like a firm spire.

Hichkas also echoes his fellow rappers:

There will be a day
When cover captions say
The biggest rapper of the world
Is rapping in the third world.

Iranian rappers are as lonely as the last minutes of Moshtagh Ali Shah. But they won’t give up without a fight. They have a dream.

Photo 1: Hichkas; Photo 2: Zed Bazi; Photo 3: Pani.