In February 2010, Stockholm, Sweden hosted the Persian Hip Hop Festival: Voices of Change. Persian rappers came from around the world to call for changes in Iran through their rap music. Prior to her performance, one of Iran’s female rappers, Ghogha (Rebel), said to the audience:
I come from a place where music is a crime. New
ideas are crimes. They execute young people for
having new ideas. We have come together here to
remember the children of Iran.
Although the Islamic Republic’s suppression of students and new ideas has existed for many years, Ghogha was specifically condemning the events after Iran’s 2009 presidential election, attacking the government’s use of violence to suppress protests, and asking the audience to remember the young university students who have been executed. She then went on to perform her most famous song, “Aroosak Kooki” (Wind-up Doll). In it she says:
One can live like a doll
Living for years among the abusiveness of men
With its tough strain.
Yell: I’m a very lucky woman.
I’m just here to tell you who I am.
I am the voice of 1,000 abused women.
I don’t want to live like a wind-up doll.
For Ghogha, Iranian woman are mere toys for male enjoyment. In Iran, women are not free; men control their actions, making women into wind-up dolls. Additionally, by stating that she is the voice of a thousand abused women, Ghogha ascribes to rap music and musicians the ability to speak for a segment of the Iranian population. She is using her rap music to persuade. The Persian Hip Hop Festival, Ghogha’s comments, and her song, reflect how Persian rap music has emerged as a musical form of protest. Many Persian rap musicians write lyrics to highlight injustices in society, criticize government repression, or call for Iranians to take action. These songs stem from years of frustration with social injustices and seek to persuade listeners and promote opposition.
Persian rap music’s popularity and influence over Iran’s modern youth signifies that trends in the music and analysis of the messages are meaningful. For many years rap has been a vehicle of commentary on social, economic, political, and gender issues. However, the events surrounding the June 2009 presidential election have led many rappers to increasingly and more explicitly address political issues in their music. Opposition, support for political factions, and criticism of the government have become increasingly large parts of Persian rap music. The art form’s growing popularity in Iran makes such a change significant in understanding political developments inside the country.
Although Tupac has been dead for 14 years, his influence and legacy are alive in the basement rap music studios of Tehran. Rapping about many of the same issues as Tupac (poverty and problems with the police) Persian rappers frequently cite Tupac as one of the reasons they chose rap music. Yas, a popular Persian rapper, claims that Tupac’s lyrics inspired his decision to rap about socio-economic issues. He states, “I started to translate the lyrics and realized he’s singing about society and the culture, about his perspective. I realized then that any kind of music that was going to stick around and have any kind of lasting effect had to say something real. It had to have a message and a deeper significance to it, in any kind of genre.”
In his music, Yas frequently addresses poverty and other socio-economic issues. In “Dard o Del” (a play on words referencing the Persian phrase for getting something off your chest), Yas talks about the struggles of growing up in a poor family and questions whether God was really looking out for him:
Don’t be afraid that God will pick you for suffering,
Because these pains were already tested on Yas.
I was like a laboratory mouse for God.
The results were staring across from me, and there were more difficulties.
Hichkas, arguably the most famous Persian rapper, addresses poverty in Tehran and its social implications in the song “Khoda Pasho” (Wake up God!). The song talks about how poverty has forced people to abuse each other, and even though we are all from the same source, the gaps between classes have grown wide. Hichkas’s songs in particular invoke the same sense of “thug” street life present in Tupac’s songs. In his song “Ye Mosht Sarbaz” (A Bunch of Soldiers), Hichkas appears with a group of fellow street thugs and brags about how they have learned from the streets.
Iranian rappers have chosen rap music in large part due to the mark that African-Americans such as Tupac have left on it. Iranian rappers view rap music as the music of an economically disenfranchised group and an outlet for grievances. The music form traditionally has an angry, protest-friendly tone. Additionally, the lyrically-based music genre allows for the greater development of criticisms and encourages the listener to focus on what the musician has to say.
In Iran, rap music has evolved beyond its original Western tradition. Of course, not all of Tupac’s messages directly apply to the conditions that impoverished Iranians face. Instead of Tupac’s focus on historical racism against African-Americans, Iranians have addressed social issues particular to Iran. Repression, women’s issues, and merging Western influences with Persian tradition have become important topics for Iranian rappers.
For example, feminist rap in Iran is remarkably different from its counterpart in America. Female American rappers often focus on appropriating sexuality, trying to demonstrate that women can approach sex with the same casual approach as men. Iranian feminist rappers have seldom addressed sexuality, but have attacked the existing role of women in society and political restrictions on women, notably the hijab. Shahin Najafi, a male rapper who writes feminist lyrics, talks about the abuse of women and encourages Iranian men to treat women better in his song “Harfe zan” (Woman’s Speech):
Don’t look, my headscarf is on, it’s my yoke.
I don’t believe the solution is waiting.
This means my right is to live.
I am a person, tell me, I want to know, how am I any less than you?
Give me two minutes to say what I have to say as a woman.
People are people; you have to understand my pain
You are right in everything you say, the law is on your side
The law says hit, hitting is the only thing you say.
This head is for breaking; yeah, it hurts, hit it.
I speak too, look who’s in the agony of death.
The first line analogizes the mandatory hijab to a cow’s yoke. Najafi is pointing out that not only is the hijab a restricting article, but that it has reduced women to a subhuman status. Women have become like animals under the control of their male masters. Najafi, again through the voice of a woman, asks how a woman is any less of a human to merit such treatment. Najafi then appeals to the humanity of men to reveal how Iranian laws have disrespected women’s human dignity. Spousal abuse is widespread in Iran and the legal avenues available for women are almost nonexistent. Because spousal abuse is so ingrained in the culture, legal authorities in Iran generally do not consider beating one’s wife to be a crime.
Although Najafi is the most vocal feminist rapper, rap music has also attracted female rappers to speak against injustice. Two women, Farinaz and Sogand, have formed a female rap group called Entegham (revenge). Farinaz addresses the social role of women in Iranian society and questions why their accomplishments have always been so diminished. Shaya, another feminist rapper, questions the traditional definition of women, titling one of her songs “Man az to Mardtaram” (I am More Manly than You). Rap music offers another vehicle for women to voice their complaints about their role in society and to challenge existing conceptions of gender in Iran.
Iranian rappers’ efforts to integrate their music into Persian culture display a fascinating dynamic between Western and Persian influences. In interviews, Iranian rap musicians have frequently stated their desire to play upon the long history of Persian poetry, which carries tremendous significance in Iran. In many songs, rap musicians cite the works of classical poets, such as Saadi, Ferdowsi, and Khayyam. In one of Najafi’s better-known songs, “Ma Mard Nistim” (We are not Men), Najafi appeals to Iranians to change their behavior because Rustam, the champion of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, would be ashamed of how Iranians currently behave. The appeal to classical Persian poetry is also part of rappers’ efforts to secure mainstream acceptance for rap music in Iran. Many Persians do not consider rap to be a legitimate art form, and rap musicians in Iran must struggle against this perception.
Interestingly, although Iranian rappers often criticize the way that the Islamic Republic has imposed shari‘a, religion remains a relatively unexplored topic. Very few Iranian rappers challenge Islam, or explore their faith. However, some rap songs, such as those of Yas and Hichkas, offer a new relationship with God, challenging God for his absence from their struggles. In “Khoda Pasho,” Hichkas repeatedly tells God to get up and listen to him, which is a tremendous departure from the traditionally deferential approach towards God typical of Shi’a Islam. There are several possible explanations for why Islam remains relatively unexplored. First, casting doubt onto Islam would almost certainly result in a strong government reaction. Second, many Iranian rappers seek to talk about issues of Persian pride, and Islam is still seen as an Arab influence.
Rapping and Politics
Iranian rappers have also sought to play a more political role than American rappers traditionally have. Sahand Quazi, Amir Dva, Amir Nasser, Kianoosh Saeedi, and Shaya recorded the song “Mibarim Ma” (We’re Gonna Win) in support of Mir Hussein Moussavi’s presidential campaign. Sasy Mankan, who does not normally record politically or socially-oriented rap songs, recorded a single in support of Mehdi Karrubi’s campaign.
Rappers in the Iranian diaspora have been able to write more specific criticisms of the government. After the election violence, Shahin Najafi, who resides in Germany, recorded a song dedicated to Neda Agha Soltan, the woman killed by government forces during protests after the 2009 presidential elections. He has also recorded other songs criticizing various government policies and claims that the situation will change. Foad Manshahi, a Baha’i, has written many songs criticizing government actions, including the pursuit of nuclear weapons, whipping prisoners, and the persecution of Baha’is.
Although existing policy towards rap music is ambiguous, the government is aware of the potentially subversive influence of oppositional Persian rap. Although the government has not stated that the art form is categorically illegal, receiving a government-granted mojavvez (permission) is prohibitively difficult. The mojavvez allows musicians to sell their CDs and give concerts. Despite acknowledging that the art form is not inherently illegal, the Iranian government has stated that rap, as it has been produced thus far, is illegal. The government initiated a campaign to arrest rap musicians in 2007-2008; rap music is still widely considered to be illegal in Iran. The fact that the government singled out rap music for a campaign of arrests indicates that they may perceive it to have a powerful subversive influence.
It also appears that the government may wish to exploit the power of rap music. Mohammad Isfahani released a pro-government rap song for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Bahman 22 (February 11). The song extols the virtues of the Islamic Republic, criticizes the Green Movement, and considers the supporters of the Green Movement to be aristocrats trying to take from the soul of Iran. It is unclear what role the government had in producing the song, but it could indicate that the government believes that rap music has real influence.
Influence and Popularity
Although Iranian rap will likely not produce regime change, it cannot be ignored as a social force. Rap music is especially popular among Iranian youth, who constitute a large majority of the country’s population and have sharp grievances about government restrictions and the lack of opportunities. Iranian youth can both air their grievances through rap songs and identify with the messages within the songs.
Popular American music is a mix of songs and artists that may or may not address political and socio-economic issues. Much of popular American rap music involves showing off wealth, sexual conquests, or being a “gangsta.” Persian rap involves many songs that do not address political or socio-economic issues either. Love, partying, and “dissing” other rappers are popular topics. However, contrary to American rap music, the most popular Persian rap songs and artists address social issues. The two most popular Iranian rappers, Yas and Hichkas, focus most of their efforts on socio-economic issues. Most of the big names in Persian rap music and the most popular songs on YouTube, a popular online video community, and Persian rap web-sites address social issues.
The fact that socio-economic rap is more popular than political rap does not mean that rap music will not ultimately have political influences. Much of popular socially-aware rap is social out of necessity. Directly criticizing the government inside the country could result in imprisonment. However, drawing attention to poverty and other social problems is a subtle criticism of the government, indicating that the Islamic Republic has failed in some respects. The art form itself is an act of protest, since it has not been approved by the government and endorses Western influences.
Although politically-oriented rappers and songs have generally not gained high levels of popularity, rappers are increasingly addressing political issues. Salome, Iran’s first female rap artist, recorded the song “Don’t Muddy the Water” prior to the 2009 presidential election. The song was a call to action for Iranians to voice their opposition to the government. After the election, Hichkas, who previously only addressed socio-economic issues, recorded the very popular and politically-charged song, “Yeh Rooze Khoob Miad” (A Good Day Will Come). In it he states, “As long as I can remember, this land has always been the land of ‘Neda’, that a new day will come when there won’t be chaos anymore.” The use of the word “Neda,” meaning a voice or message, is a powerful double entendre also referencing Neda, the woman who died in the post-election violence. Because Neda has become an icon of the Green Movement Hichkas’s double entendre credits her with being the voice or message of Iran. Through the use of cryptic lyrics, Hichkas cloaks his oppositional message.
Rap music also preserves a cultural space for resistance. It offers a place for airing grievances and spreading the messages to those with similar complaints, enhancing group solidarity. The music form also provides a cultural space to preserve Western influences, despite the government’s efforts to eliminate such openings.
Persian rap has continued Tupac’s trend of focusing rap music on the problems of the poor and oppressed. As rap music has evolved in Iran, Iranian rappers have used it as a medium to express their own grievances about life in Iran. The Islamic Republic seems to recognize that its growing popularity and the fact that it gives voice to a frustrated youth pose a threat. It remains unlikely that Tupac will cause the downfall of the clerical regime, but he might play a part.
. Choghok, “Iranian Hiphop Festival in Stockholm.” Iranian.com, February 7, 2010, http://www.iranian.com/main/blog/choghok/iranian-hiphop-festival-stockh… (Second video) All translations by author unless otherwise indicated.
. Marc Gabriel Amigone, “Yas: Iran’s Hip Hop Sensation,” December 12, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/modiba/yas-irans-hip-hop-sensati_b_150348….
. Hichkas, “Bunch of Soldiers,” YouTube May 13, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU1NNAH6b_g&feature=related.
. Shahin Najafi, “Harfe Zan,” (Women’s Speech) June 11, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtfMp8JuBas&feature=related.
. Golnaz Esfandiari, “Violence Against Women - In Iran, Abuse Is Part Of The Culture (Part 2),” Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (2003), http://www.parstimes.com/women/violence_culture.html.
. Shaya, “Man az to Mardtaram,” YouTube, April 27, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPb183MNPA0&feature=related.
. Hichkas “Ekthelaf” (also known as “Khoda Pasho”), WMG Entertainment March 1, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7L9y-Wmz1o&feature=youtube_gdata.
. “Manken, Sasy” (Mehdi Karrubi), YouTube June 7, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f86f5GJMG54&feature=related.
. Sholeh Johnston, “Persian Rap: The Voice of Modern Iran’s Youth,” Journal of Persianite Studies, Vol. 1 (2008), pp. 106-07.
. “Iran cracks down on ‘obscene’ rap music.” Agence France Press, Nov 29, 2007, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gDHtIIF-mFQvsclb8b_2c0NMqXeA .
. Anuh Chopra, “Iran’s ‘illegal’ rappers want cultural revolution,” January, 28 2008, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/irans-illegal-rappe….
. Zelzalsolh, “Helicopter over Tehran 5 Million Dawn,” February 12, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbYqckFvUJI&feature=PlayList&p=D192D4A93… (Translation by author).
. Iranians in the 18-35 age group constitute 70% of the population.
. “Results of Active Polls: Which Rapper’s Style do You Enjoy the Most?” Bia2rap, http://www.bia2rap.com/modules.php?name=Surveys&op=results&pollID=13&mo…=.
. Golnaz Esfandiari, “Rapper Reportedly Detained For ‘Repulsive’ Dance Moves,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 31, 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/Rapper_Detained_For_Repulsive_Dance_Moves/….