Global Verses 01: Iran
Hip-hop music was created in New York in 1970s, and has broken into global mainstream in the late 1980s. Originally dominated by African-American rappers, hip-hop started to diversify into sub-genres and spread internationally by 1990s. Global audiences could easily identify with hip-hop music due to its focus on social injustice and racial inequality. While today hip-hop became a major part of a global commercial music industry, it still remains a tool for self-expression in many communities in lower social-economic classes, and societies repressed by their governments.
In 1979, Iran went through the revolution, now known as the Islamic Revolution. The revolution resulted in an overthrow of monarchist Shah regime, which was replaced by the Islamic republic headed by the clerical regime and ruled by Islamic laws. The highest authority in Iran, its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini described Western music as immoral for encouraging vice, lust and impiety. Following the revolution, tens of thousands of Iranians fled the country, fearing for their future under the newly-established regime. A large number of Iranians immigrated to the Los Angeles area, which is now referred as Tehrangeles by Iranians due to a large Iranian population in the area, estimated to be between 700,000 and 800,000 people. Massive immigration from Iran continues today, with people who express their opinions on political, social and judicial issues of the country being forced to leave under threat of imprisonment, torture and death.
With a large number of Iranians in California, it is not surprising that Iranian-American musicians started experimenting with the genre in 1990s. One of the most famous Iranian groups which used hip-hop elements in their music was Sandy. While Sandy and other US-based Iranian pop acts incorporated hip-hop elements into their music, the genre made it inside Iran only in the end of 1990s.
In 1997, Mohammad Khatami became the president of Iran. Khatami’s presidency is widely regarded as a reformist era in Iran. While the ultimate power of Iran lies with the Supreme Leader, Khatami’s presidency was marked by certain improvements in freedom of expression in Iran. It is during this era when hip-hop started to emerge as a style inside Iran owing to certain improvements in cultural tolerance inside the country, as well as general technological advancement which allowed Iranians to watch global TV channels through satellite.
Originally inspired by American rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Eminem, Iranian MCs started to record first hip-hop tracks in early 2000s. Initially their tracks, recorded at home and distributed among friends had quite low quality. Early 2000s saw the emergence of the first generation of professional Iranian rappers, such as Hichkas and Yas. In 2002, Deev introduced Iranian political hip-hop by releasing a track called Hands Up, which became one of the first successful Persian hip-hop tracks, reaching audiences in Iran and outside the country.
In 2003, Soroush Lashkari better known as Hichkas founded a hip-hop crew 021 which refers to Tehran’s capital’s area code. Hichkas, who is considered to be a godfather of Iranian hip-hop, is focusing his lyrics on social problems and younger generation of Iran. His first solo album called Asphalt Jungle was released in 2006 and brought him a broad recognition among Iranians inside and outside the country. The album is considered to be the first professional underground hip-hop album in Iran. ‘Naturally enough we started out mimicking Western rappers both in terms of musical and vocal styles, but as we became more confident we made a concerted effort to create something in keeping with the rich musical and poetic heritage of Iran. A big part of that was changing the time signature from the conventional 4/4 to the more traditionally Iranian 3/4 timing, which took a lot of getting used to’, says Hichkas. Upon releasing the album, rapper was arrested and left the country after his release. After leaving Iran, Hichkas has collaborated with a wide range of international hip-hop artists, including a track with a legendary American rapper Kool G Rap.
At the same time, in 2003 another Iranian rapper, Yas has gained wide public attention. Yas, who says that he is influenced by 2pac and Eminem, is the only rapper in Iran who was legally allowed to release his music. He started his career with recording a track about the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran. After gaining popularity with his lyrics which are focused on social issues, Yas has toured internationally performing in Dubai, London, New York and Los Angeles. He also has collaborated with various international hip-hop artists, including a collaboration with the American rapper Tech N9ne in 2010.
While initially Iranian hip-hop was primarily being produced in the country’s capital, Tehran, it started to expand geographically by mid-2000s. In 2004, several rappers from the second-biggest Iranian city, Mashhad formed a hip-hop crew 051 to compete with Tehran-based 021 formed by Hichkas. 051 is known for recording one of the first diss tracks in Persian hip-hop.
By mid 2000s, Iranian hip-hop scene developed to high-quality productions with complex lyrics. The period is marked by the development of distinctive Persian hip-hop style featuring classical poetry in lyrics, and use of Persian traditional instruments in music. What started with hip-hop elements being incorporated by US-based Iranian pop artists, evolved to hip-hop focusing on social injustice and political system, and later also gangsta hip-hop and hip-pop.
Hickas’s first album released in 2006, Jungle Asphalt was produced by Mahdyar Aghajani, who set the new standards of Persian hip-hop by using Persian traditional instruments such as oud, santoor, daf, tombak, ney, kamancheh, and qanoon in his production. His production using Persian traditional instruments, and Hichkas’ rapping style using Persian poetry in his lyrics, cemented Persian hip-hop as a unique music genre in Iran. In 2009, Mahdyar Aghajani left Iran, and currently lives in Paris, France.
The first Iranian gangsta hip-hop band, Zedbazi was formed in early 2000s. The band first gained popularity after making a cover of Eminem’s Without Me in 2002. Zedbazi’s 2006 song Berim Fazaa was reported being downloaded over 8 million times. Currently, the crew members are based in Paris, London and Dubai.
Simultaneously with the creation and development of distinctive Persian hip-hop inside the country, Iranian rappers living abroad continued their contribution to the genre. One of the most popular Iranian hip-hop crews is Paydar, which was founded by Erfan Hajrasuliha. Erfan was born in 1983 in Isfahan, and moved to California when he was 16 years old. He released his first album in 2007, and has since invited other rappers to join his crew. Some of the musicians on Paydar include Khashayar, Taham, A-Plus, Paya, Behzad Leito, and Sogand.
Politicization and International Reach
In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential elections in Iran. Ahmadinejad is internationally known as an extremely conservative and controversial president, criticized for his disastrous economic and political policies, as well as widespread human rights abuse. In Iranian hip-hop scene, his presidency was marked by a shift from hip-hop focused on topics on social injustice to more political hip-hop. As Ahmadinejad unleashed repressive forces against creative artists of Iran, the hip-hop scene was becoming more and more political. In 2007, Iranian government censored a number of underground music websites, and arrested a number of rappers after raiding and shutting down their recording studios.
Mohammad Dashtgoli of the Culture Ministry responsible for vetting music ‘in accordance with Islam’ stated the following: ‘There is nothing wrong with this type of music in itself. But due to the use of obscene words rap has been categorized as illegal’. The government has also intensified propaganda against Western music. In 2008, Iranian TV3 aired a documentary series Shock, which criticized hip-hop for preaching Satanism, and being the root of various social problems such as crime and drug addiction.
At the same time, Iranian hip-hop scene was gaining attention both nationally and internationally. In 2006, a documentary about Iranian rock and hip-hop scene Sounds of Silence – Underground Music in Tehran was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, New York. In 2009, a popular movie about Iranian underground music scene No One Knows About Persian Cats was released. The documentary which received various international awards, including Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, featured Hichkas.
The shift to politically-charged hip-hop lyrics culminated during the Green Movement, which was a political movement resulting from 2009 Iranian presidential elections, where protesters demanded the removal of Ahmadinejad from the office. The protests were violently suppressed by the government, and thousands of protest participants were arrested or have fled Iran, fearing for their safety. Most notable Iranian rappers released tracks in support of Green Movement, and had to flee country as a result.
By 2010, most noteworthy hip-hop musicians in Iran have left the country – some because of their direct involvement in the Green Movement, others because of their previous work. Among them was Atour, who founded of one of the first Iranian hip-hop radio shows in 2004, and later one of the most successful Iranian record studios, Divar Records. Atour and one of the rappers from Divar, Bahram were arrested in 2009 after making an appearance on Divar Radio, and left the country shortly after being released.
While an absolute majority of distinguished Iranian hip-hop artists now live abroad, some of them have been threatened by the leadership of the Islamic Republic even outside their home country. For instance, one of the most popular Iranian rappers, Shahin Najafi had been issued several death fatwas (a legal ruling based on Islamic law issued by Islamic clergy) against him for his music. Najafi's lyrics are focused on various social and political issues such as theocracy, poverty, sexism, censorship, child labor, execution, drug addiction, and homophobia.
Despite extreme oppression by the Iranian government, by the end of 2000s Iranian hip-hop developed to a diverse music direction with several distinct sub-genres, including political and social hip-hop, gangsta hip-hop, and hip-pop. In contrast with original Persian hip-hop which focuses on social and political issues, hip-pop lyrics are not as controversial and are more accepted by the Iranian government. For instance, in 2009, it was reported that 72-year old cleric Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Karubi met with a group of pop artists, including hip-pop artist Sasi Malkan.
However, for many rappers outside hip-pop category, hip-hop remains a way to express their view on challenges the modern Iranian society is facing. Several female MCs who gained popularity inside and outside Iran, dedicate their lyrics to social, philosophic, anti-war issues, as well as women rights. Some of the most known names are Salome MC, Ghogha and Saye Sky. All three of them live outside Iran.
Salome MC, who is considered to be one of the first female MCs in Iran, started as a graffiti artist and released her first album in collaboration with Iranian-German rapper Shirali in 2006. Salome left the country in 2011 to study printmaking in Japan, where she currently lives.
Ghogha started rapping in 2005, and left Iran in 2010 after applying for asylum in Sweden where she came to perform.
Saye Sky, who gained international attention as a self-described lesbian rapper started her career in 2009. She came under pressure both from the government and family after releasing a song about LGBT rights in Iran in 2010, and now lives in Toronto, Canada.
Apart from Iranian rappers who started their careers inside Iran, there is also a broad range of Iranian artists who left the country at a very young age, and are not considered to be a part of Persian hip-hop scene, but are actively contributing to hip-hop scenes of their new home countries. Among these artists are Germany-based Fard and Daad, Sweden-based Behrang Miri, and Canada-based Ali Dahesh.
Farhad Nazarinejad, better known as Fard, was raised in North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany. He has lyrics both in German and Farsi. Fard released his first mixtape in 2006, and since then has released numerous records which reached Top 10 in Germany. His lyrics focus on issues such as poverty, xenophobia, and cultural differences.
Daad, a Persian hip-hop group based in Berlin was formed in 2005 by producer Mehty and MC Kaveh. Their music covers a broad range of genres, including hip-hop, reggae, ragga, reggaeton, jazz, and Persian 6/8 rhythms.
Ali Dahesh based in Vancouver, Canada, emigrated from Iran when he was six years old. Ali got into music industry in 2005, and has toured with various Canadian and US hip-hop artists such as Babylon Warchild, Masta Ace, Marco Polo, Stricklin, and Boom Bap Saints. He has founded Rasta Farsi movement, which promotes Persian culture in international hip-hop community.
Iranian hip-hop started its journey in 1990s in California, made a break in Iran in beginning of 2000s, reached the diversification stage by mid 2000s, and became politicized by the end of 2000s. As of 2014, there are hundreds of Iranian MCs and hip-hop producers both in Iran and outside the country. They are making music in various direction of hip-hop genre, from socially-conscious and political hip-hop and gangsta rap to mix of hip-hop and reggae, and hip-pop.
One can draw similarities between 2000s in Iranian hip-hop and Golden Age of US hip-hop which lasted from mid-1980s to mid-1990s and was characterized by heavy innovation in both lyrics and music production. Similarly to US artists of that era, Iranian hip-hop musicians innovatively experimented with lyrics structure and beats, successfully localizing hip-hop music using specifics of structure of Farsi language, and utilizing traditional Persian instruments in their music. Now that Iranian hip-hop became quite mainstream among younger-generation Iranians, this era of Iranian hip-hop seems to be over. However, this is only the first stage of development of hip-hop music as a genre in Iran. With the current political and social situation in Iran, hip-hop still has a long way to go in gaining acceptance among various layers of Iranian society by serving as a tool of expression for those who are struggling to make their opinions and voices heard and respected.>