New York University’s Nahid Siamdoust spoke to The Iranist about her new book, poetic Persian hip-hop, and how musical boundaries are slowly changing in the Islamic Republic.
THE IRANIST: You chose an interesting title for your book, Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran. What were some of the actual soundtracks of the 1979 Revolution?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: By revolution, I mean the period spanning 1979 to contemporary Iran, so the soundtrack refers to music that has defined this entire period.
I discuss so many songs in the book, but as far as music that relates to the immediate post-revolutionary period, I start out by talking about Reza Ruygari’s ‘Iran Iran Iran,’ which was the first song to be broadcast on state radio after the revolutionaries had taken over state media. I talk about how leading up to the revolution, there was so much music-making by the whole political spectrum of activists, including the leftists and the Islamists—who were a major part of the revolution—and even by Persian classical musicians, which up to only a couple of years prior to the revolution were seen as complacent. The Chavoshis, for example, produced some of the most memorable songs for the revolution, including Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s ‘Shabnavard’ (Night Traveler), where Shajarian sings “Give me my gun so I can get going / Because every lover is underway” and passionately calls his compatriots to join the struggle. And then of course the Chavoshi’s ‘Iran, ey saray-e omid’ (Iran, O House of Hope) which was sung by Shajarian at an event at Tehran University in the fall of 1979. It was an optimistic song that really defined that utopian moment in Iranian history: Iran as the house of hope, where a new dawn had broken.
THE IRANIST: Why would the Iranian government ban music after 1979 only to allow it later on?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: We really have to understand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s views on this, within the given circumstances of the time. In the summer following the revolution, Khomeini spoke to Radio Darya and called for the elimination of music altogether, saying it corrupted Iran’s youth. He was referring to the pop music that dominated state airwaves before the revolution. But not long before his speech, one of Khomeini’s dearest protégés, Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, had passed away. Some people at state radio had made a song commemorating Motahhari and played it for Khomeini. The song was “Shahid-e Motahhar” (The Pure Martyr). Khomeini loved it so much that he requested to see its makers. In that meeting, Khomeini said, “I don’t cry much, but I cried when I heard your song. This is the most beautiful kind of music and if you continue making this kind of music, I will support you.” Until that point, rhythmical music was banned in state media. But after Khomeini’s statement, music started being produced again, not just marches or nohe-khuni (religious lamentation), but music with rhythmical passage—some even reminiscent of classical pre-revolutionary music.
THE IRANIST: What makes music “Islamic” by the Iranian government’s standards?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: The state’s parameters for permissible music have really widened over the decades. Initially, one could only hear choirs, marches, and noh-e khuni on state media, but it has evolved so much since then. Conservative clerics wouldn’t necessarily refer to the pop music that is played so frequently in concerts today as Islamic, but they don’t stop it. They now allow for fast beats and even earthly, romantic themes, as long as the music is not considered as a challenge to the authority of the Islamic Republic or its leaders.
THE IRANIST: Many older Iranians grew up listening to music legends like Gholam Hossein Banan, Haydeh, and Googoosh. Do today’s Iranian musicians draw inspiration from the past?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: It depends on the generation and cultural trends. The third generation’s parents might still listen to pre-revolutionary singers, but for today’s youth, they grew up so saturated in post-revolution pop as well as Western music that their inspiration often comes from either later singers—diaspora singers—or Iran-based singers like Benyamin, Mohsen Chavoshi, Xaniar. But I think it’s impossible for kids not to know those pre-revolution singers—many of whom still preform in Los Angeles and give concerts in Dubai that are attended by Iranians inside Iran—because their parents listen to them.
THE IRANIST: It’s fascinating that someone like Tehran-based singer Benyamin can be popular inside and outside Iran—how does that work?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Benyamin has a very shrewd producer, Mohsen Rajabpour, who negotiates with policymakers and tries to abide by the state’s red lines. Benyamin is not someone who’s trying to push boundaries; he’s just trying to get his music out there. When Benyamin released his first really popular album Khatereh-ha (Memories), you couldn’t really tell if he was singing about romantic love or Imam-e Zaman, the Mahdi. His themes were not very earthly; he was calling forth entezar (longing) and love in an ambiguous tone.
Benyamin is popular for several reasons. For one, he followed and contributed to the Islamic Republic’s evolving parameters. Initially, he sang dance songs with themes that couldn’t be immediately pinned down to the earthly or heavenly realm—was he singing about a girl or Imam-e Zaman? Now, Benyamin sings about everything but explicit sexual themes, and stays away from politics, as he has always done. Benyamin is also popular inside and outside of Iran because his music is catchy and fun both for listening and dancing. Another important factor is his mode of singing. The tonality is reminiscent of a form of religious lamentation, which a lot of Iranians connect to. And lastly, he is a likeable character, who’s stayed away from scandals.
THE IRANIST: Women cannot publicly sing in Iran. Is that taboo slowly changing?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: There have been some advances. Women have struggled against all odds and stayed active within the field of music. They have been able to sing since the 1990s, as long as it is in multi-vocal pieces where a single voice can’t be heard. For example, if they sing as part of a choir, or even along with just one other female vocalist, it’s allowed, but solo performances are not. And since the late 1990s the state has created all-female concert events, where female vocalists can sing solo to all-female audiences.
There have been some interesting occurrences in this regard recently. For example, Mahdiyeh Mohammadkhani, a student of Shajarian’s, sang a passage solo at a formal concert. It was reported that even some Iranian officials were present. It made headlines. It was sort of a one-off occurrence. Around the same time, another woman, Nooshin Tafi, released a multi-vocal album, but she was the only person on the cover. Conservative clerics in the holy city of Qom misread that to mean it was an album by a solo female singer. There was a lot of controversy around it, until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s spokesman was asked to comment. Khamenei’s statement was that he wasn’t opposed to solo female singing, as long as it was not ghina—singing that induces the listener to be removed from God—which basically means things haven’t changed much. It is still up for contestation: is a piece of solo female vocals pure or Islamically unproblematic or impure? And who decides that?
THE IRANIST: Rap-e Farsi, or Persian hip-hop music, is one of the things that surprise many Westerners about Iran. How did it come about?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Iranians have a strong tradition in poetry and music magnifies poetry. Musical lyrics are a mass mediation of an ancient art form that Iranians have excelled at and have practiced for many centuries, so rap comes naturally to young Iranian musicians.
Hichkas, the so-called godfather of rap-e Farsi, was a central character leading the movement. His father brought him tapes of American rap music from abroad and he liked them. Hichkas wrote poetry, but then he started to rap. First in English, and then using the beats from the cassette tapes, he overlaid them with Persian rap. With time, Hichkas established a website called 021-music.com and invited others to join his rap endeavor. They were a bunch of boys hanging out in home studios and recording. It caught on fast. Hichkas and other rappers told me they really felt like rap music—more than any other form of music—allowed them to express themselves in a way that felt authentic.
THE IRANIST: How do Iranians distribute music?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Officially permitted music is bought in stores or from street vendors. Distribution of los anjelesi or underground music happens in several ways. People now often just download them from websites like Radio Javan. They also still share a lot through USB drives. Before that, it was CDs. People get to know the music through parties and driving around in cars—Iranians spend a lot of time in cars, whether in taxicabs or in private vehicles with friends. A lot of music listening, exchanging, and sharing happens there. And of course, satellite channels that mainly broadcast music, like PMC, play a big role in publicizing new music.
THE IRANIST: What’s a song that really resonated with you while conducting your research?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: ‘Morgh-e Sahar’ (Morning Bird) is a song that really moves me. I can see the sentiment in it and I see in concerts how it touches people, and how it ignites within them the urge to call for freedom. The song calls on the morning bird to break free of its cage and sing the song of freedom. This is a song that hails from the early 20th century, it was written about a decade after the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–11. It has been covered by various singers throughout the past century. It is a song that links current Iran’s struggle for democracy to a century-long precedent. It is a non-partisan statement that protests against political repression. This became evident again when during the 2009 post-presidential election protests known as the Green Movement, Mohsen Namjoo and Kiosk added yet another cover of it to the musical canon.
Purchase Nahid Siamdoust’s book, Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran.
Follow Nahid Siamdoust on Twitter: @nahid8