United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Ayesha Chugh's Blog

Iranian Hip Hop: Voice of Resistance

Ayesha Chugh

Hip-hop music is increasingly the voice of underground protest against Iran’s puritanical restrictions and political repression. It’s been nicknamed Rap-e Farsi, a word-play on the music and national language. Farsi, a poetic language, is particularly conducive to rap. The Islamic Republic is now estimated to have thousands of rappers, both amateur and professional.
On weekend nights, rap music is often heard blaring from the cars of young Iranians cruising Tehran’s streets, even though both the music and cruising are officially discouraged. At least 60 percent of Iran’s 78 million people are under the age of 35, so hip hop’s appeal has political implications too.
Iranian hip hop is partly a byproduct of the cultural liberalization under former President Mohammed Khatami. But it has grown significantly since the disputed 2009 presidential election and subsequent eight months of protests. Many popular lyrics now rant against the theocracy’s injustice and hypocrisy.  Since widespread arrests and trials virtually silenced the opposition Green Movement, rap has been one of the limited ways to express popular discontent.
Yas, a thirty-year-old Tehran rapper, is considered the pioneer of Iranian hip hop. He began rapping in 2003. He and others say they were first influenced by American rap, including Tupac Shakur and Eminem, but without the “gangsta” tone or references.
"Hip-hop began in America, but Iran has had one of the longest traditions of poetry of any in the world. Poetry is in our blood. If he (Tupac) could sing about his life and pain and his culture, why couldn't I do the same thing in my own language, and that's where it all began," Yas said in a 2008 interview  by Modiba in The Huffington Post.  In one song, he basically warned the regime that the young would not give up.
      We're the children of the underground
       We will keep on shouting
       You will hear our words
       Even if we're a lone-star.
In a song entitledMerciless World,” or Donya ye Birahm in Farsi, he also rejects extremist ideology and tactics.
Islam says keep peace near and conflict away.
Islam never said to say Allahu Akbar (God is great) and decapitate.
Islam says end all your wars.
It never said to bomb the [World Trade Center] towers and the Pentagon
And Moses never said to stand over a praying man and pull the trigger.
From young and old, babies in need of diapers and mothers milk
Why does it rain missiles and bullets on them?
Other established names in Iranian Hip Hop include Shahin Felakat, Reza Pishro and Zed Bazi.
But hip hop is not just the domain of Iranian men. Salome MC was Iran’s first female rapper. In a song entitled “Constant Pain of Mine,” she was boldly defiant after the 2009 elections, which the opposition Green Movement charged had been rigged to give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term.
One night, they stole my light of hope,
If I stay silent,
If I stay still,
Who is going to make it right?"
This nation says NO,
Says NO to autocracy
Says NO to censorship
Says NO to sedition
Says NO to beating and killing
Says NO to injustice
Says YES to democracy.
The rise of rap is a stunning reversal from the Islamic Republic’s early days. After the 1979 revolution, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini proscribed music as immoral for encouraging vice, lust and impiety. He also said it “dulled the mind.” He even compared Western music to a drug, which spawned the term “Westoxication.” 
Three decades later, Iran’s hip-hop artists dig into the failure of the theocracy’s utopian ideology. Hichkas, which is Farsi for “Nobody,” is a Tehran-based rapper whose verses are a portal to Iranian street life. In “God, wake up!,” or Khoda Pasho, he exposes Iran’s class divide.    
A hobo stands next to a Benz.
He isn’t worth enough to rent it.
Me, you, him came from a single drop.
Look at the gap between us.
It’s not gravity that makes the world spin.
Money makes the world go round.
Today, it’s money first, God second for everyone, peasant or boss.
Saye Sky, a self-described lesbian rapper, is particularly bold. In a 2007 speech at Columbia University, President Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had no homosexuals. And gays and lesbians face extremely tough punishment, potentially including the death penalty, in Iran. But in her song Bidari, Saye Sky raps:
Lesbians are everywhere under the skin of this country,
Open your eyes and see that I’m right here. 
You who are against freedom of speech and lesbians,
people have the right to live regardless of their beliefs...
Why is our country void of human rights?
Stoning of the soul in the twentieth century,
You claim to be God’s best buddy?
Many rappers have feared persecution, especially after their songs gained popularity. Fame – even underground – carries serious dangers. Despite their tenacity, Shahin Najafi, Salome MC and Saye Sky fled the country after their careers gave them more exposure among both the young and police.
Saye Sky lived in Tehran up until 2009 when she was warned that the government had tapped her phone, she told the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She released Bidari in Turkey. Salome MC released "Constant Pain of Mine" in Iran in 2009 under the alias Kalameh, which means “pseudonym.” In 2011, she too left the country. 
The lyrics of rappers in exile now tend to be sharper, while hip-hop artists still inside Iran go after the regime less directly, often as social commentary rather than open condemnation.
They also have to rely on informal social media rather than largely state-controlled or regulated media. Many Iranian rappers have posted on Youtube and online Persian radio stations like Radio Javan to share their music as well as specialist hip-hop websites such as www.rap98.com.  To ensure a wider international audience, Salome MC and Saye Sky have also translated their own lyrics into English.
Fusing courage with self-expression, Iran’s rappers have given resistance a new voice.


Ayesha Chugh is a researcher at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.

Tags: Hip hop, Iran

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