Blaring from car windows and thumping at private parties, Iranian rap or Rap-e Farsi is ubiquitous in Iran today, rapidly growing to become one of the most popular music genres among youth in a country where over 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30.
“It is a powerful scene and very popular with youth,” Iran’s first female rapper, Salome MC, told Al Jazeera. “To bring daily life, street life, issues of urban life into music is new.”
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Iranian rap was born in the early 2000s in Tehran, led by rapper Soroush Lashkary, known by his performing name of Hichkas. Dubbed the godfather of Iranian rap, Hichkas uses traditional Iranian instruments and urban beats to create a hybrid genre, a combination of east and west.
Unlike many of his counterparts, Hichkas avoids swearing and rapping about violence, drugs and women. “The rap here is very different, it’s about something real,” he told the Daily Show in 2009. Instead, Hichkas’ music tackles social and moral issues such as drug addiction, depression, poverty and youth unemployment. “We feel we shouldn’t have bad influences on people,” he said.
According to rapper Salome MC, she has not faced overt challenges as a woman, but decided to keep her identity as a rapper secret and separate from her daily life. “For a long time, I did not face any challenges that my male counterparts didn’t. I probably would have if I was more open about it in my daily life, but instinctively I lived a double life,” she said.
While she raps about “life, death and everything in-between”, some of her music has taken a distinctly political character. “I haven’t seen the revolution, but my rap is revolutionary. My pen is my weapon and I’ve got a burial shroud in my backpack,” she raps in the song Drunk Shah, Drunk Elder, where she compares Iran’s ruling clerical class with the Shah’s autocratic government prior to the Iranian Revolution.
“The motivation is just to write about something that I feel strongly about. Something affects me and I start to form opinions about it, and I sit and write,” Salome, who now lives in China, said.
Iranian rap emerged hand-in-hand with the country’s vibrant underground music scene. For musicians in Iran to legally produce and perform music, they are required to obtain official approval from the Ministry of Culture and Guidance after an evaluation of the music against the values of the Islamic Republic.
But rather than negotiate the rigmarole of the approval system, many musicians bypass it altogether by recording music in their homes or private studios, and uploading it directly to the internet.
Finally there was music that was talking directly to the people with their own slangs about their private and public issues without considering government laws or social unwritten rules. It was the voice of the unheard.
Until the underground music scene emerged, the post-revolutionary Iranian music industry was inundated with musicians from the Iranian diaspora who produced music that many young Iranians said they could no longer relate to. Rap rose to popularity by providing a much-needed space for expression among the country’s youth.
“Finally there was music that was talking directly to the people with their own slangs about their private and public issues without considering government laws or social unwritten rules. It was the voice of the unheard,” Mahdyar Aghajani, a hip-hop producer and composer, told Al Jazeera.
“It was the first time that Iranians, especially the young ones, could relate to something that easily and deeply,” Aghajani said.
Aghajani, now also residing outside Iran, said he faced difficulties producing music inside the country after producing albums with Hichkas and other underground artists, and composing soundtracks for foreign films.
In May this year, Iran’s laws on the production of music and film were brought to light after the dancers involved in a tribute video of the popular song ‘Happy’ were arrested.
As the majority of rap cannot be legally produced in Iran, rappers also run the risk of fines and even jail. In 2006, after the release of his first album Jangale Asfalt (Asphalt Jungle), Hichkas was arrested and accused of releasing music without permission. He was later released, but encountered difficulties with local authorities, and is now residing outside of Iran.
Despite these challenges, by the mid-2000s, Iranian rap had entered into the mainstream music scene and spread across the Iranian diaspora with the help of the technology.
Mehrak Golestan, also known as Reveal Poison, is an Iranian-born, London-based hip-hop artist and ethnomusicologist. He said higher internet speed, social media and music sharing websites enabled the scene to take on a truly international character.
In a TEDx presentation, Golestan said that Iranian hip-hop has developed into a “transnational community” where Iranian artists from both inside and outside Iran connect and have the ability to side-step government censors. “This whole dialogue is taking place on a stage that isn’t governed by anyone,” he said.
Hamid Naficy, a professor of radio-television-film and communications at Northwestern University in the US, said that while the original impetus of rap came from the West, Iranians have adapted it to make it their own. “Iranians, having been at the intersection of East and West, have become very good to adapting and assimilating cultures,” Naficy told Al Jazeera.
He explained that the emergence of Iranian rap was not an isolated occurrence, but rather part of a general trend in music, film and media that reflected the political climate under Iran’s former President Mohammed Khatami, who was in power from 1997 to 2005. “During Khatami’s time, the cultural climate in Iran became more open in all fields, whether film, media, music or fashion. The general tolerance for these sorts of things increased markedly,” Naficy said.
Naficy, also the author of A Social History of Iranian Cinema, said that in the early days of Iranian rap, “the musicians had a hard time to circulate their products. But because of internet, they were able to distribute their music more easily”.
Emerging at the same time as Hichkas was Zedbazi, a five person hip-hop group that rapidly garnered vast popularity for its controversial lyrics, littered with profanities, depictions of sexual encounters and drug use, and delving into Tehran’s forbidden youth culture.
Iranian culture is very much about poetry, people recite poetry every day. Rap is very much like poetry.
Alireza Jazayeri, currently based in France, is a band member, composer and producer for Zedbazi. “Our group was the first group to use strong language about sex, drugs and girls,” he told Al Jazeera. “Before there was none of that, even before the revolution, there was none of that in any art.”
Zedbazi’s most popular song, Tabestoon Kohtahe [The Summer Is Short] is about the bittersweet feeling of returning to Iran for the summer, which is shared by many of the more affluent young Iranians who study and live abroad. “We were just a bunch of kids telling the reality of Iran in our own little circles and it became really popular,” Jazayeri said.
Although performing may be easier outside of the country, the widespread Iranian diaspora makes it challenging for rappers to hold large concerts outside of the country. Yet despite the difficulties, Iranian rap has become an integral part of Iran’s youth culture today. “Many teenagers used to want to become a DJ in Iran but now they want to become a rapper,” Jazayeri said.
Follow Erin Neil on Twitter: @EJNeil