Shahin Najafi playing at Georgetown University in December.
Music Stirs the Embers of Protest in Iran
Parisa remembers the precise moment she heard her first song by Shahin Najafi, an Iranian rapper living in exile in Germany, on her illegal satellite television in the small city of Karadj, west of Tehran.
“His words cut through me like a knife,” she said.
Parisa, a 24-year-old university student, stayed up long after midnight one night, when the Internet connection was faster, and spent six hours downloading Mr. Najafi’s songs.
Since the Iranian authorities have cracked down on the demonstrations that rocked the country after a disputed election a year ago, a flood of protest music has rushed in to comfort and inspire the opposition. If anything, as the street protests have been silenced, the music has grown louder and angrier.
The government has tried all manner of methods to mute what has become known as “resistance music.” It has blocked Web sites used to download songs and shut down social networking sites, which the opposition also used to organize protests and distribute videos of government and paramilitary violence.
In April, a shadowy pro-government group that calls itself “the cyber army” shut down Mr. Najafi’s Web site. The group, which hacked Iranian Twitter in December, left a message saying the site had been “conquered by anonymous soldiers of Imam Zaman,” a reference to the Shiite messiah.
In late December, the authorities detained Shahram Nazeri, a prominent Persian classical musician who had recorded the song “We Are Not Dirt or Dust,” a tart response to the words President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to characterize the antigovernment protesters. The government briefly took his passport, detained and intimidated him; he has not released anything since.
But clamping down on music in the digital age is like squeezing a wet sponge. Protest songs are downloaded on the Internet, sold in the black market or shared via Bluetooth, a wireless technology that Iranians have adapted to share files on cellphones, bypassing the Internet altogether. Fans have also made dozens of homemade videos, setting montages of protest images to music and posting them online.
Parisa first heard Mr. Najafi’s song on Pars TV, an opposition satellite channel beamed out of Los Angeles. And, despite being blocked by the government since last summer, Mr. Najafi’s Web site can still be found by computer-savvy Iranians with the help of circumvention software.
“Music has become a tool for resisting the regime,” said Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “Music has never been as extensive and diverse as it is today.”
The music of dissent spreads virally, so there are no Billboard or Nielsen SoundScan charts to quantify its popularity. But the anecdotal evidence is persuasive.
An opposition Web site has posted about 100 protest songs recorded since the election. About two dozen of them honor Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old teacher shot at a protest in Tehran in June who became an icon of the opposition after her last moments were captured on a video that has since been widely circulated.
Street vendors in Tehran sell bootleg CDs and MP3s at traffic lights for $2 or $3. Protest music plays on stereos at parties and from cars on the streets, Tehran residents say. Music blasting from car speakers at a stoplight has become one of the more public ways still available to signal to others that the spirit of struggle still lives.
The music can just as easily turn up in quiet and unexpected places. Niki, 25, who, like others quoted in this article, withheld her family name for fear of retribution, said that at a bookstore in downtown Tehran she found the salesman, a man in his 60s, weeping while listening to a new song by Mohammad Reza Shajarian called “Brother, Drop Your Gun.” After more than 70 protesters were killed by government and paramilitary forces during the postelection demonstrations, according to the opposition, the song, based on an old poem, was a melancholic plea to the soldiers to end the violence.
“I had seen people at protests carrying banners with those words, ‘Brother, drop your gun,’ ” Niki said, “but this scene was much more emotional.”
The government’s success in repressing dissent may help explain the increasingly angry tone the music has taken and the popularity of artists like Mr. Najafi, who tap that anger.
If Mohsen Namjoo, the folk troubadour whose poetic lyrics and tuneful melodies appeal to older listeners, is, as he has been called, the Persian Bob Dylan, Mr. Najafi may be the Rage Against the Islamic Revolutionary Machine, whose harsh lyrics and hip-hop beats have captivated Iranian youth.
His verses, according to e-mail messages he has received from former prisoners, have been scrawled on prison walls and hummed behind bars. His bitter ode to repression, “Our Doggy Life,” has become something of an anthem to a generation:
Shut your mouth; accept the condition; this is the tradition of the Prophet; accept it; man or woman, there is no difference, die; this is our doggy life.
As Mr. Najafi sees it, anger is an honest response to the beatings, killings and executions the government has meted out to dissidents.
“The anger in my music comes from deep within me,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Cologne, Germany. “I am a man who is always shouting sadly and angrily.”
A native of the Caspian city of Bandar Anzali, Mr. Najafi bought his first guitar when he was 18, and by 25 he had been thrown out of Iran for a song he wrote satirizing clerics. Although Iran’s ban on pop music, condemned by the revolution as un-Islamic, was softened in 2000, during the reform era of President Mohammad Khatami, only apolitical music was tolerated.
Mr. Najafi’s satirical “I Have a Beard” crossed the line, and a three-year prison sentence and 100 lashes await him if he returns. Like other Iranian artists in exile, his heart is bisected by borders: his life is in Germany, where he has artistic freedom, but his homeland will always be Iran.
Helplessly watching the events of last summer from about 2,500 miles away affected him deeply.
“I still belong to my country and feel their pain,” he said. “Distance has no meaning with Internet. We are a generation that was always suppressed and humiliated, which makes you sad and angry.”
The government-sponsored violence enraged other artists, too. In a song about last June’s election, Arash Sobhani, of the rock band Kiosk, calls the clerics who supervised the elections “dinosaurs” and says, “Compassion under the blow of batons; we all saw your justice.”
Even the Dylanesque Mr. Namjoo adopted more strident language in his last album, going so far as to ridicule the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the “supreme position of superiority.”
Although his lyrics are more metaphorical than Mr. Najafi’s, they, too, are angry.
“People are considered brave in Iran because whatever they do — from riding a motorcycle in the chaotic traffic of Tehran to staging protests against the government — is risky,” he said. “You have to constantly live with fear.”
Today, Mr. Namjoo lives in Palo Alto, Calif. But the fear, he said, never goes away.