Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Rap-e Farsi by Nahid Siamdoust

By the time this new generation of underground rappers came of age, a few years into the new millennium, the world was a whole different place from the one in which Iran’s first post-revolutionary generation of alternative and underground musicians (mostly rock and fusion artists) had grown up. The youth of Iran’s Third Generation ( nasl-e sevvom) came of age entirely during the Islamic Republic, with no memory of the revolution and little or no memory of the war. For most of them, the worst years of repression were over by the time they hit their later teens. Their consciousness was born with the election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997, whose policies allowed for greater cultural and intellectual freedom and tolerance. Despite serious pushback by hard-liners – in the form of renegade groups within the Intelligence Ministry, carrying out the “Chain Murders” of intellectuals and journalists or basijis meting out violence to students in the 1999 Tehran University protests- Khatami’s policies continued to allow for greater openness in the public and cultural spheres. Concurrent with the Khatami government’s policies of greater freedoms, two important factors affected the lives and worldviews of this particular generation.

The first of these was the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing Manichaean proclamation by George W. Bush to the world, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” putting Iran into a vulnerable position. Over the following years, as  the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-Islamic and anti-Iranian rhetoric was prevalent in Western politics and media, and no Iranian could be oblivious to it. With images of death and destruction pouring in from neighboring countries, and their own country under the threat of attack by the US, Iranian youth were forced to define their positions vis-a-vis this new world order. As reflected in their cultural productions, this younger generation was less reactionary against the state and patriotic themes pervaded its rap songs.

The other crucial development during the early years of the new millennium was an increase in access to the Internet and its transnational system.  Defiance against the international order combined with openness to global influences. Music, especially hip-hop and rap, became a “vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identities all over the world.” The Internet, not-with-standing the often vicious cat and mouse game of government control and censorship ( Iran has one of the world’s toughest), became a means by which Iranians were able to communicate political and social sentiments in a shared ‘semi-secret’ public sphere [to make a long story short!] Furthermore, no one can now accurately estimate  the number of satellite  dishes in Iran today. Underground workshops are kept busy replacing those that are confiscated by the government, and  new channels originating inside and outside Iran keep proliferating. Blue-tooth  technology also serves to circumvent government restrictions to spread live-events, music and audio clips.  Recognizing the limits of its abilities to control the situation, the government itself provides programming and on-line downloading  sites run in semi-official ways that satisfy consumer demands without too often raising the ire of the more conservative elements of society.

Hence, the Third Generation  has found itself under a magnifying glass, not only because it constitutes a large proportion of Iran’s population, but also because its  its cultural productions have entered into the households and families of at least half of all Iranians. Some call them “Satan-Worshippers” but even some conservatives take a more measured view. A report commissioned by the Islamic Revolution Document Center titled “ The Islamic Revolution and the Confrontation with the Third Generation” first quotes the most revered Shia Imam Ali on young people, saying: “Don’t constrict your children in your ways and customs; they have been created for a different time than yours.” The report expressed confidence that this generation would support the continuation of the Islamic revolution in their own way, mostly through aesthetics and art, that it has a critical soul and is committed to Iranian culture and  traditions, to religion and morality.

In an address to students at Amir Kabir University on 27 February, 2001 Supreme Leader Khamenei derided “ the enemy’s claims that the Third Generation is no longer committed to the ideas of the revolution. . . "Seeking justice will never become old; seeking freedom and independence will never become old; fighting foreign interference will never become old; these are values that will always appeal to the generations.”

But such positive remarks did not eliminate government censure of the rap genre, As it turned out,  however, Iranian culture, with its strong poetic heritage, has accommodated this new word-centric music well and has been embraced and Iranianized in a way that rock music still has not. ‘People understand its language and stories . . . since its base is among the common people  with common language.’( wrote musicologist Arvin Sedaqatkish).  Repressive measures by the government just helped make it more popular with young people.

There is a lot of writing on Rap-e Farsi, with a number of academics taking part in seminars and publishing papers on ‘underground’  music. Observers overlap in their view that rap’s most pertinent quality within the Iranian sphere is its capacity for divulging ‘the truth’ or criticism. One writes that “Persian rap is a form of social commentary and empowerment through self-expression . . .an act of retaliation against authority and prejudice,’ and others agree. Its popularity with youth is attributed to directness , openness and capacity to allow for biographical storytelling as a means of protest and critique.

Neither do rappers need formal training. Rap doesn’t cost much and is easy to produce and share its main feature. It’s more open to women than any other musical genre in Iran.

Soroush Lashkary’s artist name, Hichkas, means ‘no one’ in Persian. In earlier interviews he said he chose the name to ‘create a contrast between the name that I want to have with my words.” In later interviews, once he was well known, he said that he chose the name because it signifies the humility of the luti (neighborhood enforcer – javanmard in the old days) and the importance of remaining down to earth.

Prior to the population explosion of Tehran in the 1960s and 70s, there existed a sort of public sphere within each neighborhood and district, where people knew each other and the neighborhood lutis were prominent. In its best modern embodiment, the luti is an exemplary, chivalrous man of neighborhood or regional repute who agitates for justice, often in a gang with other such lutis, whose social ethic is centered on selflessness and who possesses the quality of a man, referring to his courage, honor, modesty, humility and rectitude. A lutis social capital and power is of course entirely dependent on his recognition by others, especially other lutis, as bearing those qualities and their subservience to him. In  the context of this structure , Lashkary portrays himself at the top luti within Rap-e Farsi, reaching back into Iranian tradition and drawing on an old ethic based on notions of honor for the construction of a public persona.

First, like the lutis of earlier times, Hichkas claims the streets for himself and his gang, whom he variously refers to as bachchehha or bax (an abbreviation  denoting ‘children’ or ‘guys’ in English) or ‘a bunch of soldiers.’ This claiming of the streets gains even more meaning within the context of the Islamic Republic, wherein the government claims to control the street.  Second, Hichkas follows the code’s great emphasis on the quest for justice. Hichkas presents this preoccupation both in his songs –often protesting unjust conditions- and in his barely veiled political comments in interviews and public appearances, where he says, “We are against oppression in general, wherever it appears; whether it comes from my mother or anywhere else, opposing oppression is a priority.” Third, as contained in the etymology of the word itself, the javanmardi value sytem is based on ideas of mardanegi (manliness), which in turn are ultimately built on notions of honor. This aspect of the old value system or ethic expresses itself in Hichkas’s work though an emphasis on the pride he feels in his Iranianness, i.e. modern-day nationalism. That same idea of honor (namus) or pride in one’s country also extends to other entities that are under a man’s protection, such as his wife, family and reputation. Hichkas  confirmed  this in the response he gave when I asked him why he cared so much about Iran’s honor. He responded, “I don’t know. It’s kind of like gheyrat.” ( a term that connotes a combination of zeal and honor-based jealousy). As gender studies scholar Afsaneh Najmabadi has explained, historically, in Iran, namus was closely linked to the maleness of nation and the femaleness of homeland and was constituted as subject to male possession and protection in both domains; gender honor and national honor intimately informed each other. Hence, Hichkas’s discourse of protecting the nation’s honor allows- heteronormatively- for the performance of masculinity among a wide segment of disenfranchised young men who this form an entity – a ‘bunch of soldiers’- to rival the might of the state.

Borrowing the recent form of rap diction yet integrating Persian instruments, Hichkas blends macho elements of the Iranian javanmardi ethic with those integral to American rap culture, creating a unique sound that resonates with his mainly young, male, Internet-savvy, and globally aware listeners from mostly traditional family backgrounds. With sabers on their belts, Hichkas’s gang is proud to live and die Iranian and is prepared to take up arms if there is war. Again, Hichkas offers an alternative gang to other organized groups within Iranian society: one based on religion, namely the tekkiyehs (spaces, often private, that are clubs for religious commemoration), and others based on the might of the state, namely the Revolutionary  Guard or its associates, the basij, from whom his ‘gang’ is to be distinguished not by lack of religious faith but by a relatively permissive lifestyle.

 Thus Hichkas’s  posture of fearlessness is compelling in an environment where Iranians are subject to the austere ethics of  an authoritarian government. They assert their subjectivity and defend their honor vis a vis a state that directly and indirectly humiliates them through its adverse economic  and socially restrictive policies.

An important aspect of the javanmardi ethic is the Robin-Hoodesque drive to seek justice and remedy inequalities; the luti acts as an arbiter within the public realm where other instances and institutions, such as the family or the state, fail. The real or perceived increase in inequality and disparity among people is a much discussed subject in daily conversation in Iran, and is often pointed to as the most potent sign of failure of the Islamic revolution. To decry disparity within the Islamic Republic is to be inherently critical of the state, which has claimed since its beginning as to be based on a revolution that ‘belonged to the disinherited’ and the barefooted’ and promised large-scale redistribution of income and wealth. Thus the themes in Hichkas’s music resonated across the broad base and he became widely known after the release of Inja Teghran-e (This here is Iran) in 2006.

In other songs, Hichkas takes the position of the  thug who is the victim of the lawlessness of the streets. A ‘harmless hoodlum’ whose words are nothing but posture, necessary for survival. He presents a world in which the police and the constitution mean nothing and the protagonist must fend for himself, giving agency to the individual lat, not unlike the traditional neighborhood javanmard who must take matters of justice into his own hands.

 Until his departure from Iran in earlty 2010, Hichkas’s work never contained direct criticism of the government, critiquing social ills and injustice instead. Then, following the post 2009 election unrest, the government cracked down on social and artistic spaces, detaining dozens of journalists, activists, artists, and prominent persons who expressed sympathy for the Green Uprising. Hichkas says that he was deeply affected by the events of that summer and fall, but waited with his artistic response until he had planned his departure. “A Good Day Will Come” was released after he  left the country. He still did not directly criticize the state’s handling of internal affairs but points to its failures by elaborating on the blood that was shed and the dire circumstances of the country.  He ends his images of bloodshed on a hopeful note and in traditional phrases familiar to Iranians, seeking God’s help and a mother’s prayers:

After all this rain of blood
Finally, a rainbow will emerge
The sky won’t appear cloudy from all the stones
The water in the aqueducts won’t turn red like tulips
Muezzin, call to prayer
God is great, harm be far
Mom, tonight, pray for us.

Even outside of Iran, Hichkas has refrained from making explicit political statements against the government. It is likely that this has more to do with his views about ‘keeping Iran’s flag raised’ than out of caution for his own safety in case her should return. I last met him in the summer of 2014 in London, and he was hard at work on his new album, Mojaz (Permitted), due out in 2016. He joked to me, “This title means that we give ourselves permission to produced whatever music we want.” By 2016, Lashkary had still not returned to Iran. Despite his original intentions, the tumultuous 2009 Green Uprising and its political consequences seems to have shattered his plans for now. Indeed, the political, social and cultural repression following 2009 ruptured the futures of not just Lashkary but many other young Iranians, including civil society activists, students, artists and musicians who emigrated from Iran. Although the unrest led to the scattering of many lives, the Green Uprising presented a unifying force of a kind that was unprecedented since 1979 and within which music played a crucial role.

1 comment:

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