“I remember when I was only 14 years old, I had this Scorpions T-shirt on, and was hanging in the local park.The cops stopped me and didn’t let me go until I sent my friend to ask my dad to come bring me another shirt so the cops could rip the Scorpions one up”, B.—an Iranian metalhead who asked to remain anonymous—recounts. “The fear of getting in trouble was constantly there. It was an adrenaline [rush], and for us, part of being a metalhead was also being a rebel.”
Rocking denim and leather will get you into deep trouble in Iran, and we're not just talking about a couple of slaps or a few insults. In a country run by a strict Islamic regime, anyone found guilty of "blasphemy" or "devil worship" can face a long prison sentence—or even execution. A recent case that has been burning up the metal blogosphere is an all-too-real example. Two members of Iranian groove metal band Confess, Nikan Siiyanor Khosravi and Arash 'Chemical' Ilkhani, were reportedly arrested in November 2015 on the grounds of "insulting Islamic sanctities" and "spreading propaganda against the state." The men—who are reportedly still being held by the authorities—could potentially serve maximum prison sentences of six years.
While limited information on the arrests has been published, Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Iran, has confirmed that although the band is not facing execution charges as it was originally posted in the Western media, both members could become victims of Iran’s tough crackdown on freedom of expression. Iran became an Islamic Republic back in 1979, post-Islamic revolution and is led by a very conservative clerical elite. Any type of Westernization and modern practice is forbidden if it's not in accordance with the regime's interpretation of Islamic law.
“The forbidding of music in Iran goes beyond Western art,” Raha explains. “Any music not licensed by authorities is considered illegal. This includes solo women singers who are banned from publishing their voice since the Islamic Revolution; it includes artists who do not conform to the authorities [rules], and it also targets artists who tackle taboo subjects or criticize socio-political subjects.”
B. left Iran six years ago, and as a pre-Internet 90s metal kid in Iran, he explains how it was nearly impossible getting hold of music as the regime was cracking down on freedom with full force. “There were no record shops, no magazines, no access to the outside world,” he recalls. “Literally everything was prohibited and if they caught you with any 'Western music,' you were in big trouble.”
The internet has now played a big part when it comes to accessibility, and while the government censors websites and social media, B. says that “there’s only so much they can do.” But that accessibility to forbidden music in Iran is still much more restricted than one would encounter in the Western world. Confess's social media accountsfor example, have been monitored by the government since the arrest.
B. observes that not much has changed since then. “Copies and downloads are the main source for music in Iran. We can’t order anything, and it’s not even possible to use Paypal. There are no gigs. Maybe from time to time a bunch of friends will get together and play for themselves—it is totally underground. Of course there are bands, but they have to get permission from the government. Therefore, it is not metal as we know it. People were getting arrested back then, and still are, as you can see. There won't be any major change as long as Islam exists over there, I promise you that.”
Since 1989, the country has been ruled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the judiciary, the media, and the military. Iran often finds itself under international pressure from the media and human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, and its high execution rates has placed it among the top five executioners in the world. The blasphemy law is no joke; insulting the prophet Mohammad is a capital crime. There have been multiple documented cases where the death penalty has been used to convict people of “ludicrous” crimes, according to Raha. Mohammad Ali Taheri, a spiritual teacher, was sentenced to death last year under the charges of “spreading corruption on earth.” He is currently in his fifth year of solitary confinement, and those who dare to publicly support him are also in danger of arrest.
An even more recent case of prosecution against artists includes the imprisonment of two musicians and a filmmaker, who, like the Confess duo, are at risk of imminent arrest for “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “illegal audio-visual activities.” International pressure, however, is a force to be reckoned with in cases like these, says Raha; she believes that the more people work to criminalize human rights violations, the more impact their protests could have.
Still, according to Iranian secular activist Reza, who also left the country years ago, the judiciary system is corrupt and punishments vary depending on the judge's mood. “It's mad and crazy,” he explains. “There are all sorts of corruptions, and there is no jury, which means the judge will rely on his own judgement.”
Reza also explains that out of all subcultures in the country, headbangers get it worst. “Metal musicians have serious issues and this is not the first time—they call it 'Satanist music',” he says. “There are other music genres who don't get it as tough as metal. You will find the occasional rock gig, and even though people can't get up, dance or sing along, they still have the gigs. But with metal, it's a whole other issue, [because] it's about rage and politics. I remember one case years ago where they stripped everybody in a group looking for tattoos. They definitely get it the worst.”
Underground life does exist in Iran—life and culture go on, but are kept hidden within four walls. People still indulge in sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll in the basements of Iranian homes, though once a person steps out the door, they are expected to adapt to the Islamic identity. “The government can't stop culture,” Reza explains. “They can't control it… if they arrest someone for one thing, someone else will take over. Life goes on.”
B. sees a bleak future for Confess' Nikan and Arash, and thinks this kind of headbanger persecution will continue to happen in Iran as it has been happening for years. There is no happy ending to this story. The fear is real—but it still doesn't stop B.—or any artist in Iran, for that matter.
“You will always see that stupid look on their faces when you walk outside with long hair wearing leather," B. explains. "But as Lemmy said, if they don't like rock'n'roll, I don't like them!”
Sumy Sadurni is a UK-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter.