Rap is Banned in Iran, But the Underground Scene is Flourishing

"We have so many forbidden things in Iran, but does that prevent us from doing them? If forbidden rap can tell good stories, go ahead and forbid it! The ban only means it's an opportunity."

by Quentin Müller; translated by Nicola Rose
09 May 2018, 10:11am

Photo by Quentin Müller.

This article originally appeared on Noisey France.

Omid, also known as Safir, pushes open the door of a café in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. On the window, a sign advises us to "be quiet between the music notes." The ambiance is cozy, jungle-like, with green plants dangling down among long-bearded hipsters sporting conspicuous Christian crosses around their necks. Safir won't go unnoticed here; he is greeted warmly. In Iran, the 25-year-old is a true star, with his signature round face and old-school moustache. Today Tehran is sun-drenched, but you get the sense that ghosts are still present all around you. The Iran-Iraq war, which left about two million dead, is still on everyone's minds. It extinguished an entire generation of young men, but it also inspired the one that followed.

Safir knows peace, but not of the inner kind. He's a classy rapper – the type you almost want to call a poet. He wrote a song on the topic of martyrs, whose faces adorn numerous Tehran buildings, fountains, and street corner mosaics. His track "Yeki Mesle Ma" ("One of Ours," in English) deals with the ideas that the Iranian government still pushes and always will push – to “maintain a state of war in our minds," he remarks knowingly.

Safir was born in the province of Mazandaran, along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, and spent his early years in Tehran. His father, an engineer, allowed his son plenty of freedom, both in movement and in thought. When Safir was about 8, his uncle – who made sure he listened to "good music" – gave him a piece by Hichkas, the father of Iranian rap, who today lives in exile in London. Young Safir's ears would never be the same. For the first time, he heard words that spoke of "the street" and "the real problems in society."

From "prophet" to "voice of the people"

That was how Omid became Safir. He was inspired to start writing, and his horizons were opened to the folk music of a country rich in musical influences. He listened to French music – everything from classics like Jacques Brel and Barbara to contemporary rappers like Keny Arkana, Booba, Saïan Supa, and IAM. He also became obsessed with old Persian poetry. "Seven hundred years ago, these poets began to write poems that were more accessible, more centred around critiques of society. That wave, that style, all lasted until just about ten years ago," he says. But when Reza Baraheni – an exiled Iranian poet, novelist, and political activist – came down with Alzheimer's disease, Safir says "it came as a passing of the torch. Today, you might say the pen is in our hands," he adds, smiling.

Safir's rap is homemade. It's composed meticulously – cooked up with patience, passion, and taste. "I don't draw inspiration from anywhere in particular. Sometimes I'm just walking in the street, an idea comes to mind, and I know right then and there I've got to work on it. That's the next step of my work. I live indoors for two months so I can create a complete atmosphere. I live the things I write. For example, if I cross a bridge, I can remember memories that I had on that bridge. I can inspect its construction and its composition. Or I can go back and revisit the history of that bridge over time – what's happened on and around it. After that, I decide which part might inspire or affect my audience."

Safir knows how to play with words and their meaning. His stage name is just one such example. The soft "s" he uses in Persian has been replaced by a hard "s." Thus, from "he who has been sent" (a prophet), he has transformed into "the voice of the people" (the people's protest). "For me, words are like humans. I can feel, touch, taste and speak them. For instance, when I use the word 'sun,' you know that means yellow, hot. And if I use that word in a cold piece of music, the whole piece will 'warm up' just from the use of that word." His rap is meticulous, mathematical, and precise in its text; rhythmic and unstable in its vocals, beats, and flow.

Safir says that many times, to get inspired, he would dissect the works of his illustrious forebears who "meditate on mountaintops.” He explains: "A poem has two distinct layers: The structure and then the 'building' itself. When you change the structure, you naturally end up changing the building too. I've reworked their poems that way. I've changed their structure to make new buildings, and I hope one day people will change the structure of my texts too – to make more new buildings.” He smiles, wiggling his nose like Thumper in Bambi. Safir is very attached to that idea: He wants people to make his creations keep singing; to give them new forms of life, in case of humanity's extinction. "If the world gets destroyed or humankind dies out, I want my work to endure and be rediscovered 100 years from now."

Melli goes international

Safir is currently producing a theatrical play he wrote himself. The script is connected to several songs on his album. In this play, filled with metaphor and symbolism, a sort of electrical discharge blazes. At either end of the stage, two road signs proclaim the impossibility of accessing the road, yet, the possibility of getting around it. "The smell of food and of good things emanates from that place, yet people can't get to it,” says Safir. “I associate this with social life." In the background, newspapers burn in a box. A man reads the headlines of the newspapers disintegrating in the flames. Another speaks the names of the most dishonest publications. "Because in Islam, it's said that liars must burn in the flames of hell," Safir explains.

The play never went before the Ministry of Culture’s censorship unit. Instead, it was performed three times in a completely underground fashion. "I love to create links between the arts," Safir says. The audience members who came to see his play are fans of his music. He appreciates their curiosity, yet remarks that "Iranians are too into trends. For example, today I'm famous in Iran, but if tomorrow someone else becomes fashionable, they'd forget me. The things I make are created to endure forever, not to be performed once and then forgotten." His new label, Melli (which means "national" in Persian), was created to gather together all the Iranian and foreign artists who want to go global with their national acts. They're “not just rappers, but artists in general," Safir emphasises. Recently, cartoonists from Saudi Arabia – a huge geopolitical adversary of Iran – joined the adventure.

"Art shouldn't be something that exists only to appear and cause emotions and expressions, or get collected as luxury items. New art, if you ask me, is something that provokes the unknown and asks questions. It’s something that we understand deeply; it comes from within. When I sing, all I am is the singer. I'm the person who listens, lives, sees, feels, and I place myself in service of the history I create."

So then, a more down-to-earth question: How do you make any money as a rapper in Iran? "Good question. In the past, it was really hard, without any permission to make money. But with the Internet, we can sell our music." Only to Iranians, though, as economic sanctions don't yet permit transfers of money between Iran and the West.

"Ah, but you forgot about CDs," laughs Safir.

"In Tehran, there's fire in a trap"

In Iran, rap is forbidden music. According to the country’s conservatives, it’s the product of the devil, of Western depravity. But Safir doesn’t take this badly; he’s not here to criticise or go back over the ban. He even upends the foundations of banning as something that castrates and annihilates: Principle. “We have so many forbidden things in Iran, but does that prevent us from doing them? If forbidden rap can tell good stories, go ahead and forbid it! The ban only means it's an opportunity. The underground can make music better,” he points out with a mischievous smile. He says the local rap scene isn't only "profound" artists – it also has its share of crazy haircuts and video vixens dancing slowly to heavy beats and vulgar lyrics.

“There are several types of rappers. The type who put themselves in the position of others all the time, like 'I did this, I did that’ – they’re liars. There’s business rap, commercial rap, the kind that talks about drugs and girls. Then you have the rapper who’s ‘smarter than you,’ who pretends to know everything and is super into conspiracy theories.” That being said, Safir makes no pretensions of being unique in what he does himself. The people who listen to his music aren’t the same ones who go often to mosques, rub their tasbih beads or join bassidjis – volunteer militias – for a game of ping-pong. His listeners are the modest, moderate, or even upper class. They’re educated, open to the Western world, and thirsty for something new.

“Sixty percent of my listeners have a routine and know that routine is boring. We have a saying in Iran that there’s ‘fire in a trap.’ When you look, at first glance you see only the trap. But there’s this fire underneath it. Tehran is the trap, and artists and people who know society and the current situation, are the fire beneath it. So 60 percent of my fans are those people, while the other 40 percent are young people who are excited by my rhythms and flow. And I think those other 40 precent will become the fire in the trap.”

Safir is on social media, despite the difficulty sometimes of accessing it without a VPN (most notably during protests). He recognises the power of the tool when it is used as a “window onto the world,” but it can also be a strong means of turning one’s life from “comedy” into “tragedy,” to use Safir’s words. “Social media can sideline you, make you disappear.” He brings up the example of Amir Tataloo, the famous Iranian R&B singer. “During the elections, on Instagram, he said a lot of really stupid things… and on the day of the last elections, against all odds, he pledged his support for Raïssi [a conservative candidate]. Then he criticised those who got mad. By [giving] that support, he thought he’d get permissions and support from the censorship unit. Comedy and tragedy.”

Is Safir political and engaged? Yes and no. He certainly is in his words, which ask to be read with reflection and assiduity. But he's also not, because to be political beyond the surface can destroy more than a career. In 2009, when Iranian youths took to the street to voice their disagreement with the election results, Safir was 16, too young, and too geographically far from the protests. He maintains, however, that he also felt the anger. His hero, Hichkas, had written a song, “Tiripe Ma. Vol1” (“One Day Something Better Will Come”), which the young rapper listened to over and over.

I ask if he participated in the protests earlier this year. He can’t answer, but you can see the yes in his eyes. The fire is in the trap.

Quentin Müller is on Noisey.

This article originally appeared on Noisey FR.

This article originally appeared on VICE FR.