Classical music aficionados are fond of saying that in music, the silences have as much meaning as sound, and in the lead-up to Iran’s presidential election today, the relative silence of Persian rappers compared to their lyrical engagement in 2009 is deafening.[i] Why has this year’s presidential election failed to excite Iran’s hip-hop community to its previous level of politically-articulate production? Widespread belief that the 2009 results were fraudulent spawned the Green Movement and an abundance of protest rap, but even prior to this escalation, well-known rappers were commenting on election issues in their lyrics and had recorded songs in support of reformist candidates Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi. Westerners took note of rap’s resonance with Iran’s youth, the largest segment of Iran’s population, and began to analyze its contents for insight into the country’s future. On the eve of Iran’s presidential election, a closer look at Persian rap as social and political activism offers insight into the meaning of its current comparative silence.
Why rap? Iranian Studies specialist Clayton Keir asserts that the poetic nature of rap music translates well to Iranian culture due to the prominence of poetry in Persian society. Persian poetry classics from Khayyam, Ferdowsi, Saadi, and Rumi remain an important part of Iranian culture, pride, and education. Many Persian rappers consider themselves to be continuing this same poetic tradition and explicitly reference these works in their lyrics or adapt them to rap songs. As Yas, the “Persian Tupac,” put forth, “Hip-hop began in America, but Iran has had one of the longest traditions of poetry of any in the world. Poetry is in our blood.”
Keir also attributes the appeal of rap among young Persian music artists to the mark that African-Americans have left on it. Iranian rappers view rap as the music of an economically disenfranchised group and an outlet for grievances. The music form traditionally has an angry, protest-friendly tone. Moreover, the lyrically-based music genre allows for the greater development of criticisms and encourages the listener to focus on content. “With this music style I can tell a whole story which is impossible to do in other music styles. I have a lot to say,” explains Yas.
The rap form itself is a protest statement, a challenge to the government’s efforts to curtail Western influences in Iran. Although not explicitly forbidden, most rap in Iran occurs illegally since artists must receive a mojavvez, or permission, from the government in order to sell their music or perform. Most submissions from rappers are rejected on the grounds of exhibiting “unsuitable” words, grammatical errors, “unsuitable” personal grooming, “superfluous” stage movements, etc. By virtue of existing outside the confines of government control, however, rap gains a kind of social legitimacy.
Thanks to social media and new media sharing technologies, Persian rap flourishes on the Internet. The Iranian government actively blocks or filters popular social media websites, such as YouTube and Facebook, but users circumvent censorship with the help of filter-breaking technologies, in large part provided by the United States. Additionally, Persian music websites such as Bia2.com (Come in), Bia2rap.com (Come to rap), Rapfa.com, and Zirzamin.org (Underground) allow users to read about new music and download songs. These sites thus facilitate the development of a virtual opposition community which calls for change and influences political activism.
While Persian rappers outside of Iran often directly criticize the government without fear, rappers inside Iran tend to cloak their criticisms, describing problems that have resulted from the failings of the government and allowing the listener to fill in the gaps. Common themes include economic problems/poverty, social injustices, and women’s issues. In 2009, however, even inside of Iran, rappers began to comment on specific political issues and situations. As Keir states, they persuaded people to engage in oppositional behavior, promoted solidarity among those opposing the government, pointed to existing problems, and offered solutions.
Rap in Iran still offers cloaked messages and a flippantly alternative form, but its exuberance of political engagement in 2009 has largely been absent during this most recent election. Why? What is different this time? Rappers’ most popular grievances about economic failures and social inequalities certainly have not been solved, and perhaps have become more urgent.
Is it because none of the “cautious” reformist candidates have truly inspired the youth opposition to the level that Moussavi did in 2009? Excitement on par with that felt in 2009 began to coalesce around former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, but he ultimately was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Has the government succeeded in trying to keep energy levels low in order to prevent the polarization of the election and a repeat of what happened in 2009? Is it because voters have become disillusioned by the election process due to widespread belief that the 2009 election was rigged? Various polls suggest that voter turnout is still likely to exceed 60%, but this may have more to do with creating the illusion of legitimacy for whomever is elected. Although the regime has actively sought to curtail enthusiasm by disqualifying popular reformists from candidacy—ending university terms early, minimizing confrontations between candidates during debates, etc.—at the same time it has shown concern for ensuring a high voter turnout, scheduling local elections for the same day and reminding voters of their civic duty in television announcements.
Is politically-pointed rap largely absent this time because, in the wake of unremitting suppression of freedom of expression since 2009, rappers are afraid to engage in criticisms that are too overt? Many reform newspapers have been shut down, access to the internet and foreign broadcasts restricted, and journalists detained. Likewise, several popular rap artists have fled Iran since 2009.
Keir suggests that the answer might lie in the confluence of all of these things, and notes that despite current conditions, even in its cloaked form, rap in Iran is playing an integral role in the development of an alternative ideology and a culture of resistance. What would have to happen to cause an eruption of political activism now in rap, this most perfectly-suited medium of protest? Maybe we’ll find out today.
[i] I refer here to rappers who are still in Iran, not Persian-language rappers outside of the country, some of whom left after the events of 2009.