Interview with musician Shahin Najafi on music and censorship in Iran

As part of the Iran Media Program and ASL19‘s continuing coverage of media policy in Iran, musician Shahin Najafi sat down with ASL19 for an interview about music and censorship in Iran.

[Crossposted with permission and thanks to the Iran Media Program and ASL19.]

Shahin Najafi is an Iranian rap star that recently came out of hiding after the Islamic Republic of Iran placed a fatwa, or religious edict, with a bounty of $100,000 for his life. The fatwa was issued in reaction to his song Naqi, named after Al an-Naqi, one of the 12 Imams the Islamic theocracy in Iran holds sacred. He calls upon Naqi to come save Iranians from oppression, human rights abuses and the contested 2009 presidential elections in Iran. After spending the summer in hiding, Shahin took the time to discuss his experiences as an Iranian musician dealing with issues of freedom of expression, his time in exile, and taking up themes of dissent against the Iranian government’s attempts at censoring cultural production.

What are your thoughts on the state of freedom of expression in Iran?
This reminds me of a well known joke in Iran, “There is no problem with freedom of expression in Iran, as it exists; the problem is with freedom ‘after’ expression.” This basically means that you are free to say what you want to say, but you can never predict the consequences. This issue, being fearful of expressing your thoughts exists in various domains apart from music. I must say the roots of these problems go beyond the current regime; it’s historical. As an artist, I have been fighting with two systems simultaneously: governmental censorship and traditional censorship.

The disaster starts when an artist believes that censorship, governmental pressure, and lack of freedom of expression can hinder innovation and creativity. Art is boundless, and its truly sad to see artists limit themselves within governmental and traditional boundaries.

Why do you think there’s so much emphasis on music censorship in Iran?

The current political system in Iran aims to control people’s lives in multiple domains. The government allows itself to interfere in your everyday life (this includes what you eat, drink, and listen to) with the help of religion and the law. As a result, you are at fault when you produce music that the government does not approve. You are convinced you’ve broken the law. Censorship in Iran is a very serious matter.

What drew you to music, and in particular this music of protest?

Some think that simply by discussing politics through music it becomes the music of protest. In my opinion, the concept of art is itself protest. As human beings, we want to live freely, so to the same extent that I present arguments against consumerism in North America or cattle slaughter in Spain, I have objections to compulsory veiling in Iran.

Were you always disillusioned with the Islamic Republic of Iran, or was it a gradual process of becoming critical?

It’s natural that people gradually recognize changes to their surroundings. There was a point in my life that I felt guilty about not speaking up about the changes I’d witnessed. I’ve read, learned and experienced, and art has given me the ability to share my inner self with others.

Did you always intend to provoke the regime with your music?

The regime does not matter to me; what matters is my land. This regime is not stable and it will change. What will remain are people and their beliefs and a culture that needs major reconstruction. The government has no legitimate standing in society, which is why it should be eradicated.

How do you see the future of Iran shaping up?

My wishes for Iran could be called hope, but I don’t like to predict the future. I only feel obligated to understand and describe this very moment. Today, Iran is a paradoxical society within which modernity and tradition are at war. Hopefully we can get closer to a form a society similar to Turkey, as reform happens.

Do you have any connections with those making music in Iran right now? Are you listening or supporting any local artists within Iran?

I often try to stay in touch with young Iranian underground bands and musicians and I’ve even cooperated with a few of them. I’m planning to establish an organization to support Middle Eastern musicians with difficulties publishing their work; I hope to support them and share my experiences with them, which is why I follow their work closely.

How has your exile affected your music, your career, and your sense of identity?

Life in the West taught me many things. I’ve re-trained and re-educated myself. I became familiar with new forms of music and truly understood what I had already heard before. I became more patient, and learned to give myself more time. A lot of things that were previously important to me have lost their significance, such as what others may think of me. I’ve learned to be myself and not to act, although it seems bitter and unpleasant, and almost animalistic.

Have you ever felt apprehensive about your career and how it will affect your own safety, and the safety of your loved ones?

I only care about my art, and I don’t allow myself to be distracted by these other thoughts. All who are in contact with me realize that my art is my only reason to live, and everything in my life is at the service of my work.

Do you believe in the brutality of the Islamic regime in carrying out their death threats against you, or do you think its just muscle flexing?

Can creating fear be even symbolic? An artist is not killed by his throat being cut, but by being prevented from working. They aim to kill me whether with guns or through creating fear and frightening me. I will stay alive and will continue working anyway!

What emotions do you have towards the threats and ill will so many have against you?

Certainly, it is not a good feeling, but everything that does not kill me will make me stronger. I will use this feeling to proceed with my work and to produce more songs.

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