It could have happened almost anywhere in the world. Sporting sunglasses and fluorescent sneakers, a small group of men and women danced on a rooftop to “Happy,” the hit single by Pharrell Williams. They filmed the party and uploaded the video to YouTube, where it received more than a million hits. But what makes that little scene unique, and dangerous, is that it happened in Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country governed by a strict interpretation of religious laws.
In the spring of 2014, not long after the video was released, Iranian authorities quickly put the young dancers behind bars. They were forced to repent on state television and threatened with 91 lashes, along with six months in prison. The authorities let the dancers go, but next time, they warned, they wouldn’t be so lenient. “It is beyond sad,” Williams told the press, “that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness.”
Now, roughly six months after the U.S. lifted economic sanctions, young Iranians are euphoric about rejoining the rest of the world. But many are still frustrated with the lack of jobs and still resentful of laws that prohibit criticizing the government in public, smoking marijuana or even drinking alcohol. Despite these strict rules, or perhaps because of them, underground music is flourishing, especially hip-hop.
Known as Rap-i-Farsi or 021 music (after the telephone city code for Tehran), Iranian hip-hop grew out of the same alienation and despair as its American precursor. But Iranian rappers have long spit from the shadows, selling their music clandestinely and holding secret concerts. “We don’t have clubs,” says Mahdyar Aghajani, 27, a hip-hop producer known to his fans by his first name. “But if you go to a party, people are playing rap.”
Six years ago, Tehran’s police chief, Hossein Sajedinia, deemed 021 music “morally deviant” and arrested scores of young rappers. That prompted some of Iran’s most popular MCs to leave the country. At the time, the authorities were still dealing with the fallout from the Green Movement, the mass demonstrations against then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But as the specter of new protests faded, so too did the mullahs’ hip-hop crackdown. Today, despite laws prohibiting rap, exiled artists are trying to change their country from afar, sharing beats and rhymes over Skype while introducing Rap-i-Farsi to new audiences outside of Iran. “We started as a small community of rappers,” says Mahdyar, one of the stars of the acclaimed 2010 film No One Knows About Persian Cats, which explores underground music in Tehran. “Now there are thousands of people rapping. It is the most popular thing young Iranians listen to.”
Mahdyar’s story is typical of many middle-class rappers in Tehran. As a kid growing up after the Islamic Revolution, he watched Western television on his parents’ illegal satellite dish. His favorite music video: Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. “My parents were always working, so I went to kindergarten when I was 3,” he says. “The teacher told us we were going to play an instrument. I wanted an electric guitar like Pink Floyd. She gave me a violin.”
He learned Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, and he played in a children’s orchestra. But at the age of 11, he started dabbling with graffiti, as a way to rebel against the country’s strict rules. Two years later, a chance meeting with some of Tehran’s burgeoning hip-hop artists got him started making beats. Under his tutelage, the Rap-i-Farsi movement soon expanded, with artists like Hichkas, Yas, Irfan and Salome MC, one of the country’s first female rappers. Today, Iranians liken him to RZA, the legendary producer and de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan.
In those early days, Iranian rap was subversive but subpar. “I went into the studio with the first guys, and they were terrible,” Mahdyar says. “Horrible mainstream beats. Nothing original. They were using instrumentals imitating American rap like Tupac or Big Pun. Or downloading stuff from the internet. It was bad.”
Mahdyar moved them away from imitating American rap and into “a more Middle Eastern, bouncy” style. Drawing on traditional Iranian pop, ancient Persian music, Farsi poetry, Islamic mysticism and his knowledge of classical strings, he created something stirring and uniquely Persian. “A lot of the lyrics, a lot of the message is about the gap between rich and poor—things that people can’t straight-out address with the government,” Mahdyar says. “So rap becomes the vehicle.”
Just ask Hichkas (Persian for “nobody”), aka Soroush Lashkary, 30, another middle-class rapper and perhaps the most popular Farsi MC. About 10 years ago, he reached out to Mahdyar after reading the rapper’s blog. They quickly bonded and started working on The Asphalt Jungle, an LP they released in 2006. Dark and provocative by Iranian standards, the album delves into politics, street cred, racism, sexism and repression. But there’s no swearing or glorifying money, drugs or sex, as is often the case with American hip-hop. The duo made 2,000 copies of Asphalt Jungle and sold out in two days.
The album tapped into the angst of growing up in revolutionary Iran, of the repression and fears of unemployment. But doing so caught the attention of the authorities. In 2006, Hichkas was arrested on charges of “rapping.” He spent a week behind bars, and the police confiscated his passport. He didn’t get it back for four years. “One day they might arrest you, one day they might not,” Mahdyar says. “The government was closing every public studio that we were recording in. They were focused on Hichkas and his huge influence on the underground scene and the young generation. They wanted him to be unable to work.”
The government pressure became so intense Mahdyar and Hichkas fled, in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Today, Hichkas is in London, where he is studying to be an accountant. Mahdyar lives in Paris and works as a composer for film and television. They are still making music, but living abroad makes it easier for them to circulate their work. “Trying to avoid censors is like playing cat and mouse,” says Mahdyar. “But the youth are always one step ahead. If the government blocks something, there is always a new app.”
Like many Iranian rappers, both at home and in exile, neither has gotten rich from hip-hop. “The music selling part is a bit complicated,” Mahdyar says. “I do rap for love.” Most of their fans are in Iran and still don’t have international credit cards, which is the legacy of the sanctions. That means it’s hard for artists to sell something on iTunes or get royalties from Spotify. And since rap is illegal in Iran, any money artists do get has to be handled in creative ways to manipulate the country’s banking system, which sometimes involves using charities or random bank accounts as fronts. Most 021 fans, however, don’t pay for the rap they listen to. “It started as a free underground music, and people got used to that,” Mahdyar says. “We always put our songs on SoundCloud, YouTube, Telegram, etc., for free streaming.”
From his apartment in Paris, Mahdyar is now branching out and working with six other rappers, some in Iran. One of his new protégés, Quf, recently made a track called “Marjan,” slang for marijuana (even talking about the drug is considered risqué for Persian hip-hop). “Some of these guys are naturals and just need help with the complicated rhythms or complex beats,” he says. “Others need guidance with lyrics.”
Both Mahdyar and Hichkas have had some success in Europe, headlining shows for more than 10,000 people. But being far from the 021 has changed their music, made it more global and less focused on what’s happening in Iran. “But it’s still about injustice,” says Hichkas. “Injustice about anything—sexism, racism, homophobia.” So far, he’s resisted rapping in English, even though he speaks the language fluently. “That would be cheesy,” Mahdyar says. “Farsi is what works for him best.”
Both men would love to return home. But if they did, they could wind up like the revelers on that spring night in Tehran, arrested for doing nothing more than singing and dancing to a popular Western song. “I haven’t been home in six years,” says Mahdyar. “But at least I can sleep at night and make music and not think someone’s going to kick down the door.”