From classical melodies to rap, Iran’s music reveals its long struggle for political freedom.
Music was one of the first casualties of the Iranian Revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini decreed early on that music was “opium for the masses” and so it was banned in 1979. But music has deep roots in Iranian culture and quickly crept back into public life. Indeed, in the absence of a free official public sphere, music has offered one of the most important vehicles for political expression in the face of government repression, creating a channel of mass communication that has transformed public culture within the limits of an authoritarian state. At the same time, Iranian music tells the story of the evolution of the state itself, from a severe republic of mourning to one that allows for a certain type of controlled fun. Now more than thirty-five years on from the revolution, both the children of the revolution and their music have come of age and the art they have produced offers a striking account of Iranian culture, politics, and social change. Taken together, the eight songs below shed light on issues at the heart of debates in Iran—about its future and identity, the quest for political freedom, and changing notions of religiosity.
Iran’s 1979 revolution was an immensely hopeful moment in the country’s history. Passionate and powerful songs were produced by political groups of leftist, nationalist and Islamist persuasions, who worked together to topple Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. The outbreak of spontaneous musical production at the time is a testament to its true and organic nature.
The first song that was broadcast from state radio after Islamists had taken over the revolution, as well as the country’s airwaves, was this powerful march, inspired by the rooftop cries of Allah-o Akbar (God is great) often heard at the time:
For nearly a decade, Iran was quite literally a republic in mourning, as the country fought Iraq and sent hundreds of thousands of its sons to the frontlines. During this dark decade, only religious lamentation or march music could be heard on official airwaves, and people with music tapes in their cars or homes, if they were found, were severely punished. The voice that best represents this decade is Sadeq Ahangaran, also known back then as Imam Khomeini’s nightingale. He was dispatched to the frontlines to sing of heroism and sacrifice to Iran’s armies. Here he commemorates the martyrs of Iran’s southern frontlines, accompanied by a human orchestra beating their chests:
When people think of political music or music of resistance in the Iranian context, they often think of the newer underground music. But actually the music that has created the biggest public in Iran hails from the time of the nation’s first struggles for democracy during the time of its constitutional revolution in 1906-1911, long before many European countries established constitutional governance. At the time, the poet/singer-songwriter Aref Qazvini was the first to turn music into a political tool. He and a few other poets created works that endure to this day, songs that have been witness to a now century-long struggle for political freedom in Iran.
Iran’s preeminent vocalist of classical music, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, more than anyone embodies the epic struggle of the Iranian nation for democracy when he sings “Morgh-e Sahar” (Morning Bird). This constitutional-era song calls on the caged bird to break free and sing of freedom. The 76-year-old Shajarian is always implored by audiences after each and every concert to sing what has today become a ritual song of protest. Shajarian is for now banned from giving concerts at home:
About two decades into the revolution, around the late 1990s, Iran was finally emerging from the dark war years and going through a hopeful period. People had elected the reformist president Mohammad Khatami with an overwhelming majority. Iran’s youth were experimenting with music in basements all around the country. In 1999, O-Hum performed what was touted as the “first” underground rock concert in a semi-public place, which presented a turning point by brining to light a burgeoning youth culture. O-Hum fused Persian poetry and instruments with rock. One writer wrote that when O-Hum played “Darvish,” a fan favorite, all one could see was “slam-dancing, raging, diving.” In contrast to the state’s promotion of a more dogmatic form of Shi’ism, O-Hum’s “Darvish” diverged into Iran’s Sufi tradition:
Khatami’s reforms also created a space within which journalists started to publish critical newspapers, students’ and women’s rights activists began to organize for their political and social demands, and a budding civil society took shape. “Yar-e Dabestani” (Elementary Schoolmate) harks from 1979 and conjures up a nostalgic sense of unity, calling forth elementary school days when all Iranians were innocent, equal, and optimistically raised to contribute to the betterment of their country. Since the rebirth of political activism in Iran in the late1990s, it has increasingly been employed as a song that activists, reformists, and ordinary people sing in political gatherings:
Two decades into the revolution the Islamic Republic lifted its ban on pop music, and a new generation of musicians marked this period with a flurry of concerts and albums filled with joyous pop music, previously considered subversive. The Arian band was emblematic of this change in the public sphere, not just because of their music, but also because they had among their musicians one female guitarist and two female vocalists. Their 2001 song “Parvaz” (Flight) rocked dozens of concerts across Iran:
The first decade of the millennium was witness to a lot of innovation in Iranian music, much of it in the underground scene. The enfant terrible of recent Iranian music, Mohsen Namjoo, made his mark also by creating fusion music, but he dared to blend Persian classical music with other genres in unprecedented ways, combined with an unconventional singing style on sometimes taboo-breaking subjects. In a song that got him exiled from the country, Namjoo even sings Quranic verses to blues and rock. Here is “Toranj” (Citron), which received a permit for publication in 2007—though subsequently, the official who facilitated the release of Namjoo’s album was resigned from his post:
The most popular genre of music among Iran’s youth today is arguably Rap-e Farsi. Hichkas, AKA “the Godfather of Persian Rap” has succeeded in creating music that empowers a youth that is bereft of hope and opportunities by placing the responsibility for holding up Iran’s flag and honor on them. In this 2008 song, he refers to them as “a bunch of soldiers”: