How Hip-Hop Connected the Iranian Diaspora and Taught Me to Swear in Farsi
The country's underground rap scene gave a voice to the youth – and one that didn't have to be conservative or polite.
The early 2000s were a vastly important time for cultural events: Michael Jackson died, YouTube and the iPod were founded, reality television became a thing, and Top of the Pops aired its final episode. And, at the same time in Iran, a significant underground music movement was beginning to blossom: Persian hip hop.
What started as a few Tehran based young artists imitating US hip hop – first rapping in English, then rapping in Farsi over US beats – eventually moved on to creating their own tracks and spitting in Farsi. For teenagers who lived in Iran, and for those who made up part of the roughly 80,000-deep Iranian diaspora in the UK, this phenomenon was massive. And for me, the genre gave me a deeper grasp of my mother tongue, even if only in the sense that I learned how to call someone a ho and talk about the universal phenomenon that is coke dick.
The two front-runners of the scene were arguably Hichkas, often called the Godfather of Iranian rap, and a group named Zedbazi, which formed in 2002. Hichkas combined hip-hop with elements from classical Iranian music: lyrically, he focused on social issues in Iran, steeped in nationalist tradition – and while his flow sounded aggressive, he avoided profanity. Zedbazi took the opposite approach and pioneered Iranian gangsta rap; becoming the first in a wave of musicians to swear and explicitly rap about sex and drugs, quickly achieving huge popularity among Iran's exceptionally young population (60 percent of the nation are thought to be under 30).
"Hip-hop is without a doubt the most popular genre for the young generation in Iran," says Mahdyar, Persian hip-hop's first and most iconic producer, speaking to me from Paris. "If you're out on the street you don't hear rock, you don't hear electronic – you hear hip-hop and pop – it's the biggest genre that's been created by the post-revolution generation."
"One thing that made Persian hip-hop so popular was the fact that it was uncensored – you were hearing stuff that you'd expect to hear when you were hanging out with your friends, or at home or whatever, but you'd never expect to hear it in a cultural context," he adds. And he's right – before the inception of Persian hip-hop in the early 2000s, the majority of popular Iranian music came from ageing artists who had fled or been exiled following the crackdown on music made in Iran following the 1979 revolution. In this way, Persian hip-hop could be recognised as the first youth-driven underground movement, granting young people the much-needed space for expression.
Before this, Iranian culture in the public sphere was traditionally polite and reserved. Any music due to be released or performed live must first be given a stamp of approval by the Ministry of Culture – which is still a practice that happens today. Although this can be easier than it sounds and results in permits for most music without lyrics, Persian hip-hop – with its lines about sleeping around and dropping pingers – was never going to get a pass. But for a generation of young Iranians who'd rarely enjoyed popular music that echoed their everyday experiences, the simple fact that these rappers spat the same slang used day-to-day among their peers led to instant popularity.
As a teenager, that message resonated with me too, even though I was halfway across the world. I was born and raised in northwest London, a second-and-a-half generation immigrant and eldest daughter to a dad with a record collection that was more Elton John than Ebi, and a mum who believed all music would lead to fiery damnation in the afterlife. In short, there wasn't much musical influence in my household growing up. Visiting family introduced me briefly to some Iranian pop, but that was about it – otherwise, I listened to whatever was considered cool by my mates at the time. Since I attended an all-girls school in Brent, in 2003 that was mostly 50 Cent, Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. After discovering Persian hip-hop on the internet, though, I gained my first insight into a whole new world: although I'd regularly visited Iran since I was a child, this was a side of my motherland I'd never previously been able to access or even knew existed.
Iran is a country of complex politics and culture: most people lead two lives – one private and one public, with both very different from each other. As a 14-year-old with no real network of Iranian friends, Persian rap was a portal into a world I hadn't realised existed. Even though Farsi was my first language because of my parents, there are certain words you don't learn from your mum and dad. For Iranian youth, rap showcased the reality of their conversations, relationships and daily experiences, but for me it was an opportunity to gaze into a private sphere that previously felt invisible (and a way to learn how to talk to Iranians my age in chat rooms without sounding like someone's nan).
Interestingly, a few of Zedbazi's members studied and lived outside of Iran at the time the scene was emerging, something that may have also added to their runaway success both in Iran and among the diaspora. Alireza Jazayeri AKA Alireza JJ, one of the group's founding members, told me that referencing life beyond Iran's borders gave Zedbazi an edge. "It really helped us to write the choruses and make hip-hop more commercial. We didn't want to do American hip-hop in Farsi, we wanted to have our own unique sound. I think that's why people responded to Zedbazi: the music was fun, it made references that no-one had ever heard of – Grey Goose, Cannes, Nice. Now it's common, but at the time in Iran it was totally new. The fact we studied and lived in Europe helped make us different from all the other rappers in Iran."
To that end, their most popular song to date, "Tabestoon Kootahe" (Summer Is Short), is about blissful summers spent partying and falling in love in Tehran despite having to spend the rest of the year living or studying abroad. "It's definitely the most popular song of our generation," Alireza JJ says. "It talks about nostalgia, and Iranians who live outside Iran can relate – everyone comes back home in the summer and has fun with their friends, but because of the situation in Iran they have to go study somewhere else. That message really resonated with a lot of people; it was more than a hip-hop song, it was a generational statement in a way."
Amazingly, the music swiftly made the rounds through word of mouth, with Alireza remembering that "Tabestoon" shot to success after the group burned it onto a bunch of CDs and handed it out at parties. But more broadly, the Persian hip-hop scene bloomed online rather than in particular clubs or areas. Most artists chose to bypass the Ministry of Culture entirely and make music in private – beats made in bedroom studios, raps recorded in underground basements - and everything was uploaded to the internet and shared for free online. All this has led to an online underground music scene that still spans across the globe – Alireza and Mahdyar live in Paris, whilst Hichkas lives in London following a couple of arrests for 'rapping'.
The importance of the internet in aiding the rise of Persian rap has meant that, unlike hip-hop's origins in the poverty-stricken South Bronx, the genre's beginnings were very much rooted in the upper and middle classes. In the early 2000s, if you were poor there's no way you'd have access to a home computer, meaning that many would have had little to no idea about the local hip-hop scene. As access to technology became more widespread, however, Persian hip-hop left the shadows of URL and trickled to the mainstream – due in part to the 2006 release of Hichkas's Jangale Asfalt (Asphalt Jungle), the first ever professional Persian hip-hop album. "After that it went to a whole other level", Mahdyar says. "We went from hundreds of rappers to thousands in a matter of months. Now we have a really advanced scene. The bars and use of metaphor we have right now are mind-blowing – I always think, I wish people knew Farsi!"
After my initial obsession with Persian hip-hop (which may have had something to do with my 14-year-old self's newfound interest in Iranian boys) I eventually left the genre behind. Recently though, I've started to revisit some of my favourite songs from those "golden years" on Youtube. And, over a decade later, I'm not surprised to discover a thriving scene that has evolved far beyond what had initially attracted me all those years ago. The difference now is that I'm out of touch, both with Iranian youth culture and my old online friends, and don't understand any of the slang being used – the surest sign of old age there is.
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(Lead Image courtesy of Alireza JJ)