I’m a hand that has become a fist…
I’m a Shia in Bahrain, I’m an Armenian in WWI
I’m the one who is starving, with ribs obvious from starvation
They are raping someone and I am the sound of the agonised screaming
When they tell him or her “relax, so that we can enjoy it, whore”, I’m that tense muscle
I’m an Afghan homosexual woman that lives in Iran
Iranian rapper Soroush Lashkari, aka Hichkas, is sharing extracts from an unfinished song for his new album Mojaz, translating the lyrics into English on the spot. Hichkas (Nobody) has been called the godfather of Iranian hip-hop, which seems fitting for a man who turned the local calling code for Tehran — 021 — into song and a sign language that became the symbol of the Iranian hip-hop movement and its followers. But being a hip-hop artist in a country where the genre is banned comes with many challenges.
“When we made physical copies of our first album Jangale Asphalt in 2006, we were arrested whilst selling it on the streets of Tehran,” Hichkas, now in his late twenties, tells Index on Censorship. “You can’t just sell records in Iran, you need to seek approval from the authorities before you release anything or perform concerts. There is no structure or support system for musicians to perform freely, and in particular for hip hop artists.”
Anyone who wishes to publish, distribute or perform music in Iran is required to submit their work for review by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), which is guided by Islamic law in force since the country’s 1979 revolution. The MCIG operates under the influence of the minister of culture, who is chosen by the president and the parliament. Even if the amount of freedom artists may experience varies under each presidency, all recordings submitted are archived to ensure the authenticity of Iranian musical culture is maintained. Exposure to Western music is also heavily scrutinised with genres such as hip-hop banned altogether. The implication is that musicians adopting traditional Iranian standards are favoured over artists incorporating external sounds tainted with “decadence”. The name of Hichkas’ upcoming album Mojaz -– meaning an album or artwork within the mojavez, the seal of approval required from the MCIG to sell records in the country.
The advent of the internet has provided an opportunity for musicians to challenge official censorship. The MCIG measures, designed with the intention to control the relationship between musician and audience within Iran’s geographical borders, often lead to long waits for recordings to be released. Digital technologies allow artists to distribute music produced in home-based studios or in secret locations, bypassing official channels. The web had a particular effect on Iranian hip-hop, helping rappers facilitate their own version of concerts through mobile phone video uploads and live streaming.
A figurehead in developing these alternative systems of dissemination, Hichkas argues the intention was not to go against the revolutionary regime as part of a political act. “Even if the laws allowed rappers to release music freely, consumers of music around the world were already shifting towards buying internet downloads,” he says. “In other words, the crisis of selling music was not unique to Iran; the real problem back home is that there is no way of making money from shows with rappers not being allowed to perform.”
But having been arrested numerous times for his work, it’s clear that even if you claim to shun politics, everything becomes political under a paranoid regime. “I’m actually a quiet person,” he said.
Hichkas doesn’t replicate American accents and maintains his typically Iranian appearance, blending in with those on the street. Most importantly, he embraces literary devices rooted in traditional Iranian poetry and turns it into conversational street talk that engages the disillusioned.
“I don’t like the blinging culture of hip-hop made in America that celebrates money and fakeness,” he said. “Me and my friends were teenagers making music that described our own culture, the society we grew up in, and challenging the clichés associated with it.”
He argues that the absence of hip-hop from the Iranian music scene is due to the lack of artists adopting the genre, rather than the association of hip-hop as a Western import. “No one had adopted rap to make music about our culture before us, so it was inevitable to be the first in finding that path for hip-hop to be heard,” he says. “We set standards through being driven by the love of what we were doing, which forced authorities to catch up and think about how investments can be made into a growing movement.”
Being a pioneer in developing a distribution network meant Hichkas’ many supporters outside of Iran began facilitating performances for him abroad in 2011, helping him get visas and opportunities to lecture at leading universities. Now based in London and juggling studio time alongside college work, he hopes his work on Mojaz “will add more substance to the poetry” and “set new benchmarks musically within the global standards of hip-hop by making it experimental but at the same time catchy”.
While he admits that rapping in Farsi is “a big barrier” to international audiences, he hopes the inclusion of English subtitles will help listeners find common ground across cultures. “Although previous songs were written in Iran and made in Iran, my lyrics were against evil deeds all around the world,” he explains. “They were against human discrimination in general. I want to continue writing something that engages my audience back home by addressing issues I have always talked about. I will use different lyrics, matching together social problems worldwide to scenes and characters that they can relate to.”
He says being in London, and having the opportunity to meet people from all over the world “helps me think about humanity through discovering common viewpoints.” The relocation also means working out new processes of distribution, from the logistics of sharing music from outside Iran, to the adoption of technological developments such as the bitcoin.
Navigating the external restrictions in his work has in itself become an art in the development of hip-hop. Working alongside long-time producer Maghdyar Aghajani, Hichkas preserves Iranian roots in his work whilst ensuring he can make his mark on the world wide hip-hop scene by making “a more complex music rather than the typical hip-hop” in his upcoming album.
“Self-censorship actually helps you to have more impact,” Hichkas argues. “Regardless of what the authorities say, if you come out in an extremely raw way in a closed society, people are not going to understand you. Also, if someone can’t go back to his or her society, how is he or she able to see what’s going on internally in his or her country? Why say something if you end up in jail for three years?”
He has tried writing about who he would be if he didn’t live under these rules, but gave up. “It just didn’t work,” he explains, “the lyrics wouldn’t flow, simply because I felt I would still be the same person, pushing boundaries through talking about whatever is going on around me from the culture I come from.” He says he wants to study psychology, “to understand how these cultures shape people, including those who choose to go into government.”
“Therefore, my music is not aimed at changing politics, but changing something at a grassroots level.”