“For dancing in the streets, because of the fear of kissing each other, for changes to old values, because of shame, because of poverty, out of longing for a normal life (…).”

It’s for or because of these reasons that the period since September 2022 has seen people in Iran hit the streets again and again. The present wave of protests was touched off by the fate suffered by the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Jina Amini, who was arrested and tortured due to her “incorrect” Islamic clothing and ultimately died as a result. Since then, countless thousands of Iranians have been staging public demonstrations inside and outside the country to oppose Iran’s repressive government and demand regime change.

“Baraye”—a song by the 25-year-old Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour whose title means both “For” and “Because” in Farsi—became the anthem of Iran’s current protest movement more or less overnight. With its lyrics having been taken from tweets by protesters announcing why they were going out to demonstrate, “Baraye” was recognised as Best Song for Social Change at the Grammy Awards in February 2023.

In order to understand the central role of this song and of music in general in the current Iranian protests, it’s necessary to consider historical and political developments. Ever since Iran’s Islamisation during the sixth century CE, the country’s relationship with music has been tense and subject to severe restrictions. Music has been labelled as “diabolical” and “seductive”, something that “clouds the senses like a drug”.

At the outset of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, a fatwa (a religious legal ruling) issued by the country’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, expanded existing restrictions to cover all music-making. It was one of the Grand Ayatollah’s first acts in office alongside the commonly known clothing regulations for women and men. The effects on the cultural landscape—and especially on the country’s young musicians—were devastating: private and state-run schools and universities of music were closed, concert halls, clubs, and bars were sealed, ensembles and orchestras were dissolved, radio stations were stripped of their musical programming, and musicians—especially from the popular music scene—were no longer permitted to work, for which reason many fled to live in exile. At this point, even carrying an instrument in public had become subject to punishment.

In September 1980, the year after the Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War began. At this point, revolution and war songs were legitimised. Music was now harnessed in order to unite and mobilise society for a common goal—that of Iranian victory. Eight years and around one million lost Iranian lives later, the country had been destroyed. The atmosphere in Iran was one of despair—and the government saw itself once again forced to use music to lift the country’s spirits. Iran thereupon witnessed the birth of a new music industry that initially focused on traditional Persian music such as that of Mohammad-Reza Shajarian. At the same time, however, albums from abroad—above all from Los Angeles and with music by prominent Iranian stars in exile like Ebi, Dariush, and Homeyra—began appearing on the Iranian black market. The government declared listening to such music a punishable offense. Their control, however, was undermined by digital duplication technologies digital duplication and—later on—streaming services. In order to regain control over music’s content, the government found itself once again forced to allow more music production and reception in the country—albeit subject to severe and detailed measures. This also touched off a renewed resurgence of the music industry in Iran. It went on to produce numerous successful groups such as Arian (a 15-person pop/rock band), which soon found enthusiastic fans and listeners even among the Iranian diaspora abroad.

The production, release, and performance of music in Iran is subject to stringent and strictly controlled requirements: prior to every concert and every album release, all content (texts and lyrics, music, participating individuals, pictures, the album cover, etc.) has to be inspected and approved by the “Censorship Authority”—and such content must refrain from any and all statements or insinuations that criticise the regime or exhibit political or erotic overtones. At pop and rock concerts, eagle-eyed “supervisors” sit in the audience and make sure that neither the musicians nor the audience members move rhythmically with the music, much less dance. Any audience members who do are flashed with a laser pointer, given warnings, or “accompanied” out of the venue. Artists who behave “indecently” onstage are subject to punishments that can range all the way to being banned from their profession.

All this speaks to how engagement with music as such—and especially with “happy” popular music—has been viewed as an expression of protest in Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution. Making music in the streets, listening to music in one’s car, and carrying an instrument in public are therefore all things that can be viewed as signifying resistance and rebellion. The regime’s efforts to hinder music-making in concerts as well as other forms of public dissemination were and still are, however, doomed to failure. After all, artists’ desire for artistic expression motivates them all the more to come up with creative solutions when faced with repressive and authoritarian structures.

Their lyrics hence frequently include cryptic references to “forbidden” themes. When “darkness” or “winter” are sung about, like in the song “Dream Away with Me” by Pallett, it is in reference to Iran’s regressive government—while “sunrise” stands for regime change. And in love songs (which are not allowed to be labelled as such), such forbidden references likewise exist: a “journey together” quite often means lovemaking, and “the Moon reflected in the pond” refers to physical intimacy between man and woman. Viewed in this light, a song like “Baraye”—so blatantly critical of the system—going viral overnight and eventually becoming known internationally as a messenger of the protesting voices from Iran can be considered a rough slap in the face for the Iranian regime.

Since September 2022, numerous protest songs have been produced—a notable example of which would be Magdal’s “Zan Zendegi Azadi”. In such songs, musicians both Iran-based and exiled express their rage, their sadness, their sympathy, and their solidarity with the victims, memorialising those who’ve lost their lives or calling for an insurrection, demanding their rights or encouraging the protesters.

Doing so takes a lot of courage, but courage is something that young Iranians have in spades—as one sees in the images from recent demonstrations. While musicians in Austria are at most worried about bad reviews or poor concert ticket or album sales, their colleagues in Iran have to fear for their professional existences, their freedom, and sometimes even their lives and the lives of their loved ones with every release. The young Iranian rapper Toomaj, for instance, was arrested and sentence to death for his song “Faal” as well as for quite generally authoring lyrics critical of the system. Currently imprisoned by the Iranian state, he has already gone nearly blind in one eye due to the abuses and torture methods for which Iranian prisons are notorious. Numerous further artists and journalists but also physicians, lawyers, and large numbers of those who have raised their voices and expressed their criticism of the regime are likewise currently imprisoned.

Even so, the protests in Iran continue—supported by music that motivates, encourages, and comforts. And although not much is being reported on it anymore and the images from the streets in Iran have been supplanted in our perception by other news, we who live outside Iran do have to continue asking ourselves what we can do to stand in solidarity with the people there and support them in their struggle. The Iranian regime is a threat—not only to the people in Iran but to the entire global community. Therefore, lending the people in Iran our ears and a voice also serves to defend our own hard-fought European values such as peace, freedom, and democracy.

Check out our Spotify playlist for music by Iranian artists:

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