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Music

Off the Beaten Track: The outlawed indie stars of Iran

@TomTaylorFO

Music might not have the political prowess to change a bill or pass a law, but it has the subversive force to usurp politics entirely and push progress and change through under the noses of the bourgeoise. Rock might not meddle with the finer details, but it has the power to influence ballots by guiding the way for youth, and it is a benevolent unifying force that since its origins on plantations has spoken of solidarity and defiance that power cannot ignore. The hardy folks who cling to this ideal despite all the threats that howl around them deserve more of a global spotlight. 

Few regions in the world have suffered a more tempestuous modern history than Persia. It has been a region besieged by war, revolt and regrettable bloodshed. However, from this fractious environment, an underground movement has formed, one that aims to take back control and give a voice to youth in a purely pacifist manner that will hopefully help to deliver the region from turmoil. 

In 1987, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, ordinary civilians were looking for some sort of salvation from the horrors of conflict and abusive regimes. On May 17th, 1987, the US involvement in the war was amplified when a warship stationed near the Saudi Arabian coast was attacked by Iraqi jet aircraft. In the ensuing incursion not only did American forces become more prominent in the area but also the cultural hegemony of the States.

Slowly but surely, seeded from this marriage of terror and disillusioning violence, something rather more beautiful would flower and breathe life into a broken society like a blossom breaking through the rubble. The youth of Iran would soon become aware of rock ‘n’ roll music. They identified with the youthful spirit extolled from being disenfranchised from the world around them and using art to make a difference. They bravely sought to do the same. 

In a place where secular music is banned and punishments are beyond severe, this wasn’t any ordinary anarchist middle finger to the proverbial man, but rather a youth cult looking to bring hope, salvation and change to an entire region, armed against a brutalist regime with nothing more than a few haphazard instruments and a love for indie rock. 

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, any artist in the country had to abide by the laws of the Islamic Republic and all performances were pre-approved by the state. Naturally, as has forever been the case, this merely forced creative rebels underground. While this may have softened in recent times to an extent, it still largely remains the case. Musicians performing illegally can routinely face two months in prison and 400 people at a time have been arrested for attending unauthorised underground concerts.

And yet the insatiable attitude for the exultation of music in all of its modern guises and the need to try and enforce change keeps the scene alive. However, it isn’t all about the future. Iranian culture has been a vibrant influence of literature, music and art at the forefront of society for aeons. The youth of today have infused this into their output in the hope to keep the past, before the brutalism, alive in their work.

With this, the indie rock and growing hip hop scenes ubiquitous in the underground have become profuse with a sense of poetry harking back to the nation’s past as well as the illumination of the future. By combining both western influences and traditional introspection, they feel that a national identity for modern times in Iran is being espoused and their determination to keep going despite the threats speaks of a hope to bring this ethos from the underground and thrust it to the forefront. 

With the pro-democracy movement still a gathering force in the region, these subterranean unacknowledged legislators that have escaped one too many news bulletins on the area may well be making an impact after all. Sadly, this force is curtailed because a lot of big stars are forced to flee, but with the continual boom of the underground routinely covered in the region’s podcast Deep House Tehran, it would seem that they are creating a lasting impact as they depart. 

Alas, with the growing influence of technology making it harder to suppress and films like No One Knows Persian Cats bringing the subject further attention, the subversive wave is rearing out of its subterranean cage. With this progress even the music itself has morphed, becoming less directly derivative of the west and incorporating local ideas both new and old, adding an organic element vital for the sustainability of any movement. The threats still remain, but the very fact that you can hear and read about this stuff today is testimony to the inviolable spirit of its hardy creators. 

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