Acknowledged as one of the “50 people shaping the culture of the Middle East” by The Huffington Post, Bahram Nouraei's music transcends borders, resonating deeply with audiences worldwide. With his latest LP, Khodha capturing the hearts and minds of listeners, Bahram’s powerful voice challenges the higher echelons of society and cuts through the noise, reflecting the weariness and anger festering within the Iranian community. In a country plagued by censorship and social barriers, Bahram's music becomes a channel for unspoken truths, transforming anger into hope and resilience.
In this exclusive interview, Bahram delves into the profound impact of his music, the challenges of being a rapper in Iran, his unwavering determination in the face of adversity, and his vision for a brighter future. With thought-provoking questions spanning social, political, cultural, and personal realms, Bahram offers a unique perspective on his artistry, his Iranian identity, and the path he envisions for his motherland.
I decided to get in touch with you following the success of your latest LP Khodha which dominated all twelve top spots on SoundCloud’s Hot&New chart. I felt like this LP really transmitted the common feeling of tiredness and anger brewing amidst the Iranian community these past months. I felt like you wanted to turn your anger into hope and resilience. Can you disclose what you hoped your listeners would take away from this album?
Honestly, I can’t even express how much tiredness and anger people are dealing with. The lack of organisation makes it even more frustrating keeping them in a state of crippling desperation. It’s a huge challenge to capture all that rage in a track, but that rage could also be the driving force of positive change. I thought I’d try to redirect that rage towards a more constructive force by motivating my audience to face and accept their inner shadows or suppressed selves. I see this as the most crucial step for reaching a deeper understanding of others. Why? Because how we treat others in our society is an external manifestation of how we treat ourselves internally. That’s something that has been systematically removed from our collective culture distorting our perception of social reality and destroying our ability to organise to achieve meaningful socio-political change. This is the main function of authoritarian regimes - it’s not only about police brutality and imprisonment of the dissidents - at the underlying levels, they have been working to distort our perception of who we are inside. This has been primarily achieved by restricting freedom of expression and destroying any means of healthy social interaction. This is what I felt I should address in this album.
Your first breakthrough single was the politically charged track Nameyee Be Rayees Jomhour which translates to A letter to the president. A track which served as an open letter criticising the sixth president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Can you discuss the inspiration behind this track? What gave you the courage to release it and how does it reflect upon your political agenda and the country’s current hardships?
Well, the track is based on a fundamental principle in Islam called Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice - this authorises the dictation of Islamic values forbidding everything that is against them. When I see that this is still taking lives of the young Iranians today, it shows me how big of a failure a religion-based political system really is as an idea, and how much we need to achieve a complete secularisation of politics and society.
I got the idea back in 2006-2007 when this issue was discussed in a TV interview with the presidential candidate of the time, Ahmadinejad, who was a fresh new look for the so-called fundamentalists. Some people were scared. They believed that if Ahmadinejad rose to power, people would no longer be able to wear what they want, others were more optimistic since “at least he was not a Mulla”.
During that interview, Ahmadinejad addressed these concerns trying to get some middle-class votes. He said: “The real problem of our people is not the hairstyle of our children. It doesn't matter to you and me how they style their hair. The government should focus on stabilising the economy, bringing peace to the country, improving mental well-being, and supporting the people. The current problem in our country is not, what clothes a certain girl is wearing.” But almost instantly after he got elected, morality police cars started patrolling in the streets arresting women for how they look and what they were wearing. That obvious contradiction just robbed me the wrong way.
At that time, I was about 18 years old or so, just about the age that I could vote for the first time. So, my mind was pretty sensitive and curious looking out for clues and arguments to form a political opinion. I heard people talking about this and other issues on a taxi ride and felt like people were fooled by the false statements on freedom of expression and how it should not be a matter of governmental intervention. Hence, I decided to write a song in the form of an open letter and incorporate that same statement in the beginning of the song to provide more specific context, and I called it a letter to the president.
I wanted it to be ruthless but respectful at the same time. I wanted it to be a responsibly made social commentary rather than a simple emotional outrage. I didn’t want to provide an escape door for the listener or to be understood just as an angry teenager venting his emotions. I wanted it to sound serious, legitimate, and empathetic in terms of the quality of my social criticism, considering the seriousness of the matter. That was my understanding of being political at that age.
When it comes to restrictive laws, regulations and punishments, things have only changed for the worst ever since realising that track, and more money has been invested in new organisations for morality police projects. Nonetheless, more and more political songs have also surfaced addressing social issues and incorporating the sounds of protests in the streets or political speeches in songs and albums.
This ultimately created a socially conscious genre in Iranian hip hop where rappers started to assume political agency providing serious socio-political commentary in their songs in much more thought-provoking and creative ways. That process empowered rappers by positioning them in a much more meaningful place in society where they could contribute to the societal progress through independent musicianship, as a result of which we were known as the sound of protest, the voice of the unheard.
Can you talk about the challenges of being a rapper in Iran and how you have navigated censorship and social barriers? For people unfamiliar with Iran’s underground hip-hop scene, The Islamic regime has a record of targeting artists and intellectuals that don’t follow their official pro-islamic agenda. Ettela’at – Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security – monitors rappers who use hip-hop as a tool to call out the current political climate in Iran.
Well, from my perspective, we are the challenge. Being a rapper is a challenge for the system. We are the ones ignoring the rules. We are the ones delegitimising the restrictive forces. We are the ones showing everybody that we don’t have to just follow whatever the law says. That we need to have another set of rights in mind and hold the system accountable for not meeting them. The system did everything in its power to take over the dominant narrative about us, to appropriate our stories, to make us socially irrelevant or to silence us through imprisonment. They made [quote unquote] documentaries to propagate we are the promoters of vulgarity and satanism. Imprisoned us to promote fear hoping we would back down yet they failed miserably.
We entered political discussions and managed to get ourselves known as the voice of the unheard through norm-critical social commentary helping us achieve a more influential social status. They have also tried to produce their own rappers and music makers hoping they can have a say in the game. Yet, they failed again since our audience is clever enough to see through them and pressure them or hold them accountable. So, when you look at it closely, you’ll clearly see that we are the failure of the regime. We are the challenge itself.
You were monitored closely during Iran’s 2009 presidential election and Ettelaa’at had begun gathering evidence against you as early as 2006. On the morning of March 9th 2009, you were detained by police and taken to Intelligence Ministry Ward 209 in Evin Prison where you were placed under solitary confinement. How have you dealt with these cruel challenges, and what has pushed you to continue making music and speaking out?
I don’t need a push to make music or to speak out. You just have to focus on whatever you love to do and then deal with the consequences. No matter how tough those consequences are, it’s worth living your life the way you feel you are entitled to. The more unjust and cruel the challenges, the more opportunities you have to learn and use them as your benefits. The basic principle is to focus on the next best move and play with whatever hand you were dealt with in the best way possible. To focus on what you can control and deal with what you can’t. That’s the game I play. And I’m pretty good at it.
The use of swear words and unrestrained language is unacceptable upon the eyes of the government but also Iranian society as a whole. Most Iranians find themselves living double lives in fear of public opinion. How hard was it to break linguistic taboos in such a conservative society?
I do not focus only on breaking taboos. But It’s sort of necessary sometimes for authentic expression. That’s the main point. So, when it happens, you need to let it flow. My experience is that our audience is much more receptive to authenticity even when it’s accomplished by profanity. At the end of the day, it’s just a matter of the context of the song and the authenticity of the character you are creating.
Your work is widely recognised due to its philosophical nature and portrayal of society and economics. There are no mentions of any violent call to arms. Why is it that the Islamic regime is so afraid of you?
They are afraid of art that is produced through critical thinking and is engaged with socio-political questions. This is mainly because they are well aware of the artists’ impact on power structures and counter-hegemonic discourses. They know how powerful art can be in terms of mobilising people, legitimising different lifestyles and thinking systems, documenting social phenomena and changing how people think and feel about things. It’s always a matter of how artists position themselves in relation to the hegemonic discourses and underlying structures of power. What I focus on is basically the cultural constructions that provide social legitimacy for the current regime to be able to remain in control of things. I believe that a system must be rooted somewhere in the collective imagination of the nation and its cultural history. Otherwise, it cannot sustain its power. So, it’s not enough to pursue regime change without targeting its cultural and ideological roots. And that’s what I’m doing through art.
Your track Inja Irane (Here’s Iran) has been described as a powerful commentary on modern-day of Iran by Rolling Stone. You have previously said that you use rap and your pen as a weapon of truth. Can you tell us more about your upbringing and how your experiences growing up in Iran influenced your music?
Well, my father was passionate about music and used to collect cassettes of his favourite musicians. He used to sing in our family gatherings all the time. My mother was into poetry and novels. She was very much influenced by Iranian modern poets such as Ahmad Shamlou and Forough Farrokhzad. Growing up, I used to read my mother’s poetry books, such as Another Birth by Forough Farrokhzad and stories such as The Blind Owl or The Stray Dog by Sadegh Hedayat. I was also into Shel Silverstein’s works such as Falling Up as well as fiction novels by Darren Shawn and Jules Verne.
When I entered my teenage years at high school, things changed, I was attracted towards counter-culture ideas. Sort of like a rebellion against the common sense and how the Iranian society is formed and cultured. The more I grew up the more I was critical against the norms and traditions. I felt the absence of forward-thinking and progressive ideas in the culture. More specifically, I noticed how people were pessimistic and cautious when it came to new experiences, new social phenomena, and new things in general. So, I was curious to find out how this collective attitude towards new experiences is constructed. I started seeking the roots of it in politics, regulations, cultural norms and historical events etc. I believe that a big part of my artistic approach was shaped by an ambition to study the stereotypical Iranian and to create uncomfortable cultural and artistic experiences for them. Just to challenge the consensus and show them how different things can be. Because that’s the only way we can be inspired for growth and progress. To go outside of our comfort zones and develop the audacity and ambition to reach a new understanding of ourselves and our world.
The government’s crackdown on freedom of speech means that there is no legal method for artists to distribute their work. Could you describe the struggles faced when producing and distributing music in such a conservative society? How did you manage to circumvent such barriers and become so popular?
In general, the Iranian government is a huge failure in all managerial areas. Most specifically, in the arts and cultural sector where a cultural policy has been developed based on defining restrictive ideological structures which are exported from Islamic principles. The most important one being Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which is the root of all the problems we have in the context of freedom of expression, among which the current situation related to the misogynistic and inhumane law of compulsory Hijab.
As a result, a corrupted and closed system of religious authoritarianism has been formed which promotes ideological consumerism instead of creative explorations and expression. It’s basically a propaganda machine invented for development of yes-man culture and cult-like follower-ship aiming to reinforce the underlying cultural constructions ensuring the continuation of the current political power structure. That’s the only available legal process for artistic practice.
To counter this, an underground cultural resistance gradually formed, most specifically inspired by hip hop music. Over the course of the past 20 years, artists have been using the internet as a means to organise, produce and distribute music on social media and digital platforms. This online movement allowed artists to create a community of supporters as well as to create, experience and express themselves freely and independently circumventing the government’s cultural policy. It sort of empowered young people to influence popular culture by creating lyrical and musical ideas that were lacking on national television channels or other mainstream media platforms. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of this movement from its early days.
When I first visited Tehran back in 2013 as a diaspora Iranian, young Iranians would play your music on their phone and recite your lyrics as a way of teaching me about the truth and realities of living a life shaped by politics. Can you discuss some of the specific changes that you would like to see in Iran, and what you think needs to happen to make these changes a reality?
There are a lot of things that should be fundamentally changed in the current Iranian governance structure, and I personally do not believe that the current political regime is capable of change or even minor modifications. But since you’re asking, I’ll share some ideas.
I’d like to see complete democratisation and secularisation in Iran, no political position should be permanent, irremovable, or immune to accountability. All positions should be managed under a legal framework and work under a set of rules and regulations that are accessible to people and can be discussed and modified through democratic processes. I’d also like to see a pluralistic parliamentary structure with a meaningful variation of political parties rooted in the civil society and grassroots.
Both individual and social freedoms as well as universal human rights should be protected in the constitution with respect to diversity and inclusion of all social and ethnic groups from all parts of the country. Relationships with the rest of the free world should be strengthened and new collaborations should be formed for promoting global peace and prosperity.
Critical thinking and feminism should be taught in school as mandatory courses for everyone. New organisations should be established to focus on women’s rights and empowerment of minority groups. A social justice program should be created to develop a welfare system and ensure sustainable and fair distribution of resources and opportunities for personal and societal growth. The budget for military organisations should be reduced to the minimum possible and instead, it should be invested in environment, arts and culture, education, welfare system and sustainable economic growth. A new cultural policy should be created with focus on creating communities promoting freedom of expression, an active civil society and self-organised groups - and the list goes on.
The first step is to empower civil society and active grassroots inside the country to help them organise massive and extensive strikes in the working/middle class. There are numerous small or large underground organisations that are active inside the country right now. I believe a democratic process for Iran is only achieved through their active engagement and participation.
How did you come up with the idea to make a concept album using reverse chronology as a storytelling method for your third LP album Eshtebahe Khoob (Good Mistake)? Each track of the album featured an exclusive artwork design providing a visual interpretation of each song, could you unveil your favourite artwork in the album?
I wrote that album in a period of time that I was watching a lot of Christopher Nolan movies such as Memento. I was also inspired by City of God by Meirelles as well as 21 Grams by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. I found the chronological technique to be the right tool for making the story I wanted to tell alive. I was inspired by the fractal-like internal process of dealing with complicated decisions in life and how it is manifested in the context of personal growth. So, I needed a chronological structure that is aligned with that internal experience to bring that story to life.
A similar idea was also brought up by Setareh Malekzadeh, the creative mind behind the artworks of the album, not to mention her deep influence on the album itself. Fun fact, she used a digital tool designed for strengthening the symmetrical balance of images in order to tilt and distort the visuals she had created. She then used that tool contrary to what it was designed for and ended up with some fractal-like unsymmetrical visuals and added colour and texture to tell the story in her own artistic medium. I can’t really express how impressed I was when I saw the process and the final results. They were mesmerising, deep and inspirational. I loved all of them, but the best one in my opinion is Niaz, which was immediately picked up by Flickr to be showcased in the Flickr Explore digital gallery.
Your tracks feature a blend of traditional Iranian music and hip-hop. Can you talk about the significance of this fusion of styles and how it reflects your musical influences?
I personally do not have any specific preferences when it comes to the so-called cultural musical codes. It’s sometimes hard to identify or differentiate them due to the similarities between neighbouring musical cultures. I was influenced by both Iranian and non-Iranian music, but many of the beat makers I worked with, especially in the beginning of their careers, used to make music only through the so-called sampling method. As a result, a lot of the beats I picked from their collections contained already existing musical pieces. On the positive side, I think that sampling beats which contained familiar sounds helped us create a deeper connection with the music taste that was already established in Iran and had a known history,. This arguably facilitated the communication and assimilation of lesser known ideas to our audience. On the other hand, this caused some copyright issues as the beats we were using has not been cleared in terms of representation and reproduction rights.
I truly believe that one of the beauties of Iranian hip-hop is that it finds it roots in the country’s sumptuous literary history, echoing the spirit of the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi and the 14th century poet Hafez. Could you name some of your favourite poets and poems?
Well, it’s hard to separate yourself from the rich literary history in Iran, specially if you are born and raised there. But I do not think [know] if it’s accurate to say that Iranian hip hop is rooted in literature or even poetry. At least in its early days, the whole movement was formed around a genre of rap music which was based on persona and word plays. Gangsta Rap was the primary source of inspiration for the majority of Iranian rappers since it was the central point of investment in U.S. and was globally promoted back in the 90s and early 2000s.
The imagery of quote unquote Black male thug was propagated as the only legitimate character for hip hop everywhere, and the personas created by Iranian rappers were mostly influenced by counterculture as well as Laat-inspired personifications. Since Laat was understood as the Iranian equivalent for thug. However, Iranian hip hop diversified itself gradually by integrating some other sources of inspirations and looking out for alternative social positions. Gradually, new genres were created among which we find conscious hip hop and abstract or experimental hip hop which remain the most popular genres nowadays.
But to answer your question, I should say that I was influenced mostly by modern poets such as Forough Farrokhzad and writers such as Sadegh Hedayat. I was particularly into her famous work called Another Birth which was also my mother’s favourite poetry book. I have actually used some artistic references to some of its poems in my works before alongside other poets such as Shamlou.
In the West, hip-hop has been co-opted by commercial interests, and rap has slowly become the echoing face of capitalism. What are your thoughts on the new surge of Iranian rappers who are trying to force and emulate the narratives of the Western mainstream media? Are you concerned about the future of Iranian hip-hop?
I believe there are clear and real societal reasons behind the emergence and progress of non-commercial Iranian hip hop over the course of the past decades, due to which it has increasingly achieved social influence in the popular culture, and is now recognised as the sound of protest or the voice of the unheard.
As long as those reasons are there, its revolutionary spirit will be the strongest factor shaping its social identity. Iranian hip hop has managed to create a social platform for preserving youth culture and alternative lifestyles. Since this culture is delegitimised in the formal and hegemonic cultural discourses, not being appropriately addressed or covered in the national media channels, we could argue that Iranian hip hop should be considered as a part of a cultural resistance in the context of the Iranian civil society movements. Therefore, its main societal function is to seek social change to pursue its legitimate social existence.
I’d argue that a commercial logic would not provide the right ambitions to fulfil this societal function. This is because in the market-logic, profitability and resource efficiency would replace creativity and norm-critical social consciousness, and that’s not what we need in the long run. This is probably one of the reasons that commercial rappers struggle with social legitimacy issues all the time. We have had a couple of commercial waves over the course of the past two decades, they come and go.
You have also addressed issues of gender inequality in your music, including the lack of representation and opportunities for female artists in the Iranian hip-hop scene. Can you discuss what changes need to be made to create a more inclusive and equitable music industry in Iran?
I believe it’s up to me and other established artists who have strong followings to promote norm-critical thinking and push for a more inclusive scene as well as new organisational efforts in Iranian hip hop. The first step is to understand how this situation is created in the first place and what are the underlying reasons. As mentioned earlier, the initial Iranian hip-hop groups were formed around attitudes and behaviours that excluded or marginalised female artists gradually. Since the social bonding in these groups were constructed around exaggerated forms of brotherhood inspired by characteristics associated with the Laat persona - toxic masculinity dominated the initial groups and women had no horse in that race. A significant part of Iranian society who identified with these patriarchal behavioural patterns, rewarded and popularised the Laat persona to reinforce the ideas that were aligned with the established cultural norms.
I think we need to break this reinforcement cycle through new forms of underground organisations with more inclusive social bonding and professional relationships. This was one of the main reasons that me and Ghogha, one of the pioneers of feminist hip hop in Iran and women’s right activist, started a new artist collective called Peeleh (Coccon) back in 2019, aiming to create an inclusive and cross-genre network of experts and creatives to empower the new generation of underground musicians. So we can share our experiences, ideas and resources in order to achieve a new form of organisation that provides artistic development opportunities for everyone, no matter what gender they identify with.
Can you talk us through your decision to leave Iran and go into exile, and how this has impacted your music? Have you ever felt alienated with your status as an Iranian, and has it been easy to relocate to Stockholm?
It’s hard to leave the country you are born and raised in. Leaving family and old friends who are deeply connected with your sense of self and personality is both scary and saddening. But as an artist it’s even harder to lose your human agency and subjectivity in a prison made of fear, ignorance, and theocracy. To feel you are always under authoritarian control and religious oppression is suffocating and beyond any other adverse feeling that I have ever experienced in my life. The bigger problem in choosing to remain is that after a while, you will eventually internalise those ideas as a means to neutralise societal pressure. Becoming the system you are a victim of, and re-creating it for new generations to come. The system swallows everyone sooner or later if they don’t have organisational backup. And I didn’t. So, I left the country to stay true to who I am, and it worked very well for me.
Sweden is a relatively healthy and progressive society with advanced social institutions and an inclusive legal infrastructure. I discovered new interests here, studied things I was passionate about, and started new collaborations releasing new music that I am proud of. I also feel relatively empowered by the possibilities that are available to artists here, although there is still a lot of room for improvement.
But cultural alienation is a prevalent phenomenon and has nothing to do with leaving the country or staying in it. I was culturally alienated before moving to Sweden, when I was actually living in Iran. At the end of the day, being Iranian is a mental construction, not a geographical reality. It’s mostly about our collective imagination as a nation. You can be in Tehran, among your family and friends and feel alienated, feel like you don’t belong. That’s the importance of human agency at an individual level which leads us to being an active citizen at a societal level through which we get that sense of belonging. I’d never risk losing that agency and I will fight for it, both for myself and for the people who identify with me and my work.
Has your experience as an exiled artist impacted your connection to your Iranian identity or heritage in any way?
My connection with my identity is formed around my ability to exercise my human agency and all the rights associated with it. I can’t belong to something I can not change. I can’t be a part of something I cannot criticise or problematise. An identity is, and should be, an ongoing process, not a permanent destination. Identity is not fixed; it’s being lived. It’s evolving all the time. It’s alive and growing with you. So, if you don’t feel enabled to have an impact on it, it’s probably not yours. It’s just a social construction you are assigned to, probably to justify someone else’s power.
The protests following the death of Mahsa Amini awakened a certain feeling of unison within the Iranian diaspora, what was it like seeing what was going on back home from exile? Do you have any advice for members of the diaspora who find themselves unable or scared to travel back to Iran?
I think this has been the most progressive movement I have ever seen in my life. Both in terms of the main slogan, “women, life, liberty’’, and the demands being ambitious, healthy, and radical enough to be leading to meaningful change. So, I felt proud, empowered, and hopeful. It was a big step towards institutionalising a new set of social norms based on gender equality as well as secularisation.
Although fossil-thinking monarchists and religious fanatics made all efforts imaginable to toxify, suppress and ruin this movement, its fire is still alive under the ashes and trying to find a new way to the top. For me, it is a clear signal that the sources of social legitimacy for the current established power structure are significantly damaged and being replaced by modern constructs. It’s also very inspirational to see that this movement started from the bottom, from regular people.
I think people outside of the country should also organise themselves and try to provide help and support by any means possible. So, when they travel back to the country, is for celebrating national liberation, not only to offer condolences.
If you could go back to Tehran, what would your first steps be? What do you crave most about your motherland?
I’d go to my childhood neighbourhood, to the home I grew up in if it’s still there. I’d sit on one of the benches around the park I used to play in when I was a child. I’d touch the trees and walls. I’d take a walk around and just listen to the sounds trying to remember small beautiful moments of may past, cycling and playing in the streets around around my neighbourhood. I used to visit my neighbourhood every once in a while, when I was in Tehran. Just to get that nostalgic feeling and remind myself of where it all started.
Finally, what message would you like to send to your fans and listeners, both in Iran and around the world?
My message has always been the same and I’ve been talking about it in different forms throughout my career and in all my songs. If you can’t change it, it’s not yours. Don’t just follow the conventional way of life. Don’t let the norms define who you are. Take your life in your hands and do whatever you want with it.
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