Prophets Of Protest
Originally published by the Church Of London
The morning after meeting the Iranian rapper Hichkas and his crew, I head into town in search of a bunch of flowers for my Uncle Behrooz. It seems only fair. After all, it was his garden in which we conducted the interview; his crisps and home-roasted nuts that we devoured by the kilo; his fridge that we raided for refreshments. Most importantly, it was him that we kept up all night with our increasingly unchecked volume, cheering on Hichkas as he freestyled to a backbeat of chirping crickets and distant car alarms.
As I walk up the street the next day – blinking away sunlight from bleary eyes and still struggling to believe that Iran’s most famous rapper had deigned to descend on my uncle’s garden – I’m confronted on all sides with signs of the country’s conservative disposition. Women in full-length chadors weigh melons in the outdoor bazaar; a clothing store window displays Western lingerie ads with the models blacked out by marker pen; on every other wall, it seems, is a five-storey mural of Ayatollah Khomeini, architect of the 1979 Revolution, or a painting of one of the young men martyred in the creation of his Islamic Republic.
Against such a repressive backdrop it was perhaps inevitable that Iranian hip hop would find an audience, many of them disenfranchised teenagers and twentysomethings weaned on videos of American rappers and desperate for angry, articulate spokespersons of their own. What couldn’t have been predicted was the degree to which kids would take those artists to heart, dutifully memorising and repeating the sentiments of lyricists such as Bahram, Pishro, Erfan and Zedbazi with the same reverence that their elders once recited the slogans of the Iranian Revolution.
Nowhere is this more the case than with Soroush Lashkari, better known as Hichkas (‘Nobody’). Arguably Iran’s most relentlessly innovative rapper, Hichkas’ gruff voice and aggressive delivery masks an eloquence that sets him on a level above more self-consciously ghetto Iranian rappers. Amir Azizmohamadi, an Iranian journalist and academic who has spent much time researching the music known as rap-e Fars, believes that Hichkas is more than just a rapper: that he is, in fact, a modern embodiment of the historical Iranian poet.
“Tapping into the simple musical potential that has helped Persian poetry transmit orally through the centuries,” says Amir, “Hichkas became the first rapper to elevate the teenage experiments of a group of naughty boys in Tehran to the level of a respectable literary form. Because of this, his voice will echo in the halls of Persian hip hop forever.”
It’s time you stepped down.
It’s time, the turn is mine.
From Yesterday Until Today by Tigheh
Amir’s description is quite a build up, and one that contrasts dramatically with the disarmingly humble man who meets me on the far side of Uncle Behrooz’s back gate more than an hour after we agree to meet. Hitchkas is in his early twenties, short and thick set, his head shaved and his face bearded – replace the white T-shirt and baggy jeans for army fatigues and he could easily blend in with the Revolutionary Guards patrolling the streets of Tehran. Beside him is his prodigal 18-year-old producer Mahdyar – Madlib to Hichkas’ MF Doom, Premier to his Guru – a big kid with a barrel laugh and a crop of curly hair as freeform as his beats, and a mutual friend, Farhad, quiet during the interview but something of a stand-up comedian once the dictaphone is switched off.
At the outset, however, the crew are somewhat guarded. Despite phone footage of his freestyles being splashed all over Youtube, the dangers of being a rapper in Iran mean that Hichkas rarely gives interviews, but once he decides that he’s in good company he visibly relaxes, grabs a handful of pistachios and relates how he went from being a somebody to a Nobody.
“Like many people, I started out rapping in English,” says Hichkas. “Back then that was the only kind that we knew existed. But at the same time I was writing a lot of poetry in Farsi, and it wasn’t long before I thought: why not try combining the two? People simply weren’t rapping in Farsi at that point, so I decided to get my friends involved, encouraging them to write raps of their own and then setting up a website to publish their efforts. In this way we built up a community both online and on the streets, and set in motion what would over time turn into a musical movement.”
It took eight years from planting the seed of that idea to its blossoming into a phenomenon that would see Hichkas’ name scrawled on the walls of Iranian government buildings and his tunes blared from car stereos across the capital and beyond. Mahdyar, for his part, notes that there was no first hit as such: despite the popularity of tracks such as Trip-e Ma (Our Style) and Ekhtelaf (Difference), the eventual success of rap-e Fars derived from a slow permeation of the public consciousness – a dawning awareness on the part of the disillusioned masses that there were people out there dealing with feelings that everyone was feeling, expressing things that everyone wanted to hear but was too scared to say. “And of course there was the emotional quality of his lyrics and his voice,” says Mahdyar. “Hichkas spoke from the heart, and so people took him into their hearts.”
Perhaps the thing most endearing Iranian people to this new form, however, was its familiarity: in a rejection of Western stereotypes, the founding fathers of rap-e Fars went out of their way to ensure that a profoundly Persian heart beat at the centre of every song.
“From the very beginning we wanted to Iranify rap,” says Hichkas. “Naturally enough we started out mimicking Western rappers both in terms of musical and vocal styles, but as we became more confident we made a concerted effort to create something in keeping with the rich musical and poetic heritage of Iran. A big part of that was changing the time signature from the conventional 4/4 to the more traditionally Iranian 3/4 timing, which took a lot of cheap jerseys getting used to.”
“We’re also trying to weave an authentic Iranian sound when it comes to the fabric of the tracks themselves,” says Mahdyar. “Most of that used to come from sampling old Iranian records, but more and more we find ourselves in rented studios with live musicians, recording with traditional Iranian instruments like the tabla and the tar.”
And if weaving Persian hip hop is fast becoming an Iranian art form, then young Mahdyar is already a master craftsman comparable with the carpet makers of Tabriz or the eagle-eyed miniaturists of Isfahan. Juggling studio time with school work and laying claim to little more than a PC uploaded cheap jerseys with Logic and Reason, Mahdyar’s production on Hichkas’s last album, Jangale Asfalt (Asphalt Jungle), has nonetheless set a new benchmark in the evolution of rap-e Fars, with tracks like Vatan Parast (The Patriot) serving as the perfect fusion of soaring Middle Eastern harmonies and pounding urban protest music.
All of which constitutes enough of a creative deviation in itself to begin riling the religious authorities; add Hichkas’ fierce lyricism into the mix, and their blood really starts to boil. It’s not just his expressiveness, but also his merciless experimentation with a language that few would dare mess with. The lilting flow of Farsi is well suited to poetry, less so to hip hop; its fluidity struggles to fit into the sawn-off spaces between the beats. Another problem is grammar: in Farsi, sentences almost always end with verbs, which means that you’ll find less daring rappers rhyming words like hastam (I am) with raftam (I went), or bordid (you won) with khordid (you ate) – hardly rocket science.
Not that such things stand in the way of Hichkas: on the one hand he’s been chewing up and spitting out lyrics for so long that he’s essentially created an urban dialect of Farsi that melds comfortably with the blunted beat patterns of his producer; on the other, he’s happy juggling the laws of grammar and using internal rhyme schemes, alliteration and assonance with all the improvisational gusto of an intoxicated jazz musician.
“I try to make my lyrics sound like conversational street talk,” says Hichkas, “while at the same time incorporating complex literary devices, many of them derived from traditional Iranian poetry. On top of that, we’re taking things a step further. Iranian poetry is all about the emulation of a style – the lyricism of Hafez, for example, or the epic narration of Ferdowsi. We’re bending the rules and creating a new style, something that’s entirely our own. And I feel like we’re almost there.”
It’s evening and the party starts,
You get drunk and then they flog out
All the booze you have tonight.
From Lord, by Shayan
The wholesale mlb jerseys following evening, a Thursday, heralds the start of the one-day weekend in Iran. The capital comes to life, the streets illuminated like optic Tayler fibres with so many slipstreaming hatchbacks carrying Tehran’s young and up-for-it masses to countless illegal Amer parties in affluent apartment blocks.
I’ve been invited to the 24th birthday celebration of a friend called Bahman. The format is the same as for every other party I’ve been to in Tehran. In the dining room is a table loaded with rice and grilled kebabs, salads and subtle Iranian stews, but few of the guests get a chance to sample it: they’ve barely got time to stash their coats and dump their presents on the steadily mounting pile before being dragged on to the dancefloor – usually a living room with the couches stowed safely in one corner and a DJ mixing records on a Dell laptop in the other. There are none of the party nerves associated with the West; no one is too shy or too cool or too overweight to dance. There’s booze aplenty – bottles of bootlegged vodka, cans of beer, homebrewed red wine courtesy of Tehran’s Armenian Christian community – but a crowd wound up this tightly by the slings and arrows of growing up in the Islamic Republic doesn’t need alcohol to get its rocks off.
The only difference between this and other parties I’ve been to in recent years is that the DJ isn’t playing the usual mix of Western pop and cheesy Iranian R&B from the expat community of Los Irangeles. He’s playing rap-e Fars. And the crowd, needless to say, is loving it. Kids spin wildly, sweat beading on their brows, whooping and hollering and smiling for the cameras. A popular tune drops and hands are in the air. One track even brings on a rewind. A few minor tweaks and this could be a preppy house party in London or New York City.
Which makes a person wonder if Iranian and Western hip hop don’t have more in common than they’d like to believe. There are certainly similarities. Iranian hip hop has its gang culture – Hichkas’ crew, the 021, takes its name from the Tehran dialling code – plus the violence that goes with it, although the lack of guns means that what little there is gets fought either with fists or, more rarely, with knifes. Battle raps take place on deserted strips of industrial land and the footage gets posted on Youtube. And there’s a whole litany of emerging street slang (the enigmatic daff, for example, which can mean everything from a Your lover or a hot girl to a hooker), much of it as incomprehensible to elderly Iranians as London grime speak would be to Lloyd Grossman.
But there are differences, too. Elaborate handshakes are replaced with a kiss on each cheek. Tunes aren’t available in stores (at least not legally), or played on state radio, and gigs are out of the question; ultimately, the fact that rappers like Hichkas have found such fame on the strength of downloads alone is a sign of how long their fans have been waiting for a voice they could believe in. And perhaps that’s the biggest difference of all: while Western hip hop slips ever further into a miasma of self-perpetuating materialism – while rappers like Wiley score smash hits with songs like My Rolexx and Nelly can get a whole nation of kids singing along to the lyric ‘you ain’t gotta gimme my props, just gimme the yachts’ – Iranian rappers continue to write songs with the same political and social relevance on which hip hop was initially founded, and which all but the most conscientious of Western rappers have forgotten.
In his track Yesterday Until Today, rapper Tigheh is bold enough to publicly denounce the same god that others may be imprisoned for drawing pictures of. His contemporary cheap jerseys Shayan, meanwhile, was most likely thinking of Iranians like those drunkenly wheeling around Bahman’s living room when he penned the lyrics to Lord, which deals with the Islamic alcohol ban and the punishment for breaking it. And Hichkas, for his part, pens an eloquent ode to the powers of Iranian censorship in The Law:
There is an unwritten law
That no one recorded, no one saw:
“Silently silence the bad voice
Voicelessness is the only choice.”
While its Western equivalent slowly blings itself into irrelevance, rappers like Hichkas are making hip hop that has the power to challenge, if not change the authorities. Or, as rap-e Fars commentator Amir Azizmohamadi puts it: “Their surroundings have inadvertently turned Persian rappers into musical prophets of protest, the ones with the courage to speak the words buried in the throats of the young, the women, the intellectuals and the opposition.”
Not that the kids dancing their socks off in Bahman’s living room are wasting their time thinking about that right now. It also makes awesome party music, after all.