For Love: Iran’s Outlaw Music Scene Refuses to Obey
In the Islamic Republic, ‘you are a criminal when you are a singer’
In Iran, there are two music worlds: There is the legal one, approved by the ayatollahs, which has only authorized content, music styles, characters, dressing, and, of course, only men as solo singers. Every other musician, those who do not stand to their requirements, belongs to the underground music world.
Faravaz Farvardin was one of them. She was an underground singer in Iran until four years ago, when while on a trip to Germany, she learned that an Iranian court had sentenced her to a year in jail for an underground singing performance. Feeling she had no choice, she remained in Germany.
Farvardin shared with The Media Line how everything began for her in underground music.
“It started when I was a teenager,” she said. She was looking for somewhere to record her songs but didn’t have enough money.
Then she met a guy in a coffee shop who offered the use of his home studio at night. “I went there, and I recorded my first song,” she said.
You cannot just Google “music studio” in Iran. It is illegal, Farvardin explained. But people in the underground music scene find ways to find each other, she said.
Farnaz, also known as Ferloyd, was born and still lives in Tehran. She plays the piano and sings.
“I’ve always loved to sing but since women are not allowed to sing freely in Iran, I found my way to the world of underground music,” Farnaz told The Media Line.
Dj Mamsi, a 39-year-old DJ and composer, also lives in Tehran. He has been active in the music industry for almost 24 years.
“My father was an amateur guitarist, and the sound of music was always in our house. We performed epic songs from the school choir, and that was where my interest in music began,” he told The Media Line.
He has paid a heavy price for his love of music, he said.
“I have a long history of being arrested, but I still work inside Iran with love and interest in music and the Iranian people,” he added.
His job has always felt dangerous, Dj Mamsi explained.
“When we leave home, there is no guarantee of returning home. Because if we are arrested, we will have imprisonment, corporal punishment, fines, insults, and a thousand other problems,” he continued.
Farvardin stressed that the music scene in Iran is even more difficult for women. Women are not allowed to sing solo, she said. If they want to sing, it can only be in duets with a man. Additionally, it is much harder for them to become “legal” singers, and they receive huge criticism and face consequences while trying to share their art.
“I’m in contact with many female singers in Iran, and they tell me how they have been kicked out of the university because they are singers, or because a video of them [singing] got viral, or how much pressure their family put on them,” she said.
Now they are most active on social media, especially Instagram, Farvardin said, “because it is the only platform that they have to show themselves. Their art is mostly on Instagram and YouTube.”
Dj Mamsi said that despite the hidden nature of the underground music scene, you can feel its presence in the country.
“It is true that this world is called underground music, but in Iran, everyone knows about it and many people are present in it. It is so hidden that it is not talked about on TV or radio, but it is always heard on the streets of the city on weekends,” he said.
Farnaz said that when you’re banned from sharing your art it can be discouraging. She added, however, “But we all find a way at the end of the day, hoping we will be free of these limitations one day.”
Erwin Khachikian, an Iranian-Armenian artist/producer/musical director, lives in the US. Since he began touring with the well-known Armenian-American heavy metal band System of a Down, many Iranian musicians have been following him.
All this control, censorship, and banning do not really stop Iranian musicians from continuing to practice their art, he told The Media Line.
“Anytime something is suppressed, the reverse action takes place. As a result of all the rules, the artists are using newer and more creative ways to express themselves,” Khachikian said.
However, being “underground” creates problems not seen elsewhere.
First, there is no regulation, which leads to a kind of anarchy and unfair conditions for artists.
Farvardin said that although people are getting braver, trying to publish their songs outside of the Islamic Republic through platforms that publish Iranian music videos, it is not easy, because most of them ask for money to publish their work.
“Such platforms are really a kind of gang and mafia, and generally the music business of Iran is really sick because nobody regulates it,” she said. “The government forbids everything for musicians, and because of that, there is no regulation, and then people start to do whatever they want.”
Fear is another huge obstacle for underground musicians in Iran.
Dj Mamsi said, “There is always fear and stress at these parties [where he plays]. Even when we travel abroad, we still feel a little stress because it is engraved into our brains.”
Farvardin feels the same way. Being a female solo singer in Iran is “dangerous. They can just find you anytime, and they come to you, and they arrest you,” she said.
It happened to a girl she knows, two years ago.
“She was singing in a coffee shop in Iran, and they arrested her, and she was three months in jail. Now she’s living in Canada,” Farvardin said.
The danger is greater if you are a woman, or if your music style is rock or metal, “because they say this is the music of the devil,” she added.
“For sure you’re afraid. You are a criminal when you are a singer,” Farvardin said.
Despite all the complications, there is a beautiful side to the underground music scene.
Farnaz said it expresses feelings people in Iranian society are forced to hide. “The pain of our country, of our people, the art of expressing what limits us in real life, we turn them into music,” she said.
For Dj Mamsi, the most beautiful thing about the underground scene “is the color of enthusiasts, harmony, love for music, the desire for a free life and flying in the imagination.”
Farvardin thinks it’s all about love, “because you don’t earn money, you are not able to do concerts. You have nothing, you just do it out of love,” she said.
When I remember those times, she added, “I think: Okay, I could not earn money, I was in danger, and everything was too complicated. The only reason I did that, and the only reason these people in Iran now are doing that, is love for music. It brings no [material] benefits.”
Dj Mamsi wants to send a message to the world through his art.
“The Iranian people are completely different from the Iranian government; we send love to the whole world, I emphasize to the whole world. We are not hostile to countries and nations because of politics and religious goals,” he stressed.
“What you hear in the TV news about Iran does not represent the people of Iran. It might be said that we are imprisoned here [inside the country],” he said.