Hip-hop has forever been a medium rooted in frustration. When utilized correctly, it is the quintessential form of protest; an unbounded intermingling of words and melody that function to serve one sole objective: to give voice to those who hunger for a chance to speak out. There are certainly other, much less militant forms to this medium, but in the case of Iran, this brisk, fervent, and provocative branch of hip-hop has left a definitive mark on the country’s contemporary underground culture. (The addition of the word “underground” to the previous sentence is perhaps redundant, as seldom have other positive cultural norms risen from post-revolution Iran’s exterior). There should be little surprise as to why this art form is so popular in the country. When individual lives are bounded by religion and repression, and in a world where censorship and constraint watches over a people with stiff, paranoid eyes, dissatisfaction sprawls and transmutes into all kinds of different outlets; some of it violent; and some, inventive and inspired.
Over the years, rappers like Bahram and Hichkas have been at the forefront of this new socio-political (and of course, musical) movement. Their music is sold at street corners, downloaded from blogs, and circulated among networks of equally vexed friends and acquaintances. There is no such thing as an age group or a demographic in regards to this movement; a listener can be fourteen years old or fifty, he can be an art student in Tehran or a worker in a far-off town like Maragheh. Everybody is just as mad and just as lamentful of the dark turn this country has taken in the past few decades. There is no social or cultural perimeter to such malaise. These artists serve as a creative outlet for an entire community, and appropriately so, their music is steadily transforming into products of modern folklore.
Unfortunately, not all of the tales and legends shadowing such artists are favorable. Certain consequences such as threats of imprisonment or a ban on one’s artistic capacities are among the adverse yet expected penalties for the creative-minded in Iran. But regrettably, a country dictated by dogma and brutishness is capable of much worse.
This brings us to the plight of Shahin Najafi, a Germany-based Iranian musician and rapper, who as of last week, is living in a safehouse under the protection of the German government. Najafi is being called “the Salman Rushdie of music,” and for good reason.
In 1989, the British-Indian author Salman Rushdie was the target of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini after the publication of his fourth novel The Satanic Verses, a novel that touched upon the life of the Prophet Muhammad and incorporated many of Rushdie’s magical realism trademarks.
On a side-note, I remember that as a kid, we would be shown a biopic of the Prophet Muhammad in school on an annual basis. Owing to that hazy feeling of childhood nostalgia, I still can’t recall whether the movie was Iranian or Arabic, but what was most unusual to me was that Muhammad’s face was never seen during the entire duration of the film. It was blasphemous to divulge the Prophet’s face in Islamic culture, we were told, and so the movie was shot like the game Myst. We saw through the protagonist’s eyes, but we could never look directly at him.
Now imagine a Western author writing a book on Muhammad. Khomeini called The Satanic Verses “blasphemous against Islam,” and placed a bounty for the killing of Rushdie. The fatwa lasted until 1998, when reformist president Mohammad Khatami vowed that it would withdraw its support of any attempt on Rushdie’s life.
Najafi is now in the same predicament. On May 7th, the rapper released a song entitled Naghi – a reference to the tenth Shiite imam, whose own myth had already become a target of ridicule by supposed comedy troupe “The Campaign In Memory of Imam Naghi of the Shiites” before the release of the single.
Naghi is indisputably the most controversial and hard-hitting rap song in the country’s history. Najafi audaciously stabs at the Islamic Republic’s hypocrisy and greed with brilliant wordplay and on-the-mark allusions to some of the country’s most recent socio-political incidences. The entire track is sung and presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner as Najafi puts the Islamic leaders in hypothetical situations (often funny but mostly heartbreaking) and asks them what they will do in the face of such dangers. That in itself isn’t as provocative as the chorus that follows:
Oh Naghi, now that Mahdi is asleep, we call upon you, oh Naghi.
Appear, for we are ready in our burial shrouds, oh Naghi.
A more detailed and comprehensive analysis of the lyrics can be found here.
In the chorus, Najafi not only refers to the recently-lampooned Imam Naghi, but the twelfth and perhaps holiest of all the Shiite imams, Mahdi, the prophesized redeemer of Islam who is said to have been in hiding since the year 872. Mahdi is prophesized to return before the Day of Judgment in order to eliminate tyranny from the world. Although the two Imams are utilized primarily as a means for Najafi to ridicule the Islamic Republic’s dogmatic duplicity (the previous sentence serves as a fantastic example), the fundamentalist Islamicists in Iran are drawing upon it to further fuel the fire of religious zealots.
Unfortunately, this has led to a fatwa being issued in Najafi’s name.
The fatwa, however, came two weeks before the release of Naghi. After being posed with a question concerning the penance for those who insult the ninth and tenth Shiite imams (most likely in regards to the aforementioned “Campaign In Memory of Imam Naghi of the Shiites”), a ranking ayatollah by the name of Safi Golpayegani responded that: “If insult and impertinence is directed at the holy imams, it is apostasy.”
And in Islamic culture, apostasy warrants death. The most recent case of manufactured apostasy was in 2010, when Yousef Naderkhani was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.
Subsequent to the release of Najafi’s song, news agencies such as Fars News began linking the rapper to Golpayegani’s previously issued fatwa, indirectly – but deliberately – pronouncing that Najafi is an apostate. Thereafter, Asr’e Emrouz, another publication closely tied to the Islamic regime, launched a campaign calling for the execution of Najafi. The press release reads:
“We ask not only all Shiites of the world, but all respectable Muslims, that if they, in any way, have access to this apostate, they must make him pay for his deeds and send him to the eternal depths of hell.”
Shia-Online sent a similar press release last Thursday, putting out a $100,000 reward for whoever succeeds in killing the Iranian rapper. The website claims that: “A benefactor of an Arab country in the Persian Gulf region has promised to give this money as the reward on behalf of Shia-Online to the killer of the derogatory singer.”
Another highly ranked mullah, Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi has also agreed that 31-year-old Najafi is an apostate, further dooming the rapper’s chances of leading a secure, healthy life free of constant threats and compulsory protection.
On May 10th, Najafi appeared on BBC Persia, stating that he did not mean to disrespect the Imams, and that the allusions to the holy people were merely a means for the artist to get his message across. “Many in Iran are capitalizing on this ayatollah’s fatwa in order to provoke the religious impulses of the people for political gains,” Najafi asserted, unwavering in his criticism of the Islamic Republic.
Unfortunately, the call to arms has already been made, and it is an undeniable truth that the bloodthirsty adherents of the likes of Ayatollahs Makarem Shirazi and Golpayegani are on the lookout for the ill-fated artist, who is now not only stripped of his creative will (Najafi was also banned from making music in Iran in 2005, which forced him to flee to Germany), but his life.
Naghi merely wagged its finger at a tyrannical regime’s manipulation of a nation’s spiritual vigor and faith. And in a strange twist of fate, life is now imitating art, as a man’s life is put into danger by the very same dogma that he had been condemning. Protest is at the heart of Najafi’s music after all, and it is improbable that even death threats and fatwas would silence this brave individual. A few months ago, in an interview with HRA-News, Najafi defended his musical remonstrations, by saying:
“I cannot put any boundaries on my protests and objections. That would set about censorship. To me, the act of protesting is as vital as life itself, and I will continue to do this until I draw my very last breath. To protest isn’t just a means to improve a situation; it is to live. It is imperative to the individual. Even death cannot silence opposition.”
In the very same interview, Najafi made a stirring remark that seems fitting as a conclusion to this piece: “Governments come and go, but it is stupidity that remains.”