At the tender age of 17, Mahdyar Aghajani produced the critically acclaimed, top-selling album, Jangale Asphalt (Asphalt Jungle) by Iranian rapper, Hichkas. Taking an art form that sprang from the streets of New York into their own hands, Mahdyar and Hichkas teamed up to create a uniquely Iranian Hip Hop sound, with Mahdyar incorporating traditional Persian instruments and tonalities. Yet, Hip Hop is forbidden in Iran, and the authorities there soon came looking for Hichkas and Mahdyar. Hichkas remains in Tehran, but Mahdyar fled the country. He spoke with me a few days ago, from Paris. Photo by Farbud Akhtarry.
What are you working on now?
Six albums, one film. The albums are Reveal, Quf, Bahman Ghobadi, my own instrumental album, a London based alternative band, and Hichkas’ new album. And the film is 60 Seconds about Us by Bahman Ghobadi.
Plus, you told me that you made two songs for, and play yourself in, Ghobadi’s film, No One Knows About Persian Cats–which won the Un Certain Regard and the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. This film is about the underground music scene in Tehran. Do you miss Tehran yet?
Sometimes…somethings…’someones.’ But the thing is, right now I have lots of things to think about. I’m in a kind of survival mode.
Was it a culture shock coming to Europe–women wearing fewer clothes, etc.?
Not at all. My friends in Berlin, they were like, “Look at this building, look at this bar, look at these chicks–why aren’t you surprised?!” And I was like, “I traveled outside of Iran a few times when I was a kid. Maybe that’s the reason.”
Where did you go when you were a kid?
Singapore, Malaysia, Emirates and Turkey. But I think that’s not the reason.
Are private parties in Tehran like parties in other countries?
They are like parties here in Paris, exactly the same.
You are finding it easy to adapt to living in Europe?
Because of cultural differences, or because of starting a life from zero?
I was thinking of cultural differences. Starting a life from zero would probably be hard anywhere.
There is no cultural difference, I think. I mean, we were living the same, except we were living “underground” that way.
The big difference is your music is not illegal in the West. You don’t have to fear being arrested and imprisoned just for making a particular genre of music. That’s a big change.
Yes it is. And it’s the main reason I got out of Iran.
What is it like to have freedom of expression now?
I always had freedom of expression. When you really don’t care about being arrested or dying–you always, wherever, whenever you are–you are free.
I heard Hichkas was arrested a while back. Was the Iranian government looking to arrest you too?
I was always on the list. I was making all of Hichkas’ music. He was mentioning my name in his lyrics. But their first goal was to arrest Hichkas, because he had the most influence on people.
When did they first arrest him?
Two or three years ago, after releasing the Jangale Asphalt album.
Were there lyrics to songs on Jangale Asphalt that the government didn’t like? Or did they dislike it because Hip Hop is “Western music?”
Both. Mainly because of the political lyrics, but there are so many rappers rapping political lyrics. The thing is, he was so famous. Everyone was listening to his tracks. They liked it, and he had lots of fans.
Which songs had political lyrics the government didn’t like?
“Ghanoon” and “Ekhtelaf.” But they didn’t say it was because of the lyrics. They said there was a problem because he is a rapper, and he is polluting the culture! And because he was the most known, he was targeted in their efforts to destroy Iranian Hip Hop.
Ghanoon is about things happening in the streets. Everyone is aggressive and all, but it’s not their fault. It’s because of the government that we have, that everyone hates everyone. And in the chorus he says, “Look, don’t handcuff me. Why do you say, ‘Shut up,’ when you arrest me? I’m just a sacrifice from the jungle,” –someone who they kill in Islam like a sheep for the god. I dunno the word in English. He says “I’m ghorbani from the jungle.” Ghorbani: the animal they kill for the sake of god.
When he was rapping about them treating him like a sacrifice, did people listening to it think he was criticizing the Islamic regime in a religious way too?
MA: Yes, of course. He, himself, believes in Islam. But he knows that the government is using and changing Islam against people. He finishes one of his verses in “Ghanoon” like this: “I’m innocent, God is my witness. Or did someone pay God a bribe too?”
Do you express love in your music sometimes?
Not really. Most of my songs, like 99%, have a sad theme. And I haven’t made any tracks about a girl, or love.
There is a lot of “sadness music” in Iran. I think sadness is part of the culture.
But the sadness is beautiful.
I love it. Sometimes I want to be sad. I kinda like the feeling. But for some time now, I’m already so sad, that I’m looking hard for happiness.
It can’t be easy, being an artist fleeing political persecution.
My first night in Berlin was very hard. I was told that someone would pick me up with his car from the airport, and put me in a ready home studio–with a fridge full of food, and a cell phone, and money, and all the things that are needed for a life. So I should only think about my music, and do my music–completely focused and free. But when I came to Berlin, there was nothing, no one.
I rented a room in an apartment. I got to the apartment with the metro–carrying all of my tools and life with me. When I got to the room, the owner wasn’t there. Someone showed me my room, and said, “You sleep here.” Every door was locked. Just my room and toilet. No food in the kitchen.
The owner was an artist. I didn’t know that. In the room there was a lot of blood on the ceiling and walls. And the apartment was in the ghetto. Some drunk guys were fighting each other in the street, yelling.
What happened in that room!? What was the blood from?!!
It was paint, I think. But he put it there like blood. I will tell you about him later. In that situation, I was thinking, “What did I do–leaving the life I had made in Tehran with my own hands for this.” But it became right the second night. The artist was a 30yr old, cool guy. He listened to some of my music and he was so excited. We became friends.
In Berlin, after one month, I made a life again. I had a home studio. I had friends and artists around me. The city was great. Everything seemed to be going well again, until my visa expired.
They told me don’t worry. You’ll go to Paris–again the same–you go straight to your ready home studio and lawyers are going to get you a two year business visa in a day. But when I came, again there was nothing. I couldn’t even find a place to sleep.
I found a lawyer the day after, and talked with him. He told me to forget getting a long visa. The only way is to ask for refugee status, and that is so hard to get.
Mahdyar’s case is in court. Reveal’s album, and Quf’s album, will be released soon. Mahdyar is looking for a studio, to master Quf’s album.
AUTHOR Julie Jigsawnovich is an artist who visited Iran a few weeks before the election. She lives in New York, and can be contacted at Jigsawnovich1@gmail.com. This article was first published in Persianesque Magazine. Photo by Farbud Akhtarry.