Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi knows how to get your attention. Najafi’s songs, which frequently discuss sensitive topics such as Iran’s theocracy, sexism, child labor, censorship, drug addiction and homophobia, helped make him a legend in Iran’s underground music scene. But with popularity came criticism and eventually the full wrath of Iran’s conservative regime. A new documentary titled, “When God Sleeps,” by German-American director Till Schauder, will chronicle Najafi’s tumultuous journey.
Najafi’s life is comprised of events that are typically only seen in fictional movies. Yet, there is nothing fictional about Najafi’s life–it’s all very real, with life or death hanging in the balance. One of those events include the time when Najafi was accused of denigrating imams in the song “Naghi“. The song, which included references to Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi, the tenth of the 12 Shia Muslim Imams, stirred debate in the country pitting those finding it offensive and insulting to their beliefs, against others defending the song, saying it broke taboos especially in regards to expressing views about religious personalities. The songs biting lyrics landed Najafi a death sentence (fatwa) from Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, a Shia cleric in the Iranian city of Qom. In addition, a $100,000 reward was offered to anyone who kills Najafi.
Referred to as the “Salman Rushdie of music” by Al Arabiya, a reference to novelist Salman Rushdie whose 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” led Ayatollah Khomeini to call for his assassination, the 37 year-old Najafi was forced to move to Germany in 2005 when his politically-motivated lyrics for an underground band he was associated with earned him a ban.
According to the publication Online Athens, Schauder became aware of Najafi’s desperate situation after an attempt to invite the musician to the premiere of his 2012 basketball documentary “The Iran Job,” which featured two of Najafi’s songs on the soundtrack.
“When that film opened, I couldn’t reach him,” said Schauder. “Not by phone, not by e-mail or social media, not even through mutual acquaintances. He had disappeared.”
“Rushdie could sit at home and write,” said Najafi, who was finally reached by Schauder exhausted and fearing for his life. “I’m a musician. I have to perform.”
With this documentary Schauder hopes to understand the journey of a controversial and inspirational artist. He also seeks to raise questions about hot-button issues in Iran, including free speech, religious and political extremism. The title of the film was inspired by a quote from an interview with Najafi, who once considered pursuing the path of a devout cleric before choosing music instead.
“(When I) asked (Najafi) if God exists, (he) says, ‘If he exists he is sleeping,’” said Schauder. “In light of the worldwide conflicts over religion, political oppression, refugees and integration, this seems to be the right time to tell (Najafi’s) story.”
“When God Sleeps” will play at the Winder Cultural Arts Center (Winder, Georgia) on Tuesday, September 19th, at 7:30 p.m. to kick off the annual South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.