Rap in the Capital: Hip-Hop Tehran-Style
by NOAH ARJOMAND
22 Apr 2010 22:48
Aziz was twenty minutes late picking me up in his compact Peugeot. He shook my hand with his fingertips, apologizing for his lateness with a voice and affect that didn't match his large, pudgy presence. He'd had to fill up his gas tank, always a nightmare, and the line was even longer than usual.
He had just begun telling me that he saw no future for Iran and was sure there was going to be a war, when his phone rang. It was our contacts saying they'd been stopped by Gasht-e Ershad (morality police) and might be late.
They get stopped all the time, Aziz said. They dress like, Arrest me.
But no, the police didn't do anything, it was nothing to worry about. They just took you to the station and sat you down and told you very nicely that your style of dress was a Western import and you should be proud of your Islamic roots and not wear clothes like that or else you'd get AIDS.
But don't worry, this is just how we have our fun in Iran. He giggled.
I commiserated with him about government hassles, relating my misadventures in obtaining a new passport.
And you were doing all this speaking only Farsi? Oh my God. But don't worry, this is how we make our fun. He playfully slapped my arm.
Okay, so. Just to prepare me, the café we were going to was a hot spot for gays. They came from all over, even from outside the city, to meet up there every Tuesday evening. Aziz himself was gay, by the way.
Really? So there's a strong gay culture here in Tehran?
Yeah, come on. Of course.
But seriously, Aziz was so sick of the country. He was studying veterinary medicine, at the behest of his parents, and getting out of Iran as soon as he got his degree.
In the lower level of a shopping mall I'd never been to before was a trendy café, no hint of gay culture in sight. Aziz introduced me to Amir D-VA and Shaya and 47crom at a corner table.
D-VA wore a white Yankees hat with blue pinstripes over his crew cut and sideburns. A peace sign dangled from his neck, framed by the unbuttoned neck of his T-shirt.
Shaya was beautiful and the overtly masculine way she dressed was fascinating, a black flat-brimmed baseball hat pulled down over a black headscarf to hide her face. She had a scar beside her right eye and wore a belt of large-caliber ammunition for a necklace, the bullets sliced flat on the inside and jutting into her neck.
47crom, light-skinned and stubbly with hair blow-dried into spikes, took off his short-sleeved button-down green-and-white shirt to reveal a blue V-necked band shirt and a good bit of chest hair. 47crom had worn the collared shirt to avoid police harassment, Aziz pointed out.
This is how we get along, he giggled delightedly. Aziz was wearing his wrap-around shades inside because he'd forgotten his glasses in the car.
Now everybody looked to me, 47crom and Aziz expectantly, D-VA and Shaya skeptically. I pulled off the hat I wore so I didn't look like a Basiji and began to crease its brim compulsively, a brand new nervous habit, as I warned them that my Persian was very bad and then gave my pitch. I was interested in following them around and looking at every aspect of the culture of Iranian underground hip-hop: their aspirations for fame, sources of inspiration, underground distribution, concerts, the lifestyle. I wanted to look at how their music had taken on an authentically Iranian character, rather than just imitating American rap, and how they were representative of their generation. Oh, and I was here in Iran only another week or so.
Aziz told me maybe I should just explain in English and he would translate for me.
47crom, the only one of the artists who spoke English, had burned me a CD of six of his songs, three originals and three remixes. He jumped right into giving me a short history of the art form. He wasn't a rapper but a composer who collaborated with hip-hop artists when he wasn't working on his own house and trance music, and had been witness to the birth of the Iranian rap scene. That was about seven years ago. In those early days, everyone laughed at them. They mostly rapped in English; if they rapped Farsi lyrics, audiences would call them stupid, would laugh at and kick them.
47crom was twenty-two, a year younger than D-VA and three years older than Shaya.
A waiter came by with a menu. Can you try to read this? Aziz teased me. He was doing the linguistic manhood-measuring thing and I let him have his way. I read out café latte, exaggerating a slow phonetic pronunciation and earning laughs. Fine. The more foreign and less confrontational I was, the more they'd trust me. It had taken three months and pressing a dozen contacts to find two rappers and a composer who'd sit down with someone from the media.
The waiter returned and we ordered drinks. I asked for a cappuccino distractedly. 47crom and Aziz ordered cake.
There were a couple ways they made money from their music. A lot of them had day jobs. 47crom was a mechanical engineer.
There were websites where you paid a charge per song or for membership and could download underground music. Every day they got blocked by the government filter and just as fast they moved to a new address. These websites enriched the webmaster more than the rappers themselves, though. In some cases, on the most popular websites, rappers had to pay to be featured. A seventeen-year-old they all knew managed two of the biggest underground music websites and had just bought himself a $50,000 car.
Another way to make money was to compose lyrics for sale to amateurs, of which there was a rich and growing number from the Caspian Sea coast area north of Tehran, the Orange County of the Islamic Republic.
They're so rich and spoiled and they don't understand Iran or anything, Aziz pitched in with a huff.
D-VA admitted he sold lyrics, but only to people he knew and only if they were talented. Shaya wrote songs only for herself.
Sometimes established talents like them would also collaborate with amateurs in exchange for money, helping them gain exposure. Yas, who they all loved, was humble and would perform with less famous artists without taking money if he thought they had talent. Hichkas, who they all hated, once got an amateur to pay $12,000 to collaborate with him. Hichkas had also promised to work with Shaya and then blown her off. Shaya herself didn't collaborate with anyone just for money. D-VA didn't give me a straight answer.
Then there was the international radio and music industry. A friend had helped 47crom get three of his songs added to a DJ's playlist at Virgin Radio. 47crom didn't know the DJ personally, but a few months later sent him a note -- not even a personal email, just a post on the message board of the DJ's website -- saying who he was and asking if there was any interest in hearing some of his new songs. 47crom got an email back from the radio station's management asking him to send along more material.
There was another Hichkas story. He was advanced 20,000 pounds to put together an album for the BBC and then never produced one.
My cappuccino came in a square-based cup that fit into a groove in my wave-shaped porcelain saucer. As we sipped our drinks, they gave me the addresses of four websites where rap could be downloaded for a fee, which I wrote down in my pocket notebook:
The first two were run by the same guy who charged artists about 40,000 tomans (around $50) to post their songs. The second two were free for artists but very selective in whom they featured. I drew an unsmiley face next to the top two links.
He was also the one who made the pishnahad to me, Shaya said quietly of the guy who managed those websites.
Oh, the sexy, said Aziz in English, and she nodded.
Pishnahad can mean offer or suggestion, and I asked what exactly he had said, thinking he had wanted her to dress sexier and change her image for marketability.
Sex. He said have sex with me and I'll help you.
When Shaya had first started rapping, she'd dressed like a boy because the studio owner wouldn't let female singers in. She was used to it already because they didn't allow girls into the big public rollerblading park. She had to go on posing as a boy for several years. She said the other day she'd gone out to the park dressed like a boy, just because she'd missed it. She laughed for a second and then went back to hiding behind her baseball hat.
Fucking every single song this one sings is about driving, Aziz said of D-VA. He repeated himself in Persian and D-VA grinned and looked down. It's always, I'm driving in my car and then I kick a policeman in the ass and then I screw a girl. Aziz tried his best gansta voice.
D-VA explained to me that he and his friends used to go out driving late at night and race on the highways and that was where he got a lot of his ideas. I asked him for a sample and he checked to make sure the coast was clear, then leaned forward and delivered us a rapid-fire verse. I craned an ear to listen and understood maybe ten words. When he finished I looked to Aziz for a translation. The rap had been about how women should drive washing machines and ovens instead of cars.
That's a dangerous subject in front of a girl, I told him. There's a khanum present.
What? No. She's just another boy in the group, D-VA said, and shoulder-shoved Shaya playfully.
Shaya was up next. I can only rap loud, she protested, but then caved in to popular demand and gave us a long verse from her song "I'm More Man Than You."
I asked and, Yeah, she'd written some political songs too, but just for herself and hadn't distributed them.
They're the real Iran, said Aziz. Not Googoosh who's still wearing makeup and trying to dance on stage when she's like sixty, or these old singers in L.A. who haven't come to Iran in thirty years.
47crom took me to his home studio to get started on the photo essay. His car was missing a rear-view mirror on the right side. The dashboard was littered with cigarettes and matches and an empty juice box was at my feet.
His home studio turned out to be his bedroom in the apartment he lived in with his parents. They were watching English-language news when I entered and I started to say hi, but 47crom ushered me back into his room. While I moved around stepping over wires and dirty laundry and a half-gutted computer looking for angles, he played some of his compositions from a set of huge speakers. After each song he would look worried and ask me if I'd liked it. I had, but -- sorry -- was preoccupied with figuring out what I'd screwed up on my camera's flash settings.
His stage name came from an article he had read about transsexuals. It said that normal people have 46 chromosomes but transsexuals have a 47th. At the time he was working on a fusion of house and trance and he decided the 47th chromosome represented the same kind of third mode of existence as his music.
As he drove me home, late now, 47crom sang me the English lyrics he was recording in the next couple days for his latest song. He was driving in -13°C weather and thinking about me and it made his heart warm. His singing voice was really quite bad when not filtered through a computer.
Shaya met me in Shahrak-e Gharb Square a few days later, uncharacteristically smiling, and reached out for a secret gangsta handshake. Shake, thumb-to-thumb grab, finger snap, thumbs hooked together, and I got lost. She seemed somehow younger every time we met.
Shaya was also uncharacteristically wearing a classical Persian silver-with-blue-stones necklace, black nail polish gone now, and a basketball shirt over a T-shirt with black stretchy forearm covers. There was a park nearby where we could take pictures, she informed me. The wind was gusting and pulling at her headscarf as we walked and she held it down with both hands and laughed. I glanced around to see if there were any Gasht-e Ershad vans in sight. There weren't.
Did I have advice for a girl who wanted to leave the country? I said if possible it was probably best to go abroad for education and then stay. She was studying music, piano, now at university and her parents wanted her to become a classical singer but she was more interested in rap. How's your English? I asked and she said, Good, pretty good, without attempting to demonstrate.
I said she should go to Turkey. I didn't know why more Iranians didn't go since it was so close and you didn't need a visa.
Shaya didn't like the idea. Turkey had lots of problems. She wanted to go someplace like Austria.
Turkey's freer at least, I said. It's much easier to be an artist there.
What do you think of Iran?
I'm not going to miss it when I leave.
In the park now, a couple hundred yards along a stone path from the main road, we sat down on a green metal bench. I wasn't sure what we were waiting for but then Shaya took a baseball hat out of her embroidered sequined bag and told me to go ahead and start taking pictures.
I looked around. Foliage along the path was hiding us pretty well, but that worked both ways.
I'm scared the police will come. Are you sure they won't?
She was sure. She had made a skating video nearby one time. Yani she'd tested the location. I still didn't like it.
If they do come it will be a bigger problem for me than for you, I grumbled as I pulled my camera from my backpack and snapped a lens onto it. She sat on the park bench expressionlessly except when I went in for a close-up portrait.
Not the face. The face is bad. She laughed self-consciously. A couple teenage boys, gelled hair and tight T-shirts, were watching curiously from a few benches down.
Another minute of looking for an angle to make the setting look interesting and then Agha Beatbox appeared from around the bend. I wasn't sure if Shaya had invited him as a translator or a chaperone, or both. Maybe they were a couple? I didn't have a chance to ask because immediately, without saying hello, he pitched a bout of freestyle, spicing the Persian lyrics with motherfucker and bitch here and there.
I called him Agha Beatbox because he did his own vocal percussion and I hadn't bothered to remember his name. He was tall and overweight with an afro and glasses. He always wore loose black and had cheeks covered with uneven stubble. I waited patiently for him to finish, standing too close and waving his West Side gang sign in my face.
Come on, man, he drawled in English when he ran out of material, and gestured we follow. He did a secret gangsta handshake with Shaya and the two stood waiting for me.
Get up, stand up. Get up for your rights.
Stand up for your rights, I corrected as I repacked my camera. They were impressed.
Agha Beatbox led us off the path to a little cobbled area beside what seemed to be a walled garden within the park, partially shielded from view by trees. This he was also confident was safe from police.
Are you sure? Shaya asked quiet and uncertain in English on the way over, then immediately repeated herself louder in Persian and refused to meet my eye. The two had other business to attend to, and largely ignored me as I took more photos. Agha Beatbox produced a crumpled piece of notebook paper covered with lyrics and they reviewed it together. An amateur had paid Shaya to write her a song, but Shaya hadn't had time and had delegated the task to Beatbox for a cut of the profits. Shaya was happy with the results. After she placed the new song lyrics in her bag, I asked if she could step over to one side for some individual pictures, no Agha Beatbox.
You're no man, Beatbox told me.
Should I sit down? I'll sit down. Shaya plopped down cross-legged beside the whitewashed wall and picked at her fingernails while I photographed her.
Next stop was a playground that they told me would be a good location for photos. On the way over, Shaya's headscarf falling off constantly in the wind, Agha Beatbox told me in English how crazy the underground was.
We have jackasses in Iran, too, he said.
How is it that you know every English curse word?
That's not a bad word. Jackasses are men. They do crazy things. Worse than the jackasses in America.
What do they do?
They eat pee.
They were right about the playground. Past the rollerblading children was a long retaining wall layered with graffiti. Slogans and tags were written mostly in English or at least Latin script with a smattering of Persian. Some of the drawings were quite good. A white angel with its face scratched out struck me as the most interesting.
I asked Shaya to stand in front of the Playboy Bunny and GIRLS graffiti.
Should I sit down? I'll sit down. Agha Beatbox predictably walked into the frame and I motioned him to move.
You're no man.
We walked on, along the main road back toward Shahrak-e Gharb. Shay and Beatbox exchanged punches playfully. When I'd photographed Shaya and Amir D-VA at the latter's house a few days earlier, the two had been beating the hell out of each other nonstop. All in good fun. Shaya used to kickbox, she informed me, but it wasn't much use fighting men because they were so much stronger. She gave Beatbox a solid kick in the thigh anyway, and they started scuffling again but then stopped abruptly as a Gasht-e Ershad vehicle passed in the far lane.
They're going to gather at the square, Shaya said. She called a friend, whom we had apparently been on our way to meet, and told her to come meet us in front of a shopping mall instead of in the square.
I'd met Shaya's friend before at Amir D-VA's house: pretty with curly light brown hair and today wearing a patterned red headscarf and billowy red manteau that looked like a single chunk of fabric designed to keep llama shepherds warm in the Andes. She came with an escort, also our age and wearing tight, new-looking jeans and a dark green short-sleeved safari shirt with sweat already starting to show at the armpits. Tall and broad-shouldered and said little all day.
It's new between them, Shaya fell back to whisper to me as we entered the mall. So don't say anything.
Heyyyy little sister, don't shed no tears, Beatbox was singing. No, woman, no cry. Doo doo doo...
In the basement level of the mall was a high-end clothing store called NIGGA with a dark-skinned mannequin in the window. I took a picture. The new boyfriend bought us nonalcoholic malt beverages and chocolate and I made no attempt to pay.
It was 9:15 and Shaya was supposed to be home by nine. I was relieved that we were getting out of there, but still hoping for more pictures.
I asked as we walked back toward the main road.
Yes, Shaya said distractedly.
I don't know. Let's go home. Which I took to mean that we could do a shoot at her house.
We reached the road and Shaya asked me where I was going.
With you. Aren't we going to your house?
Shaya and Agha Beatbox laughed.
No, we're all going to our own houses, Shaya explained.
Can we go to your house for a while for photos?
Yeah, let's go to your house. Beatbox flicked out his tongue to indicate cunnilingus. I ignored him.
My father would kill us.
Really? Because a big part of my project is about how and where you live and taking pictures of you at home would be valuable.
Wasn't going to happen. She had to be home and that was it. We walked over a footbridge past one boy selling colorful Hafez poems to make a wish over and another selling pirated American DVDs in the near darkness.
I think you need to escape from Iran, I told her. She agreed. Then we did our secret gangsta handshake and I was in a shared taxi and off.
It took several days to arrange another shoot. She kept wanting to meet in the same park, and I couldn't seem to explain to her that I couldn't submit a photo essay with all the pictures showing her in the same place
Could we meet at my apartment? I asked her through bad cell phone reception.
If you're not comfortable with that it's fine; it just seems--
How about Superstar Fried Chicken restaurant? I've gone there with friends and they're relaxed. I'm sure no one would bother us.
Are you sure?
95 percent sure. So is Superstar okay?
Finally I got text-message directions to take Resalat Highway to meet them in a neighborhood in east Tehran I'd never been to before. Twenty minutes waiting for them at the appointed intersection and then Shaya appeared, along with Agha Beatbox and Hussein, another musician of some sort I'd met a few days earlier.
She was wearing a a black headscarf and a black T-shirt that reached down to her knees and almost covered her braceletted forearms. It was her birthday. Beatbox, sporting black-rimmed glasses, was bulky in his usual black T-shirt and black pants. Hussein, paler than me, wore a sun amulet necklace and a tuft of light brown hair under his chin.
I'm a bad subject, aren't I? Shaya asked after hellos.
No. Maybe a bit of a brat.
This is our gang's hood, Beatbox interjected in English. This is like Manhattan. He told me about some recent nearby drivebys and beatdowns in half-English, half-Persian as we walked through the dumpy residential neighborhood.
Our destination was an underground recording studio, down some narrow side streets lined with low, sandstone-colored walls. We were buzzed in through the gated front door and filed into a small living room, taking off our shoes at the front door as Reza, the studio's owner, came to greet us. Shaya slipped on a canvas camouflage jacket and a black baseball hat over her headscarf. Reza, friendly and probably in his late thirties, chest and back hair poking out of the neck of his black T-shirt, ushered us into the first doorway on the right. He seemed unsurprised to meet an American photographer.
Inside the small L-shaped room, a couple pop musicians, skinny tall boys with carefully gelled stacks of hair and forward-curving sideburns, were editing a track on a computer across from the doorway. One of them was wearing a nosejob bandage and the other looked like he'd already had his done, cute and pointy. The computer faced the large window of a recording booth. We plopped down on a worn couch squeezed in beside the doorway and I took out my photography gear as they began to talk music. A mix CD I'd made Shaya for a birthday present was at the top of my camera bag, but I decided the timing wasn't right. Reza and then Shaya performed some of their newest material for the group, Hussein recording video with his cell phone and me snapping pictures. The pop singers seemed a little haughty and mostly ignored us, though they let me photograph them.
The doorbell rang. Reza went to let someone in and then suddenly everyone was very excited, a ripple of awed murmurs moving through our small crowd as a short man in a vertically striped gray shirt and tight black pants entered. He had a narrow, pointed face with a scar on the right cheek and walked with a confident stride.
That's Aref. He was the first Persian rapper, Hussein whispered to me breathlessly as the newcomer made greetings while continuing a conversation into a cell phone headset. He's the teacher of Hichkas and Pishro.
The headset was hooked by a tangled, too-long wire to a cell phone that swung from his neck by a lanyard, alongside a D Company‒logoed wallet with an iPod Nano knockoff clipped to it. He wrapped up his conversation and the pop singer who had been seated in front of the computer offered his chair, which Aref accepted ostentatiously. He swung the chair around and nodded to Shaya and grinned.
We got in a big argument last time we saw each other, you remember?
Yes. Shaya smiled and seemed uncomfortable.
She loves to argue, Beatbox contributed, flustered and eager for acknowledgement. Very por roo.
I had just sat down on the couch and now looked from Shaya to Aref.
Excuse me? Can I take pictures of you too?
He gave me a good long expressionless look.
Where's your card? What work do you have here?
I'm an American journalist and I'm doing a photography project--
Where's your card?
I don't have one.
He rose slowly from his chair and then sat down next to me with his arm around me on the couch back and put his face very close to mine.
Listen to me. I'm a gangster. I'm a khalafgar. I've killed twenty men and gone to prison twenty times. He went on for several minutes about his various feats without repeating himself and closed with You want to take my picture? You take my picture and I'll cut your throat.
He's just joking, Reza told me.
I know, I said without smiling. His stature and dangling accessories diminished the effect of his threats, but he was embarrassing me, exposing me as unprofessional.
I trained Pishro, you know him? he went on.
I trained...he mentioned a name I didn't recognize. You know him?
He lost momentum momentarily. You don't?
Nobody's heard of any of you in America.
Shaya asked if I wanted to take some pictures in the recording booth. Reza whispered to me that Aref was the father of Iranian rap as I followed her inside.
A professional-looking microphone setup had been rigged up, and layers of rough-cut green and brown carpeting material were attached to the wall for soundproofing.
It got ungodly hot with the door closed. As Shaya ran through a couple songs, I opened the booth's door, letting in cool air and the sound of Agha Beatbox freestyling to his own beatbox accompaniment. I poked my head out the door to see Reza, Hussein, and the pop singers looking on with trepidation as Aref assessed the performance coolly, a hand to his chin. I closed the door again.
Do you always wear a headscarf indoors? I asked Shaya.
Not always, she said evasively.
I'm asking because for my project I want things to be accurate. People will see the magazine and think that you're conservative if you're wearing a headscarf in every picture. Can I take some pictures of you not wearing it?
No. You can take pictures like this.
You can leave your hat on.
Why? Because of me?
She didn't say anything.
You can't take off your headscarf for one minute, for a photograph, and then put it back on? I surprised myself with my sudden petulance. I'd been a little offended when she'd refused to go to my apartment and was now taking this personally as a lack of trust.
She tsked -- no -- and I glared at her.
It's not just because of you. There are strange men here. She nodded toward the door.
When we came out of the booth, Aref had center stage. He was telling his enthralled audience about the men he'd beaten up and the dafs (bitches) he'd banged. I was a bit disgusted at the sycophancy of Beatbox and the others and leaned unsmilingly against a wall watching Aref perform.
He seemed to be getting on Shaya's bad side. She had taken the chair beside the computer and was the only one beside me who didn't seem to be enjoying Aref's anecdotes. She tapped her foot and stared pointedly at Beatbox, who had eyes only for Aref. Aref got to a story about two blonde dafs at a party one time and she'd had enough.
Come on, she told me, brushing past Beatbox.
Oh, are we leaving? I asked stupidly as we all watched her storm out and Aref gave a gruff laugh.
Out by the front door she was putting on her shoes and I followed suit, my camera dangling from a shoulder. There was talking and laughter from the other room and then Beatbox emerged.
Would you come back?
Shaya snapped something fast and angry that I didn't understand and Beatbox rolled his eyes.
Come back. He said you're being an ass.
Who said that?
She barged back inside with her shoes on. I took off my shoes and followed resignedly. There was a mess of overlapping shouts that I couldn't understand as I looked over the shoulders of one of the pop singers and the owner, who were backing away from the conflict. Shaya was right up in his face and I wanted to take a picture, but that would have involved pushing past the onlookers who were blocking the doorway and drawing attention to myself and maybe getting stabbed by Aref.
Calm down, Aref was now laughing. Show a little respect.
I don't like it when you talk about dafs like that.
I wasn't talking about you. You're not a daf. You're a boy like us.
No. I'm a girl.
Then Aref launched into a long exposition about the manliness of rap and comparing DMX and 50 Cent to their Iranian equivalents, but I was too proud of Shaya to pay much attention. By the time he was finished Shaya had cooled down, and now goodbyes were said in warily civilized fashion.
merican! Aref called across to me with a big smile, waving. Goodbye! I love you!
I gave him a vague nod. Hussein and Agha Beatbox followed us as we slipped our shoes back on, thought Beatbox seemed a bit hesitant.
I don't know why I rapped so badly, he said as soon as we were outside. I should have done much better. Hussein consoled him.
Why do you fight with him? Beatbox rounded on Shaya suddenly. What's your problem? You always get in arguments for no reason. But she didn't push back and he was silent for a fidgety moment.
Why didn't I rap better? He glanced back toward the studio and his missed opportunity as we turned the corner.
The piece never got published. I sent the photos to a magazine and the editor replied:
hey noah.. we didnt feel that the photos were strong enough to express the subject in a compelling way. the idea that hip hop exists in iran isn't the point-- its the struggle of kids to express themselves under a repressive regime that has banned western forms of expression
*The names of some subjects were changed for this writing.
From 2007 to 2008, while an undergraduate at Princeton University, Noah Arjomand traveled, studied, and worked in Iran, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. His travels are the subject of an online memoir and photo gallery.
Copyright © 2010 photos and text by Noah Arjomand.