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Q&A | Artist or 'Apostate': Talking with Musician Shahin Najafi


08 Jun 2012 01:42Comments

"Being an artist in Iran is like running barefoot on sharp nails."

[ interview ] After two grand ayatollahs declared him an apostate for a song that supposedly insults a Shia Imam, there is now a bounty on recording artist Shahin Najafi's head. Listening to the offending song, "Naghi," the one element that can possibly be construed as an insult to the Imam is the informal way the rap lyrics address the saintly figure. The language is colloquial man-to-man banter, rather than reverent address toward an object of worship. The real reason for the ayatollahs' potentially lethal reaction seems to be the song's stinging criticism of Iranian society under the Islamic Republic, a trademark of Najafi's music since before he immigrated to Germany in 2005. He spoke about recent developments, his perspective on sex and the human soul, and the roots of his worldview with Tehran Bureau, which profiled Najafi in August 2010. The interview has been translated from Farsi.


Years before the fatwa calling for your death, you sang a song in memory of Fereydoun Farrokhzad [a popular Iranian singer stabbed to death in 1992] in which you said, "Living in your path is full of troubles, steps on a road that moment by moment is closer to danger. I'm sheep, let me close my eyes. Not into politics, sorry, I'm ashamed to say." Obviously you didn't heed the warning in your own song, and perhaps "sheep" and "ashamed" don't refer to the singer himself. Is there an inner struggle between Shahin Najafi the militant and a Shahin Najafi who wishes he could go through life as sheep?

Quite. I believe some people are chosen in a historic way to be trumpets. Generally, their fate is to be shattered and shunned, followed by a self-destruction caused by anguish descending from their mental no-where-lands. I believe humans were not born for thinking; rather, humans are afflicted with thinking. Those who carry on mundane daily lives and who stay in this state are more natural and closer to the instinctive human-animal of my mind. So we should look at being sheeplike in positivist terms. Right or wrong, good or bad is not relevant. It is about being or not being.

Many times I have tried to stop writing poetry and composing songs to rid myself of this illness so that like many others I can fall into a level where life has fewer dangers and headaches. One could read books or even be involved in art, literature, and films, and still not get tangled in complications. I'm like a cancerous tumor that must be choked and destroyed or it will take over the whole body. Being a cancer on history or culture doesn't necessarily take courage, but if I were anything else, the meaning of my existence will come under question and I may be misdiagnosed as appendicitis so that sooner or later they will surgically remove my uselessness. I am no longer the shared pain. I am, myself, pain.

In the midst of your artistic works, you suddenly produced a brief biography of singer Kurt Cobain. The artist in Cobain was tormented by the fame he had achieved to the point where he spat at TV cameras and insulted his audience, to the point of suicide perhaps. What did you suffer in your own life that drew you to Kurt Cobain's story?

It was a project that I did while I was working for a radio station. But it is as though Cobain was me except he lived in the '90s. I used to watch him as a child, when without a care he spat at the whole world, its games, magic tricks, and illusions. I loved his virginity and I had promised myself that I would join him and other friends in the 27 Club as housemates when I turned 27 years old. But that did not happen and I did not want that because I thought my work was not yet done. How can I explain what I suffered? Being an artist in Iran, especially an artist working from this angle, is like running barefoot on sharp nails.

On the one hand, extremist Shiites offended by your song "Naghi" call for your death and on the other hand your harsh criticism of the hypocrisy of expat Iranian reformists, intellectuals, and feminists has made it so they don't think of you as being a team player. Far from home and in the absence of close family, what part of society do you see as your sympathizers and likeminded allies?

In many of my works, I have shown no mercy to any group or any part of the political spectrum. Even so, from every spectrum, belief system, and current of thought I have friends one would not imagine. Classifying the audience is no longer very interesting. Students from various cross sections connect in one way with my works, and homeless street-sleepers in Tehran, far-flung towns, and villages in a different way. There are several Shahins inside me that have had each of these experiences. From the universities and intellectual circles to associating with criminals and the rejected to ordinary people. My doubts about social theories stem from this background. You can't speak of scalding sand until you have walked on the beach.

After actress Golshifteh Farahani drew the wrath of the Iranian clergy with her nude photo, you did not hesitate to come to her defense by publishing a powerful literary piece in praise of her bravery. Have you experienced a similar level of courage and loyalty to principle in your death fatwa crisis, particularly from your countrymen? How do you feel about the amount of support you have received?

The currents I follow are entirely separate from the relationships and norms around such minuscule islands of Iranians. Shahin Najafi is just an outlook and outlooks don't need support or sympathy! If there is talk of sympathy it comes from the writer, who like someone who can't see the whole elephant describes the animal according to his viewpoint. On a whim, I have riled a crowd by throwing some ice water over it. The joy of the deed remains and facing the consequences is the inescapable chills after eating the honeydew. Speak of sympathy for those who were burned, for they are the ones who deserve support, not a satyr like me who doesn't give obedience even to God, much less to the merely human offspring of a sperm. If a holler is considered courageous, and after this holler someone's whisper -- or, let's say, a shoutlet -- is support, then this is the end of the funeral and the Qur'an reader is praying over a grave empty of a corpse. Whether I am here today or tomorrow makes no difference, for tomorrow they will come after you, unless you are from the race of domestic fowl or milk-giving sheep. In that case get milked, chew your grass, and say the hell with the world. History is not about trading give-and-takes; everyone does what he must do and is able to do.

You were six years old when your father died, and were raised by your mother. In the song "Bega Mega," you have a conversation with your mother that perhaps she was right to tell you to choose a less adventurous life. Did she ever encourage your musical talent? How well did she understand your music?

Encourage? You can't call it encourage. My mother always insisted that books were harmful to my brain. My mother saw happiness in tranquility. My mother was an instance of a historic injustice who had accepted her fate. Not just her, but everyone around me understood art in terms of entertainment and loveliness. So my early poetry writing was encouraged as an adolescent, but after four years, when I was around 18, there were fundamental changes in what interested me and they started to worry about me and my poetry.

In the song "We Are Not Men," it is clear that you had a social awareness about your mother's condition and understood her situation intellectually. How much of your anti-patriarchy songs are in your mother's voice? What personal experiences brought these realities in the range of your insight?

My mother was stuck with a man 20 years older than her. They forced her into marrying him. I mean, my father had a photograph where he was hugging my mother when she was an infant. They were distant relatives. A very tragic life. My father was the military type with a unique set of disciplines, a true dictator. I don't remember much about him, but my brothers and sisters have told me enough about him. He was into poetry, calligraphy, and songs but a woman was no more to him than a maidservant. I saw all this past in the furrows on my mother's face. To sum up, is it even possible to live in Iran, experience how men treat women, and then come outside the country and not realize the condition Iranian women are in? This is why I say that German society reeducated me and taught me that Woman is someone I should get to know all over again.

Regarding the criticisms you level at the Iranian male, do you still recognize some of the flaws in yourself, or was this ever true of you in the past? Can you remember examples?

Indeed. When I was 20, I was strongly influenced by a mindset about womanhood as though she is a being created for my convenience. For me, Woman used to be a shallow, physically feeble, and emotionally weak creature. It was in Europe that I found out what sex meant, how a woman could take even more pleasure from it than me, how in sex a woman can toy with a man as though she was playing with a doll. Woman studies philosophy, Woman devours music, paints, rides a motorcycle, she fills up to her throat with drinks till late hours of the night, can get drunk and caresses your face. I remember as a 20-year-old I fell in love with a girl, and all our debates centered around my views about how she should dress, how much makeup she put on, what hours she could go out, not laughing too loudly, and other such nonsense. Sometimes I am embarrassed about who I have been and who we have been.

It seems from your songs that you spent your childhood in relative poverty. It must have been difficult under the circumstances to take music lessons, buy a guitar, strings, sheet music, and recordings. Where did you get the money to develop your musical talent?

We used to be an average family who, after the death of my father, suffered hardships specific to those times. It was just us and the salary benefits left over from my father. That period made me hard and strong, and I became aware that the danger of poverty always threatens people. However as I grew older, times began to change in my favor financially. There was a time when I gave private guitar lessons at night and the next day would spend whatever I had earned on sight-singing and harmony classes. I learned not to be careless with my money. Fashion, appearance was not a primary concern. I used all my money on books, musical instruments, cinema, and Bahman cigarettes. And I must admit, I loved halim, barbecued lamb liver, and kaleh paacheh. Cologne, clothes, parties, birthdays, and going to coffee shops never took up my time or money.

By one interpretation, art and religion are rivals over the human soul. In an interview you have said that the aesthetic component of a work of art has a higher priority than the message. Do you think that an aesthetic component also exists in religion that may be of some utility?

Certainly. In fact my view on the Old and New Testaments, the Qur'an, and the [Zoroastrian] Gathas is along those lines. I love the phonetics of the Qur'anic language and I can still be deeply affected by the voice of Shahid-Al-Ghara Sheikh Mohammad Minshaawi [Egyptian master of Qur'an recitation] of whom I was once an imitator. This is not related just to the tonalities of the music or the soulful voice of the singer; both the meaning and the harmoniousness that exist in the Qur'an seem beautiful to me. The trouble is that I have learned not to let my lack of religious faith interfere with my sense of aesthetics. My attitude toward Hellenic and Ancient Roman myths are the same. Paul Ricoeur is a good example of a philosopher who looks at religious myths from a similar vantage point. Some time ago I became preoccupied with the symbols and icons of the Manichean school and greatly enjoyed how the Manichean myths began with the untrained and childlike aspects of the human mind and at times ended with the most complex forms of creation.

In the song "You Dislike Me," you say, "You are right [to dislike me], because no one has sung about the ugliness in your eyes the way I have." Who else in Iranian art history would you praise in terms of his/her fieriness of criticism?

I think Mr. Sadegh Hedayat was like that. [Ahmad] Shamlu and Forough [Farrokhzad] were each in their own way on this path. I believe for many Iranian artists this sense of protest is a foundation for existence; the only difference is in the intensity.

The wrath of your criticism goes beyond Iranian social and political ills and deserves an international audience. Many have asked for subtitles on your music videos. Do you think subtitles are adequate? How is your self-confidence regarding working in German or English?

[My] self-confidence is improving. I'm starting to sing in English again and German is, well, my second language. I am more in pursuit of English, though. But first I have to be sure that it will answer the need.

Your life is in serious danger from religious extremists, but in a song you have taunted them with "Don't mess with Shahin, Seyyed dear." Meaning that your songs may have more following than religious texts these days. But in the war that has started between religious intolerance and art, the artist can't issue death fatwas. He or she goes to the battle unarmed. What can be done to make this a fairer fight?

In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was God's. Our battle started with this primal statement from ancient times. The holy texts reduce existence and creation to the command "Let There Be" and "There Was." This is not a problem in the context of a mythical narrative, but when it comes to continuously re-creating ourselves as human beings the disagreement between art and religion starts. Our weapon, at first, is the same: The Word. But religion has become politicized, meaning that religion wants everything and when it cannot persuade with The Word it reaches for The Sword. The prophet Mani did not reach for the sword and look what happened. If Mohammad hadn't attacked Mecca, how would things have gone? If some Roman Emperor hadn't converted to Christianity, where would Christianity be without the sword? Our battle will stay an unfair match because art has its principles and cannot draw a sword. This is where art parts ways with even the most beautiful political ideals. You can die for art, but you can never kill anyone for art. That's the difference between us.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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