Iranian Rapper Salome: Scream to Let Your Voice Be Heard
Iranian rapper Salome describes herself as “apolitical,” but her lyrics call out to a country rife with repression, censorship, and unrest. The twenty-six year old rapper, artist, and textile designer began rapping when she was eighteen and is part of the first generation of rappers in Iran. Though hip-hop is growing quickly in Iran, Salome remains one of the very few female rappers.
Currently Salome is studying printmaking in Japan, but despite the thirteen hour time difference, she was able to meet with me over Skype where we talked about her influences and the dangers of being a rapper in Iran.
BEING A WOMAN SINGING CONSCIOUS RAP
What was/is your family’s reaction to you being involved in rap?
Well now they’ve accepted it, and I’m living on my own, so they’re not involved. When I first started they were nervous because things like this are dangerous in Iran. My father especially was nervous for me. I tried to make him understand, and now they’re encouraging me and are happy that I’m doing this because they realized that it’s something meaningful that I’m doing with my life.
There aren’t a lot of female rappers in Iran, are there?
No, there aren’t. At least as far as I know there aren’t many. In Iranian rap we have problems with definitions. There are girls who call themselves rappers, but their music is nothing like rap. We learned about rap from America, so we’re still importing it and trying to mix it with our culture. It’s premature right now. When I first started rapping, there were very few people in the whole of Iran that were rapping. So we know ourselves as the first generation because we learned from the masters. We know the definitions, the boundaries, the values, we know what is what.
Right now there’s a third generation of rappers in Iran, and most of them have definitions that are so mixed-up because they didn’t ever listen to any American rap. I’m not saying that you have to listen to American hip-hop to know what hip-hop is, it’s just I believe that if you want to understand something fully you have to go to the roots, and right now there are lots of people that don’t know the difference between rap and R&B, for example. It’s hard to say. It’s a hard topic, I usually prefer not to talk about this.
Can I ask why you prefer not to?
For example, we already have people who think that if you want to make Iranian hip-hop known worldwide you have to appeal to the eye. Someone I know had an idea to find some girls, and he would write the lyrics and the flow and just make them rap and then make a video of them and put them on TV. So basically it’s a very primitive version of what’s happening in the music industry in America, where you find someone who appeals to the eye even if their talent is average. You make them beautiful and use business strategies to make them blow up and make money. I find the whole idea very ugly, no matter what country it’s in.
This is why I never thought of signing to a label; I know that’s going to limit my creativity because that’s what labels do. They want to earn money and control your direction so that they can have a profit. So there are things like that that I’ve seen and it’s why when this topic comes up—since the girls were used for profit in the name of rap and hip-hop—it just makes me angry. I prefer not to talk about it.
Are there any specific obstacles that you face as a woman who raps?
Not really. I’m not facing any more obstacles than a man because they cannot perform in Iran either. If you’re already working underground your gender doesn’t matter, so I don’t care if they’re trying to ban me or not. I guess the only downside to it is you cannot perform independently in bars. But in Iran I don’t face things because I’m a woman; men can’t do them either. You might not think so because it’s Iran and society sees it as a place where “women can’t do that,” but I guess it depends on where you’re coming from. If I was raised in a smaller city and my parents weren’t educated I would probably face more difficulties. But I was lucky enough to be raised in an educated family and the people around me now are all culturally rich people, so I didn’t face any obstacles specifically because I’m a woman.
Rap has gained a lot of attention internationally as a vehicle for activism. Do you have any thoughts on why rap is such a popular genre for political and social commentary?
First of all you can tell a lot through hip-hop because it’s the most direct music style. In one song you can say a lot, compared to any other music genre you can think of. Since the beat and the background is not prominent, your lyrics stand out, and the listener can actually listen to what you’re saying. You might be listening to a rock song or a jazz song, just enjoying the harmony without listening to the lyrics. But in rap that hardly happens, especially in conscious rap. I guess after they started to create commercial rap where they’re rapping about bling and parties and girls that that kind of music might make you tune out, but rap is the best way to say what you want to say and make yourself heard.
You used the phrase “conscious rap.” I was wondering if you could explain what that means for you.
We have a special term in hip-hop, “conscious rap.” It’s a genre where you are socially and politically aware, you’re aware of your environment, you know what you want from your environment, what people are doing around you, you are aware of what politicians are trying to do, and you try to make other people aware of it. That’s what conscious hip-hop is. You can call any music conscious music if they are trying to make you aware.
THE RAP CENSORS
Does the government in Iran have any state-sponsored rappers?
I think a few years ago there was an album that got permission from the ministry. We have a ministry named the Culture Ministry that you have to get permission from for anything cultural: Books, music, or whatever. There was a pop singer who got permission for concerts and stuff in Iran, and he made one rap album with permission. I know of some rappers that tried to get permission but couldn’t. I find that funny because a lot of these musicians call themselves “underground.”
I want to say something about the term “underground.” When I say I’m an underground musician it doesn’t mean I go underground because I have to, but because I chose to. In Iran all forbidden music is “underground music.” Some of these underground artists do want to be mainstream, want to be talking to the masses, but they can’t because the government is not letting them. So it’s a special situation in Iran because you don’t have a choice, and I always want to make it clear that I would be underground no matter what. Even if the Iranian government wasn’t like this, I wouldn’t try to get any kind of permission from any government anyway. That’s just going to limit my creativity. Governments shouldn’t be meddling in this kind of stuff regardless.
Could you tell me a little about the 2008 anti-rap documentary Shock? Did it have an effect on the public image of rap and hip-hop?
That was a documentary series that I never actually watched because it makes me angry. I feel like they’re so pathetically trying to brainwash people. Every time there is something that is effective among young people the government makes a documentary about it to show how it is evil. It’s aimed at the average people who won’t read for themselves; they just watch TV and believe everything they’re told.
For example, there was this underground rock concert outside of Tehran a few years ago, and the police went there and arrested the performers and a lot of the audience. In the newspapers they said that they caught young people doing satanic rituals. For a while they were saying that rock and metal music are satanic and that the people who like them drink blood. After rap became prominent among young people they made Shock and started to call rap satanic. They would interview these young people who had these crazy hairstyles, who didn’t have anything to do with rap, and ask them, “Why do you make your hair like this?” “Oh I saw it on MTV,” and then they talk about how MTV is making people worship the devil.
The people that are around me are all educated, self-educated instead of brainwashed, and don’t give in to this bullshit, but I’m sure there are people out there who actually believe it. If not, documentaries like that wouldn’t be made in the first place. Stuff like this contributes to the distance between the people and the government. Day by day, people are getting more angry than ever before. That’s why it’s not going to last like this.
The government of Iran has recently announced plans to create a National Internet. As someone who distributes their music online how would you handle a government-controlled internet?
Yeah, I read about that, but it’s just one of their things. They say things like that a lot, and they have all these plans that just aren’t going to work because it’s impossible. They cannot do that. I’m not worried about that yet.
How do you record your music? Is it hard to get a hold of equipment?
When I first started I was paying money to use a studio, but it was getting really hard for me financially. So I saved money and got my own equipment so that I could record at home. The quality is not as good as studio, and my room is not soundproof, but the equipment I got is basically studio equipment. I’ve been recording at home for five years now. Actually finding equipment in Iran is not hard because equipment like this has other uses too, so they aren’t banning it.
Would you be allowed to have a concert?
No, of course not! I have performed live in front of groups that didn’t have permission from the government to meet. For example, there’s this women activist assembly that meets every year on March 8th. Every year they have to meet in a new place, and I perform for them. So I can perform, but I cannot have an official concert with my posters outside and tickets. I can perform among my friends at parties, at events that don’t need permission from the government.
If you’re performing unofficially is there any possibility of arrest?
It depends on where I am. At an event like the women activist assembly meeting, which already is dangerous, if the government finds us they will arrest everyone there. But if I’m there it’s going to be double-trouble. Maybe they’ll say that I’m a devil worshiper! There’s always danger. Even if you’re partying with your friends at home there is danger because the police can enter and say you were doing whatever.
INFLUENCES AND IRANIAN RAP
Do you have any American influences in your music?
Well, not directly in my lyrics, but there are American rappers who have influenced me and made me be engaged with my environment more. I listen to American rappers like Immortal Technique, Everlast, and Atmosphere. Most of my hip-hop influences were Americans.
What would you recommend to Americans interested in listening to Iranian rap?
Right now Iranian rap is still really young, no more than ten years old. Despite that we already have a lot of bullshit music, and it’s hard to find conscious rap. Even in Iran, where you would think that you would only find conscious rap because of the politics, you will find people rapping about having fun and things like that.
Hichkas is a great rapper to listen to, and Reveal is Iranian but raps in English which could be good for Americans to start with.
Are there any major differences between American rap and Iranian rap?
You cannot say “American rap” because there are a lot of different styles and ranges. It’s the same in Iran and it’s really difficult to make that kind of comparison. It wouldn’t really be scientific. If you are going to compare you have to compare two parties that have something in common to begin with.
I can say that the Persian language is structured differently from English. It’s a really poetic language so it’s really rhythmic and that fits hip-hop. It’s not just my opinion, other rappers feel that way too. Persian is made for hip-hop.
Do you see any influences from traditional music in rap in Iran?
Lyrically I was influenced by Iranian poets. I see it in my own music because I have some poets that I really like from Iran, like Rumi. His world view affects me and sometimes I use that world view in my lyrics. I sometimes even quote a verse of his poetry. So lyrically Iranian rap is affected by our culture because we have a lot of good poets in our history.
As for music, there are people that use traditional instruments to make beats so they can make the sound more Iranian. Also there is the rhythm; we have rhythms that don’t exist in Western music, like 6/8. There are people that use it in pop music. I’ve never done that, I always use 4/4, but there are people that try that kind of thing. It can have interesting outcomes.
How do you promote your music?
I used to do graffiti, and everywhere I went I would put it up to promote my website. Also I do a lot of promoting online. It’s hard to promote in the streets. When I was in Iran last year I had an exhibition for my art, and in the corner I put some of my CDs for people to take if they wanted. So I do things like that, just not openly.
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