Iran has a long, rich cultural history of musical innovation stretching back to the earliest days of the Persian Empire. Iranian Classical music pins its beginnings to pre-Islamic days, and operatic forms were in vogue long before they became popular in Europe. More recently, the 20th Century C.E. saw the development of a thriving pop-music culture blending elements of both Western and Persian artistic styles to form a uniquely Iranian sound. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Beethoven and Bach were as often heard as Minbashian and Mahjoubi on Iranian radio stations and at concerts. Rock music using Western instruments (especially the electric guitar) also grew in popularity among Iran’s younger generations.
The Islamic Revolution and Repression of Western Influence
The musical scene in Iran took a sharp turn after 1979 following the Islamic Revolution. Seeking a fundamentalist Islamic society, the new regime outlawed all things Western, including Western influences in music. Rock music was banned, as was the use of Western instruments and musical styles. Only music which fit with the limited acceptability of Islam, as determined by the leaders of the Revolution, was allowed: traditional folk music, Revolutionary songs praising the regime and Islam, and religious music were allowed; all else was banned. The forms of this ban were haphazard and often confusing: sheets of music deemed unacceptable were confiscated and destroyed, while pianos (a Western musical instrument) were largely left alone; violins were prohibited, while trombones were not. These restrictions and their enforcement varied and shifted over the years, and for those who felt the sting of being unable to play the kind of music they cherished, helped to lead to a vast and thriving underground music culture in Tehran and other cities throughout the country.
The leaders of the Islamic Revolution sought to remove all aspects of Western culture and influence and create an ideal Islamic state. While they succeeded in many areas, when it came to the more esoteric arena of the arts, success has been fleeting at best; in fact, many of their efforts have been counter-productive, in no area more so than in music. With each new wave of repression, musicians simply took their music and their compositional efforts underground; in addition, the flow of Western musical influence continued unabated through such avenues as black-market recordings, Voice of America and other internationally-broadcast music sources, and of course the constant communication with expatriated friends and family around the world.
From Repression to Reform
In diplomatic circles, it is often said that music is the ultimate cultural exchange program. Even when political and cultural tensions are high, musical influences still seep through any barriers. Despite the tense relations between the West, especially the United States, and Iran following the 1979 ousting of the Shah, Western music has continued to influence artists within the Islamic Republic in remarkable ways. During the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose strict control forced many Western-influenced musicians to flee the country, harsh punishments were often handed out to violators of “Islamic sanctity”. This continued through a series of leaders, especially during the Iran-Iraq War when Western (especially American) backing of Iraq and Saddam Hussein resulted in further backlashes against Westernization, until the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, who brought a reform-minded agenda and an easing of restrictions on Western influences. Khatami’s presidency was marked by a number of reforms, including those for women’s rights, democratic principles, the rule of law, and perhaps most importantly a greater freedom for the arts, including those with Western influences.
In the period of Khatami’s leadership from 1997 until 2005, despite ups and downs caused by restrictions on legislative and social actions by the conservative clerics making up the ruling Council of Guardians, Iranian music once again began to flourish with the addition of Western influences and new trends in the art. New instruments, including synthesizers and computerized composition, began to come into use in a uniquely Western-Persian mix, and entirely new genres of music gained popularity, including electronica, rock, heavy metal, rap, and hip-hop. Iranian rock bands gained ground, and performed both in Iran and Europe. It seemed for a time that Westernization, at least in music, was due for a comeback.
A New Crackdown, But a Different Iran
With the election of the ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, however, the comeback was pushed back to the days of Khomeni. All Western-style music was banned from state-run radio and television, even as “background” music without lyrics. The playing of Western music, especially American, was once again outlawed and carried stiff penalties for those who violated the new bans. A return to Revolutionary styles and religious music was favored and pushed by the ruling elite. A number of things had changed, however, since the Islamic Revolution that made these new restrictions sit less well with Iran’s musicians and listeners.
The eight-year long Iran-Iraq War had devastated the country in many ways, not least of which was the decimation of a huge section of the population of fighting age. The war had left a large divide in generations between the old and the very young. As this younger generation grew up, they had far less connection to the original Islamic Revolution and its memes; in addition, they felt far less threat from, and in fact a greater attraction to, Western culture, including music. As these young people gained adulthood, their exposure to the freedoms of Khatami’s administration fed a musical culture that was both vibrant and innovative, adopting some of the newest trends from the West while fusing them with traditional musical styles and “officially acceptable” lyrics. This younger generation grew up being exposed to artistic styles that were exciting and provocative; thus, the failure of the reform movement with Ahmadinejad’s election and the subsequent restrictions and bans chafed these younger people greatly. A rebellious underground musical movement soon began, under threat of persecution by the state, and far more than in the past has grown extensively despite numerous crackdowns and arrests.
Some elements of this underground movement have used creative means to get their music out: one rock group, immensely popular in Iran, called “O-hum”, used the ruse of recording their music while outside the country and having it distributed hand-to-hand throughout the country. Others have used their respect and fame to leverage more flexibility for their music, such as Hafez Nazeri who has worked to combine Western and Persian symphonic styles into a unique fusion of “East meets West”. Despite harsh restrictions on lyrics (even including ancient poetry; some is considered too “worldly” despite being from famous and respected Persian poets), the rise of even hip-hop and rap groups in the underground music scene has been met with wide acclaim by Iranian youth.
An Iron Fist Spawns a Musical Flood
The current situation for music in Iran is especially exciting, and potentially explosive. The 2009 elections were widely panned both internationally and within Iran as fraudulent. The final ruling power in Iran, the Council of Guardians, decreed that Ahmadinejad had soundly beaten reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, despite claims of obvious election fraud and strong-arm tactics. This set off what many have called the “second Revolution”, usually called the Green Revolution after the color of Mr. Mousavi’s campaign flags (which by chance were the same light-green color symbolizing Islam and the Prophet). Hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters have taken to the streets since the elections to protest, but they have not stopped with mass demonstrations.
In the YouTube and Facebook world, audio and video spread messages that cannot easily be controlled by the ruling elite in Iran. A fantastic array of musicians, both inside and outside of Iran, have contributed protest songs and stirring “Green Music” in support of Mousavi and his supporters. Unlike previous songs, however, many of these do not take care to avoid criticism of the regime; on the contrary, they are resoundingly critical of Ahmadinejad, the Guardian Council, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and even the secret police. Many are angry, harsh rock or heavy metal in style, while others are simply singers lamenting what they see as the downfall of the Revolution. Many have compared Ahmadinejad to the deposed Shah Pahlavi or even to Hitler or Mussolini, while some have condemned the Supreme Leader of being anti-Islamic. The combination of anger at what is assumed to be a stolen election with modern telecommunications and social networking has had an enormous influence on Iranian music in a very short time, even including the addition of “death metal” and “rage” genres which had previously enjoyed little attention in Iran to that point.
Can't Stop The Music
The influence of Western culture in Iran since the Islamic Revolution has been greatly enhanced by the virtually non-stop reciprocal flow of music into and out of the country. Despite the best efforts of the ruling conservative elite to enforce “Islamic sanctity”, Western musical culture has continued to have a major influence on the Islamic Republic. With the advent of the Green Revolution and the dramatic inflow of new, Western-based music as well as a harder-edged, combative (and illegal, by current standards) lyrical style, it appears that the younger generation will, over time, win the fight with the old guard to ensure that they have a permanent voice in Iran’s culture and growth, including and perhaps especially in the area of music.
For more on Iran's music scene and the politics of music:
"Iran: More than 20 musicians banned from radio". (2009, November 30). FreeMuse. http://www.freemuse.org/sw35914.asp
"Iran president bans Western music". (2005, December 19). BBC News Online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4543720.stm
"Iran's underground music challenge". (2006, May 8). BBC News Online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4973690.stm
Levine, Mark. (2009, June 18). "Blog Posts From Iran's Metal and Hip Hop Artists: Is Music the Weapon of the Future in Iran?". Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-levine/blog-posts-from-irans-met_b_217517.html
Levine, Mark. "Heavy Metal Islam". Three Rivers Press: New York, NY. 2008. http://heavymetalislam.net/
Pellegrinelli, Lara. (2009, November 14). "Hafez Nazeri: From Iran, Music Beyond Politics". NPR: Music Interviews. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120397164
Sadighi, Ramin. (2009, February 19). "Iranian Music: An Unexplored Territory". PBS: Frontline. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/02/iranian-music-an-unexplored-territory.html