Another recurring theme in Hichkas’s work has been the increasing censorship of artistic expression in Iran, where artists are required permits under the narrow rules of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which ensure that cultural works are inoffensive in the eyes of the clerical establishment. Shining a light on the impossibility of creative freedom under censorship, Hichkas asked whether Iran’s revered literary works would have come to life under these conditions: “What if Hafez for his Divan, what if Rumi for his Masnavi and Muhammad for his Quran had to receive government publication permits?”
A good day will come?
Hichkas’s perennial collaborator under the pioneering Moltafet label, the producer Mahdyar Aghajani, has been central to the development of the Iranian hip-hop sound. In its early days, Iranian hip-hop artists rapped in English and were heavily inspired by US rap in their appearance and musical expression. Aghajani, who had classical music training, sought to create a distinctly Iranian sound by using traditional Persian instruments like the tar, a long-necked lute and the ney, a type of flute, and Hichkas’s key lyrics were written in Persian instead of English. Despite initial inspiration from and imitation of Western rap, Iranian rappers created a distinct identity, as expressed by the popular rapper Yas in 2014: “Poetry is in our blood. If [Tupac] could sing about his life and pain and his culture, why couldn’t I do the same thing in my own language?”
In 2010, Hichkas released a wistful, longing anthem called A Good Day Will Come, shortly after millions took to the streets as part of the Green Movement to protest an election result they believed to be rigged, and to demand political and civil freedoms. In the song, Hichkas expressed his hope for a day where Iran would be free from violence and chaos. However, the tension following the protests forced Hichkas’s exile to London, and the track became his last to be recorded inside Iran (it was released while he flying out of the country). The song became iconic to many young people (the slogan A Good Day Will Come is still graffitied by youngsters on the walls of Tehran). Meanwhile, the movement was brutally squashed and its leaders systematically arrested by the government, and the “good day”, for many, has still yet to be seen.
“Rap’s history and legacy in post-revolutionary Iran is in and of itself, really political”, Nahid Siamdoust, associate professor in media and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells BBC Culture. “There wasn’t a whole lot of leeway for musicians or other creators of cultural content to express that kind of critique. Hip-hop and rap provided that space.” According to Siamdoust, the period following the Green Movement gradually led to the increased silencing of rappers, which made it difficult for any kind of political expression to come through.
“When I became a teenager and started producing for underground artists, the Iranian government started cracking down on us, closing the studios we used and arresting the studio staff as well as arresting the artists I was working with,” Mahdyar Aghajani told The Quietus in 2017. Aghajani, who was exiled to Paris, told The Quietus that underground artists were treated as “national security” cases. For domestic Iranian rappers, particularly those who incorporated political subjects into their work, their first track might very well be their last, due to pressure from the authorities.
During the 2010s, there were some attempts to co-opt hip-hop as a pro-establishment art form, with the aim of promoting Islamic values and themes to a younger demographic. The tattooed rapper Amir Tataloo’s support for the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi’s presidential run in 2017 was the most notable of these.
An era of protest
In the late 2010s, political tensions started rising again, with protests emerging annually between 2017 and 2019. Calls for regime change grew in strength, particularly among an increasingly vocal younger generation. The 2019 protests were a catalyst for lasting resentment against the state, as security forces killed between 300 in some reports and up to 1500 protestors, according to Reuters, within a week.
Addressing the protests, Hichkas released They’ve Clenched Their Fists in 2019; on the record’s cover was a long list of names of people who had been killed during the crackdown. Spoken word more than rap, the track was a searing critique of worsening conditions in Iran to the tune of a sombre setar (Iranian lute)melody. “They don’t want citizens, they want slaves. They turned the whole country into a big cage and say that there are no prisoners.” It concluded with harrowing audio of protesters being shot at.
In 2021, Toomaj Salehi, a Bakhtiari rapper who works by day as a metal factory worker, emerged as the embodiment of a defiant, fed-up generation. Typically rapping barefooted, he announced himself in his lyrics as the “roar of a rage” and a “soldier for rights”. The track Normal from 2021, made a mockery of any notion of normality in a country with staggering economic inequality. Rat Hole, released the same year, took aim at individuals domestically and abroad who he accused of being complicit in allowing human rights violations to rage in the country by looking the other way.