I got my first taste of Persian rap in the backseat of my friend’s car, flying through the deserted nighttime highways of Tehran. It’s an introduction that I found very fitting, representative of the secrecy woven into the entire subculture: DJs quietly spinning records in their basement, underground performances, friends exchanging recommendations in the corners of still, dark streets.
Persian hip-hop is a relatively new concept in Iran. It rose to prominence during the early 2000s, mainly through the help of Mahdyar Aghajani, a record producer born and raised in Tehran. Under him, Persian hip-hop, or ‘021’ music, expanded past just a carbon copy of its American predecessor. 021 music became a genre that was singularly Iranian; Aghajani’s fusion of Middle Eastern harmonies with modern hip-hop and electronic elements helped create a space within the fabric of society for other young artists to showcase their music.
It was under Aghajani’s production that Jangale Asfalt (translated to “Urban Jungle”) by Iranian rapper, Hichkas, was created. It’s considered one of Iran’s first hip-hop albums: A blend of conventional instruments, such as the santoor and tombak, with pounding electronic beats serves as the backdrop to Hichkas’s smooth rapping.
Many songs, like “Dideh Va Del,” feature a chorus overflowing with echoes of traditional vocals encased within verses that rap observations of Iran’s current social climate. Other songs, like “Vatan Parast,” mute classical instruments to allow more modern hip hop elements.
What these songs, and Jangale Asfalt as a whole, did was aid in producing a form of expression that belonged solely to the Iranian youth.
In Iran, there is a gaping disconnect between the older generation and the younger. I see it in the way my parent’s friends disdainfully talk about “the youth,” the way they fail to uphold customary Persian ideals, seeming to toss an illustrious history into the dirt. There seems to be an understanding lost between these two generations, a lack of communication that breeds muted resentment.
After all, the older generation of Iran had lives shattered by change. In the chaotic void following the infamous 1978 revolution, with many citizens fleeing their home country and various political regimes vying for power, it seems that the people of Iran lost sight of both their national and self-identity.
Iran is a country of division, between people and people, between people and government and, most importantly, between people and their sense of nationalism: What it means to be proud of being Iranian. It is a country that tries to forget the pandemonium of its recent past, glossing over the complexities, trying to reclaim its historic grandeur and prestige without ever discussing the root of the problem. I see this issue within my own family; my parents choosing to never elaborate on their experiences during the political upheaval of the ’70s, and I, in turn, not truly grasping the extent of the revolution’s impact on their lives until just recently.
The lack of communication of the difficulties and fears from both sides of the generational gap causes the older generation to chastise the youth; they see the new clothes, new slang and new music and only see an abandonment of the principles so strongly fought for during the ’70s.
But there is a difference between change that is forced onto a community and change that is enacted from within a community. After all, viewing as an outsider, there is so much lost to the eye: Individual stories are hidden, the intricate details crushed beneath the grand scope of the big picture.
Iranian hip hop is not American hip hop simply translated into Farsi. While it did get inspiration from its American counterpart, 021 music stands independent as a style created solely by and for the Persian youth. It’s a distinction that many overlook, but one that is essential.
021 music takes American hip hop and incorporates it into Iranian culture, building off of ideas from renowned Persian poets and older styles of classic music and consequently integrating it within the community. Between the government-enforced lack-of-privacy and the sheer restrictions people are placed under, there was little that existed intimately within society to solely the Iranian youth. Within this style of music, young people can express themselves the way they want to, free of judgment and constraint; a radical wave of fresh ideas coming from within the borders of Iran. 021 music is something that Iranian youth can be proud of.
Maybe this is the start of a new Iran. Not that hip-hop will cause all societal problems to be solved, but maybe this, as Iranian hip-hop grows in scope, will help start introducing the notion that it is possible to change and move forward without completely letting go of past culture.
If you listen closely to rappers like Hichkas, Yas and Salome MC (among many others) the gap between Iran’s younger and older generation is not as immense as it might appear. In their songs, Iranian hip-hop artists are advocating for many of the same values that the older generation yearns to return to: A unified, proud Iran — one that acknowledges its past mistakes as much its past successes, and one that is steady in its national identity, moving forward and progressing without losing touch with its origins.
Above all else, Persian rap is the voice of the Iranian youth. People just need to listen.