The Sound Of Resistance: Iran

Learn about the history and traditions of musical resistance in:
  • Iraq
  • Lebanon
  • Palestine

  • Iran: Histories of Musical Resistance

    The cultural politics of music in Iran during the twentieth century are narrated in part by the shifting dynamics of modern Iranian politics and society. From the decline of the Qajar Dynasty (1781-1925) to the height of the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-79), musicians gained autonomy and independence as they rejected the bonds of private patronage and began to perform for broader audiences, not all of whom were connoisseurs of classical Persian music. Cultural emancipation did not always occur sans injury—when composer and musician Darvish Khan performed at a private party without the consent of his patron, the Qajar prince threatened to sever off Khan's hands as punishment. Khan sought refuge in the English embassy at Tehran and his subsequent enfranchisement from the prince came to symbolize, for later generations of artists, gradual processes of cultural democratization in Iran.

    EbiIn the 1950s, Iranian pop and jazz flourished in Tehran's cafes and cabarets. By the latter years of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime, popular music occupied over 90% of radio and television music programs. Some artists blended Western popular music and instruments with Iranian tasnif, a vocal genre that was introduced by Aref in fin-de-siecle Iran as a vehicle for political commentary. Prominent singers include cult favorite Googoosh, Dariush, and Ebi. Some artists grew increasingly discontent with what they viewed as the Shah's endorsement of popular music and the over-democratization of culture, such as Habib Soma'i, who slapped the director of Radio Tehran in protest over the station's efforts to expand to a larger public.

    The 1979 Revolution: Resisting Cultural Hegemony

    Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini condemned all forms of music, other than classical and traditional Persian music, as "influenced by the culture of the foreigners." In his first three or four years, Khomeini pursued an aggressive cultural policy that forbade women from singing in public, banned the payment of musicians under shar'ia (Islamic law), and shut down cafes and cabarets. He insisted on the need for a "cultural reconstruction,” pointing out that as “the road to reform in a country goes through its culture, so one has to start out with a cultural reform.” Linking Russian and English territorial pursuits in the 19th century with American cultural influence in the twentieth century – an influence that was embraced by Shah Pahlavi – Khomeini condoned the national Radio and TV broadcasting corporation as the product of a “colonized culture” that produces "colonized youth."

    Khomeini's urge to establish an Islamic social order that excludes particular musical practices is driven by two overlapping claims: a resistance to cultural hegemony from the West and an interpretation of the Hadith (the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed) that is situated in a centuries-old debate in the Middle East and North Africa. Referred to as the sama' controversy, this seeks to interpret the role and definition of music in an Islamic society. (In short, the sama' controversy questions the moral permissibility of forms of music – Quranic cantillation, pilgrimage and praise songs, jazz and dance music, et al. – through taxonomies that differentiate these forms through claims to legitimacy based on Islamic principles dictated by the Quran and interpreted in hadith.) According to Khomeini's rendition of a section of the Hadith, “listening to music leads to discord (nefâq)... music is said to unsettle the soul, to lead people to indulge in the pure sensuality of the physical experience of their bodies... the only kind of music that can lead to transcendence is the one that is based both on science and lofty ideas and on the virtuous feelings of mankind... one that binds a cultural and artistic community by the reinforcement of a moral and national character.” The contradictory nature of permitting some musical practices, such as traditional and classical Persian radif, and not others, is not only politicized by cultural colonialism but a product of defining music in contradistinction to morally impermissible ways of being.

    Since Khomeini's death in 1989, cultural policy has heeled the ebb and flow of the interpretation of shari'a by Iranian presidents. Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989, President Rafsanjani began to relax some restrictions on public life in Iran. The government's endorsement of rock, pop and other forms of popular music – nostalgic ballads and love songs set to electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums – was likely motivated by market competition with cultural production among Iranian expatriates living in Los Angeles. When Khatami was elected in 1997 as the first reformist president, he encouraged economic and cultural liberalisation through which artistic and intellectual life in Iran flourished to an unprecedented degree. Since his 2005 victory, current President Ahmadinejad has dampened this cultural thaw and reproduced an environment that echoes many of Khomeini's orthodox interpretations of Islamist law and reform.

    For more information on the status of cultural production in Iran today, see the 2006 report "Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran" from Article 19, a human rights organization dedicated to the freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.

    "Sawt al-Mar'a 'Awra" / "The Voice of a Woman is a Shameful Thing"

    The prohibition against public performances given by women is similarly ensconced in the relative opposition of halal (permissible) and haram (impermissible). Woman's bodies are sexualized by certain Islamist constructions of gender such that a feminine voice may seduce the listener and a female body, dancing or otherwise, may evoke tempting images. While women are hardly excluded from musical life in Iran – the number of female classical musicians has increased significantly since 1988, particularly as composers and instrumentalists in the National Symphony Orchestra – the following women artists stand out as exceptional citizens in a society draped with a chador.

    Qamar al-Moluk Vazirizadeh (1905-59)

    The first Iranian woman to sing in public, she gave her 1924 concert at Tehran's Grand Hotel to an audience that numbered in the thousands. Later that year she recorded “March of the Public” (written by Aref in memory of Eshqi, a patriot poet) but the government confiscated this and other recordings.


    Trained in dastgah and radif, Parisa is beloved among Iran's classical singers for her renditions of poems by Rumi, Hafez and Sa'adi. After her performance career was abruptly interrupted in 1979 by the Iranian Revolution, she began to work with female students through the Center of Preservation and Dissemination of Music, where she taught from 1980 – 1995. Though still barred from public performance in Iran, Parisa regularly tours outside of Iran with tar virtuoso, Dariush Talai.

    Sima Bina

    In 1994, Sima Bina became the first Iranian woman singer to tour Europe and the US since the Revolution. She collects and performs folksongs from the Khorasan region in the northeast and Lorestan in the southwest, in addition to the classical repertoire.

    Sima Bina


    This nine-piece band pioneered the first mixed gender pop group in Iran in 1998. Recognized as the group that opened up doors for other mixed gender ensembles, they are now officially sanctioned by Ershad (Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) with permission to perform and publish their music in Iran, and to regularly tour outside of the Middle East.

    Iran Underground: Voices of Youth

    Despite the current government's hyperactive censorship and banning policies, the new face of Iran's black market music and video is sited on the web, particularly among the 70% of Iran's population who are under 30 years old. Iran is the fourth most active country with more than 75,000 blogs in Farsi posted by Iranians worldwide, music downloads are also available for new and old musicians like Vigen Derderian and Dariush Shahriari. A number of the musicians profiled below are particularly well-known as those who broke ground on the web as an outlet for music production that is denied official authorization by Ershad.

    For the latest in Iran, check out Zirzamin, an online zine for underground Iranian music scenes with reviews, event listings and more.

    Babak Khiavchi

    Foremost producer of Studio Bam, the legendary production house that triggered many of Tehran's cutting-edge bands, he offers an interview about life in Canada and the current relations between underground Iranian scenes and Western audiences.


    Widely regarded as Tehran's pioneers in underground rock, this band got underway in 1999 when Shahrokh Izadkhah and Babak Riahipour started mixing up lyrics from Hafez with acoustic guitar, bass, and Persian sehtar. After Ershad rebuffed their application for a record contract, they went underground and played for a mixed-gender audience in a concert held at a Russian Orthodox church in Tehran, an unprecedented move that won over fans then and since.

    Norik Misakian

    After their album and license for live performance were rejected by Ershad, the prog rock quartet Norik Misakian Band finally held their first live show in 2006 in a high school amphitheater in Tehran. As Iranians of Armenian descent, they cover classics by Pink Floyd, Yes, Deep Purple as well as their own charts composed by band leader Norik Misakian.

    Hich Kas

    The President of Iranian hiphop, Hich Kas dominates the scene as not only the pioneer of the latest generation of rap artists, but a singular voice against contemporary social issues facing youth in Tehran. His freestyle art can be discovered across the web in tracks like Manam Hamintor and Hichkas & Saatrap, and on Myspace.

    Zed Bazi

    Zed Bazi are Mehrad Hidden, Saman Willson, and Sohrab Mj – a rap trio originally from Tehran and now based in London – who cut sharp, controversial lyrics to the beats of hiphop artists like 50 cent and Dr. Dre. They maintain an independent presence through the internet through songs like Berim Fazaa and videos of their freestyle duo with Hich Kas.


    A major figure on Tehran's scene, Emziper is a rap artist whose solo tracks like Khiyanat defy the current situation in Iran through sampled beats and kuche bazaar (Iranian street slang).


    Like other recent newcomers to Tehran's rap scene, Shooary are influenced by rap pioneers Sandy (from Los Angeles) and Deev, whose Dasta Bala track was the first to set kuche bazaar to hiphop beats. Shooary add their own distinctive flavor to the underground rap scene through songs like Topo Bekan.