Iran’s music scene is evolving under the aegis of western influences, but in its own unique and electrifying styles thanks to young talented stars like Shahin Najafi, an influential rising rapper and songwriter.
His latest controversial song “Naqi” is a big hit over the Internet. It has gotten people talking everywhere across the Middle East and provoked the ire of religious extremists, so much that they are hell-bent on making Najafi‘s life a nightmare. Yet, he is undeterred.
“I have always seen myself as an artist. Nothing motivated me to become one. In my opinion, one is born an artist. It’s not something one can seize upon and become. I believe artists need pain rather than motivation in their lives to keep going. In fact, art is some sort of illness that one inherits.”
Musicians in Iran are often mistreated, looked down upon and barred from expressing their feelings. And if they dare to challenge that, then harsh punitive steps are taken to repress their dissent. The Iranian government is equally accountable to this grisly reality facing the art and literary communities inside the country.
Shahin Najafi has been harassed several times before but not as much as following this song. “I wasn’t expecting my song to provoke anybody especially in this frenzied way. It’s way out of proportion,” he said about the tune named after the tenth Imam of Shia believers who is better known as Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi.
“I’m calling Naghi – the tenth Imam of Shiites – symbolically to come forward and help the people of Iran since they are helpless and probably can never surmount so many political and social woes they are burdened by. Unfortunately, he is long time dead. In fact, my song is a genuine call to alleviate people’s agony.”
He believes what he writes just comes to his head effortlessly; he doesn't have to try too hard.
“I don’t think about other stuff when I’m writing either lyrics or poems. Rather, they make me write what I want to,“ he said. “Music is my life. I’d say having a cool head is the nicest trick to make it work.”
Asked if he has any regrets so far, Najafi said, “Not at all! I don’t feel apologetic about it. It doesn’t even occur to me that I should have sung this song or not in the first place. I just want to say I feel proud of my work.”
“The level of support for music that condemns the brutal regime and the religious bigots is miniscule. There can be no prospects for support when we are talking about a dictator regime,” he said angrily.
Shahin Najafi was born in a small town called Bandar-e Anzali, where he used to run a music shop. When he was about five years old, he lost his father who was in the police. Soon afterward, life dealt another big blow to him when his brother died due to a drug-related problem.
“It was quite heartbreaking for me. I didn’t know what to do. I was totally grief-stricken by this tragedy,“ he said. “My interest towards poetry which I started writing in my teens saved my life. It gave me a new hope to begin with. Poetic writings brought me closer to music. It coincided with my intense training I used to take in order to become a professional Koran singer.”
“It really was a herculean task for me. For this, I had to take Arabic lessons, learn breathing techniques. The hardest part of it all was studying the Koran on a regular basis. I had to do all this at the mere age of 14.”
When he became 18, he turned his focus to learning the guitar in classical and flamenco styles. From then on, Najafi got serious about becoming an underground artist and never looked back.
“When I chose sociology as my subject at the university, the way it was being taught made it seem more like a fundamentalist lesson. I even raised questions about the policies of the university. I was then expelled…(and) had to give up on my studies for good.”
Another turning point in his life happened to come when he had to enroll in the military. "I had to do it at the behest of my family who believed that if I joined it, I'd be more disciplined in my life.” But the experience was not what he had hoped for. “I got to know about the outside world which is more manipulative and selfish and where the weak are made to suffer."
When Najafi returned from the military after serving there for 21 months, he told his family that he didn’t want to go back. He moved on and joined bands that played Western pop music in their own style.
“In the beginning, we tried only instrumental stuff which went down well with the officials. Then, I joined another band that totally believed in performing on songs sung by the Gypsy Kings.”
Up till this point, Najafi did not have any problems at all due to his music. However, the situation quickly changed 2003 when he got into writing his own stuff.
"I realized I must write my own songs and play them. As soon as I started doing so, the hardliners moved in to keep an eye on me so that I couldn’t do what I wanted to."
Since he was under attack for singing songs that hurt the sentiments of the devout Iranians, he had no chance whatsoever to stay inside the country and not being pursued like a culprit if he does.
“It was right after my last concert in Iran in 2004 that I realized my life is in grave danger. I ran away from home and took refuge in Germany so that I could be the voice of the suppressed people of Iran,” he said, adding glumly that "I feel very bad for not being able to see my mother again. I miss her a lot and not a day goes by when I'm not concerned about her safety. It's very agonizing for me."
After arriving in Germany, Shahin Najafi became the head of a music band known as ‘Inan’. He then joined the famous German-Iranian music group ‘Tapesh 2012’.
“I was praised whole-heartedly by Persian broadcasters including the international media for my songs and poems which shed light on social woes of Iran.”
Despite running from place to place for security reasons, his passion for music has never waned. He came out with his first studio album “Ma mard nistim (We Are Not Men) in collaboration with Tapesh 2012 in 2008. With this album released, his official and professional career in Persian hip-hop music took off.
“The increasing numbers of fans loving it instantly made me feel on top of the world. And what not! Even experts and critics raved about my rapping skills; calling me one of the great icons Iran has lately seen in its fast-evolving hip hop culture.”
Living amidst huge risks and threats to his life every now and then, Shahin Najafi braved the odds to produce his second studio album ‘Tavahhom’ (Illusion) in 2009 with the help of a Pamas-Verlag, a German-Iranian publishing house.
“The songs of this album revolve around issues related to protests and political oppression that resulted in the aftermath of the presidential election of 2009. With this album, I tried to show nothing but the double standards of the Iranian regime and the Supreme Leader of Iran.”
In the meanwhile, he launched another interesting project by forming a new rock band by the name of Antikarisma in 2010. This new band exposed Najafi’s non-stop innovation in music that he always wanted to create.
At the moment, he does have a band of his own which started with his name only. “Right now, the musicians working with me in this band are mostly Germans except one whose name is Majid Kazemi. We are very close friends.”
When asked who he follows ardently as his role models, Najafi mentioned Kurt Cobain from Nirvana, James Morrison and The Cinematic Orchestra, a British jazz and electronic group as the biggest influences.
“I would also like to thank the Iranian and German students as well as intellectuals and artists from Germany and Austria alike for their continued support. However, I want to name one great man who helped me a lot, and without whom I really couldn’t have…come this far. That wonderful person is Gunter Wallraff, a German author and filmmaker.”
Does he feel safe in Germany? “A real artist shouldn’t feel safe in any context. The world we are all living in is even more dangerous than a jungle. Most importantly, what doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger,” Najafi responded in a bold tone.
“It’s a big shame that the Ayatollahs are conspiring to assassinate me by issuing fatwas and death threats besides a large bounty of $100,000. What angers me more is the fact that they are calling me an apostate. It just shows what Iran lacks when it comes to freedom of speech,” he added.
“I will keep penning hard-hitting songs that relate to my people’s miseries until they all achieve what they are hoping for… The themes of my song always revolve around life, man and their meaningless prejudices.”
Next up for Shahin Najafi is a project that combines a music album and a book discussing his lyrics and his biography, all in German. “I am also going to the US for a concert tour where I will be participating in a few debates at some universities.”
Given his energy and talent, its no wonder that Najafi’s music is affecting the mindset of Iranian youth. As we reached close to the end of our conversation, he jumped up in the air and said ecstatically: “I am popular among those who should know me. It feels very rewarding.”