How Music Plays a Role in the Iranian Uprising
Iran has been gripped by anti-government protests since the death of a young woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, in police custody in Tehran on September 16. Her death ignited nationwide demonstrations, mobilizing Iranians fed up with years of repression and economic neglect.
Berklee students from Iran are anxiously following the events unfolding in their country. Shortly after Amini’s death, some Berklee students held a candlelight vigil on campus to show their solidarity with protestors around the world. We spoke with two of those students: Barbad Bakan, 23, a third-semester songwriting major who says he wants to be a voice for the voiceless, and Mahya Hamedi, 23, a sixth-semester performance and professional music major. These students, who are both from Tehran, told us how important music is to this movement and how it has helped them during these troubling times.
The tragic death of Mahsa Amini sent shock waves across the world. Where were you when you heard about it, and what was your initial reaction?
Hamedi: The correct word is “brutal murder” rather than “tragic death.” A brutal murder is what sent shock waves around the world and sparked a revolution in a big country like Iran with 80 million people living in it. I just woke up and heard the news that Mahsa “Jina” Amini was in a coma due to the beatings of the Guidance Patrol, and to be honest I wasn’t shocked. I just felt devastated and helpless and didn’t know what to hope for. I had a strong feeling that she would stay alive, but when I heard that she didn’t make it, I broke apart. I fell into pieces. I was 14 when the Guidance Patrol stopped me, harassed me, handcuffed my family for speaking up, and threw me savagely in their van. Unlike Mahsa, I do have preexisting conditions and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would’ve happened to me if I simply weren’t lucky! Everyone has had some experience with them; if you get away with it it just means you’re lucky. It doesn’t mean that they are reasonable—no, mere luck it is!
I couldn’t stop thinking about the other women who were in that van with me. What happened to them? How many of them suffered from injuries, PTSD, and an exacerbated medical condition? The regime thought they could get away with the obvious lie that she had preexisting conditions, but what difference would it make? Had she had a medical condition and gone into a random coma because of the Guidance Patrol, that is still called “murder.” And I couldn’t stop thinking about all others who have gone through it. It replayed in my head every single time my friends and I would take our veils off, first of all, because we don’t believe in hijab and secondly for resistance. Everything started to unravel once again.
Bakan: I'm pretty sure that I heard about it later in the day, when I was home, and I was outraged. I was angry but I was not shocked, unfortunately. This is something that I believe everybody, regardless of where they're from, should be upset and outraged about because it's a human rights issue.
If you speak to Iranians right now, they don’t want someone to do a heart-wrenching Kamancheh solo that makes them tear up; they want artists to reflect their emotions, the strongest of which is rage.
People worldwide have taken to the streets to protest against the Islamic Republic. How have you been expressing your feelings about what is going on back home?
Hamedi: At first I was ashamed, enraged, and felt like there was nothing I could do that would remotely be of any importance. I wanted to sing so badly, but I believe as important as it is for artists to react to social injustice, it’s crucial to take a minute to reflect and be aware of what you’re doing with your art. It is so important not to spread sentimentality around enraging topics such as this, and rather use art to inform people and evoke the right emotions in them. Mere sentimentality could be very misleading. If you speak to Iranians right now, they don’t want someone to do a heart-wrenching Kamancheh solo that makes them tear up; they want artists to reflect their emotions, the strongest of which is rage.
I fell sick with bad bronchitis exactly after Jina’s murder, so I couldn’t sing or make music. After a month, I recovered briefly and recorded a Berklee Two Track video in which I arranged a medley of two songs from two different centuries against mandatory hijab and the misogynistic Islamic laws that the regime conducted.
Bakan: It's really, really hard for me because I feel like I’ve been living this double life. My life is going great here, and I’m surrounded by everything that I've always wanted, but on the other side my family is in absolute danger. And there is a third side for me to this story, which is the truth is being overlooked and, in some cases, denied; however, we are not voiceless as individuals. So, what I did was talk about it and I made a simple Instagram video and posted it and the support was so overwhelmingly beautiful. It reached nearly 50,000 views in two days, so it means that people really care about this issue. That’s all we need to do, in my opinion—to continue to talk about it.
A de facto anthem of this uprising has emerged. It’s sung by teenage girls in classrooms and played at protests. The song is called "Baraye" and it's written by a 25-year-old singer. Why do you think that song has resonated with so many people?
Hamedi: “Baraye” eloquently portrayed the pain and injustice that Iranians have been facing for over 40 years. The lyrics come from a Twitter genre where Iranians mentioned all the reasons why a revolution is necessary. It is very cathartic for people to exactly know what they have gone through because all the pain and suffering brought us all close together. Dictators try to create mistrust among people and the Islamic regime was no exception to that. However, in the midst of this bonfire, we found each other as a nation with over 40 ethnicities and many languages. Jina was a Kurdish woman. She is the definition of intersectionality in feminism despite the disappointing silence of intersectional feminists. What happened to Jina reminded Iranians how all the “separatism” conspiracies the regime scared us with was just a lie to keep us apart as a nation. Kurds, Azeris, and Balochis were at the top of the list of supporters of separatism. Yet they are the ones who chant in support of unity.
Bakan: It’s very similar to what Bob Dylan did during the Civil Rights Movement. He did a great job of just reminding us that this is for freedom. For me, it’s for not being afraid of hugging my girlfriend goodbye and dropping her off, not being afraid of expressing my opinions, me not being afraid of talking. So that's why I believe that the song [“Baraye”] resonated with a lot of people, because...that's all we want; we just need to have a voice and basic human rights.
Authorities have blocked Instagram and WhatsApp, and have cut or slowed access to the internet and cellular service in much of the country. How has communication been with your family and friends?
Bakan: The government is trying to block the Internet completely but it's like trying to block a very aggressive river—you know it's not possible entirely, but they somehow are very experienced with doing it. So what they do is at odd hours they release all the data and information to have some kind of a flow and then block it again, which makes it even more frustrating because you don't know when it’s going to happen. With my parents, it is just words like “Are you OK?” “Are you alive?” and “Just let me know how you guys are doing.”
Have you had to make adjustments in your life, how you think, dress, etc., in attending school and living in the U.S.? What's been the biggest adjustment for you?
Hamedi: Sorrow, rage, trauma, anxiety, dissociation. To experience these all at the same time is very debilitating. But to be honest, it feels wrong to complain as someone who’s safe out of Iran. I just feel dissociated; I have to be there. Many, many times I felt so lost on the streets of Boston, listening to music from back in the days and feeling like I was walking on Tehran streets, yet I couldn’t even speak to my family and friends. I bought some credit for direct calls and started calling some of the friends who I knew would be active in the protests. I called them to tell them how much I loved them and that I hoped they were safe. It’s been nearly three months but it feels like much more than that. The biggest adjustment is the double life you have to lead; to not be desensitized by the normal life going on around you, but to function at the same time. Because as much as some non-Iranians here are understanding, you cannot ask them for too much flexibility.
Has music helped you cope with the situation back home?
Hamedi: Music is not usually my main destressing tool since it’s my profession, but it has been my main escape during these times. It has helped me cry and vent, but also get away from the whole situation for brief moments and fade into oblivion.
Bakan: Absolutely. I don’t know how I would have been able to deal with this if I didn’t have the getaway of making and listening to music. Anything I listen to or sing somehow keeps me hopeful, keeps me optimistic because I do believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. They can oppress the truth, they can suppress the truth, but it’s too strong and it will come out. Every revolution or political phase that every country has been through, music and arts play a really, really big part. During the Civil Rights Movement, Sam Cooke wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I watched an interview recently with civil rights icon John Lewis and he said it is music that brought us together. The music helped the Civil Rights Movement resonate, and the same will happen with this movement.
What can we do as Americans to support and show our solidarity with the Iranian people amid the uprising?
Hamedi: Listening to Iranians and not the media, being careful with sharing the correct information, and amplifying the voice of Iran. These are the most important things Americans do in our fight for freedom. There is no official media in Iran other than the regime’s propaganda. No news agency has been allowed in Iran after the Islamic regime’s rule. So it is important to be very careful with what could be the regime’s propaganda.
Bakan: Just talk. I just want people to talk, not just Americans but everyone. When this is over, we need to be careful of all of this hate. There’s a song that says, "It’s so easy to laugh. It’s so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind." That’s what I hope for now, more kindness.