The screws continue to tighten on musicians and artists in Iran as the country's religious authorities increase restrictions on public expression and dissent as part of a wider crackdown on opposition activity. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced this month that "promoting and teaching" music is "not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic." His comments came two months after the Education Ministry announced a ban on musical education in private schools. The moves are widely seen as a response to the mass street protests that broke out following the country's disputed June 2009 presidential election.
Melody and Safoura Safavi, two sisters from the Iranian band Abjeez
(which is Persian slang for sisters), responded to the supreme leader's comments as part of a wider RFE/RL interview on the role of music in Iran.
The Safavis started Abjeez in Iran, where women are banned from performing publicly, but have since moved to Sweden. The band is known for its rebellious, humorous lyrics, and unique style, mixing Iranian soul with world pop. Songs are composed in the sisters' native Farsi and occasionally other languages -- such as in as their latest music video "Farfar
" (Swedish for "your grandfather") -- but they remain committed to their Iranian roots and continue to mentor musicians working under difficult conditions in Iran. The interview was conducted by RFE/RL correspondent Kristin Deasy.RFE/RL: What's your response to recent comments by Iran's supreme leader that "promoting and teaching" music is "not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic"? Melody Safavi:
Well, actually, I think music is a basic communication form, and it's a language which is universal. You can't eliminate or remove a communication form, especially not in a country where music has thousands of years of history. So honestly, it's really laughable, what he says. Safoura Safavi:
Me, too. I think it's -- I'm sorry to say this, to use this word -- but it's ridiculous. I mean, you can't prohibit something like music. And of course, it's a way to control because, in a way, saying that, it shows how strong the force of music is [in Iran]....RFE/RL: In your view, what is it about music that the authorities find so threatening? Safoura Safavi:
Because music speaks directly to the feelings of people -- they express feelings and thoughts, and it's very direct. You know, it goes into your heart. It doesn't matter -- there aren't as many filters as there are in other forms of communication. Something happens, you know?
The emotions get very involved; it is very easy for people to get sentimental. And when people get sentimental, they do things that they don't usually do. We dare to do things that we usually don't. And of course, that's threatening to them. Melody Safavi:
And in the past 10 years or so, music -- especially what they call "underground music" in Iran -- has flourished a lot, and it has really been a way of communication within people, especially the young people. And they are really expressing what they are going through: all the hardship, all the issues in the society.
Thirty years ago, music was only about love, and flowers, and gardens, and stuff like that. Today, it's about everyday life, and young people are really saying things that they perhaps wouldn't dare to say even in their own homes, to their parents. They're talking through the music, so of course it's a strong tool. 'A Tool' To CommunicateRFE/RL:
Actually, an example of that is your song "Bia" (Come), which was extremely popular and came out soon after mass protests broke out after last summer's disputed presidential election. Can you talk a little bit about why you think that song resonated with so many people? Melody Safavi:
I think there were several reasons for that song to be so popular. The first reason, I think, is that "Bia" was among the very first original songs that were made in support of the peaceful Green Movement of the people of Iran. We made the song within less than a week. I wrote the lyrics right after the second mass demonstration in Iran, and it was posted on YouTube the same day the government brutally attacked demonstrators and killed many, such as Neda Agha Sultan. So I think that was one of the reasons.
And also the music: It's reggae, and reggae beats go right to the heart and usually touch everyone.
But also I think it was the lyrics, because they are pretty honest, and straightforward, and sincere. In the lyrics, which we also have translated into English, we are somehow humanizing these mass attackers, and we represent them as weak, lost souls who are either willingly or unwillingly being manipulated by their leaders to use violence against their own people. So, in the song, we're inviting them to disarm and join the movement, to peace and unity....RFE/RL: So in your view, do Iranian musicians play a greater social or cultural in a country like Iran, which so restricts freedom of expression?Safoura Safavi:
You can feel it more [in Iran]. It's like a tool that you use more.... You can't say it's more important in Sweden or in Iran or anywhere else in the world. If you need it, you need it. And in Iran, there are a lot of things to dig, so it's a very important tool today in our country. And I'm very happy that we use it well. Melody Safavi:
I think it's extremely important because, as you mentioned, in a society with a high level of censorship imposed by the government, with people not allowed to express their thoughts and views freely, artists are somehow the voice for these people. They usually express what people would like [to say] and cannot, do to various limitations. So it's extremely important that artists realize the impact of their work and the level of responsibility that they carry towards their society....On The Green MovementRFE/RL: Let's talk about what happened in Iran recently. The Green Movement: Do you guys support that? Why or why not? Safoura Safavi:
We support the people of Iran. We support their choice of life, their choice of color. And since their choice of protest is peaceful, we definitely support that....
Abjeez performs in March 2009.
I think it's important to note, and to remind our friends and fans, that we are not supporting any specific group or party. We support the will of the Iranian people. And in this case, it's to achieve their basic human rights through peaceful measures. And as Safoura said, since they chose the color green, we use this color to reflect their views.Safoura Safavi:
And of course not all of the people in Iran think the same way. There are people who are against the Green Movement. But basically, we support human rights, and we will always support human rights in any country. RFE/RL: There are people who say the growing opposition activity is all well and good but that the government has unleashed a pretty brutal crackdown and seems to have [quashed] a lot of that energy. So the question is: Has anything really changed?Melody Safavi:
Personally, I think that this Green Movement has not died out, as opposed to what many people think. Unfortunately, some people have lost their hope, but I think it's only going through some kind of resting period. And this will not end unless the regime changes; this is really what I believe. Safoura Safavi:
I believe it won't end at all, because we have so much to work on in our country. There are so many questions. And I believe this has united people in a way that I haven't seen in my lifetime. I mean, we can see how Iranians all around the world have been much more united. For example, here in Sweden when I see an Iranian, we look at each other, we click, you know? This never happened before. Young people who weren't even born in Iran feel more proud of being Iranian. Something has happened. Something very good has happened. And this unity is very important. It's the first step that we Iranians need to take to discuss issues that we need to look at. 'Minds That Are Stretched'RFE/RL: This is a common sentiment from the Iranian Diaspora, but I think it's very different if you are in Iran. Some people inside the country are saying they are beaten down by the conditions. So what is feeding your optimism? Melody Safavi:
When you talk to people inside Iran, there are two types of people. [First, there are] people who are not that involved in the political scene -- and I don't mean necessarily politicians or political activists -- but they are people who usually don't want to be involved in politics. And those people, they seem a little bit depressed and hopeless. They have lost their hope.
But then there are these very passionate young people who are still struggling, trying, and working in their own way. And these people are really hopeful. But some things you can predict. For example, all these political and economic sanctions being imposed on Iran will eventually result in a new wave of uproar in the country, I think. This is like a volcano, it has already started, and they can't stop it. Safoura Safavi:
I think that we have to work together, Iranians. We who are outside Iran, we're not there, we don't struggle in the same way. But we have the opportunity to breathe over here. So when they feel fed up and they don't have the energy left, then we have to push from over here. And we do that through the way we can -- we do music here at Abjeez, so we will continue giving good vibes, and energy, and light to all these people, and other people may have other ways of doing it: demonstrations, articles, books, theater, art, whatever. And I think this is the way. We can maybe give them some energy.
We are very proud of all the people who really do something, who stand up for their rights, I think that is very beautiful and we want to support that....Melody Safavi:
I mean, basically, I think every single person is an ambassador for their country. If we, as Iranians, want to regain our value and respect in the world, we should at least try to be good examples wherever we are in the world. We should support freedom, justice, and liberty everywhere in the world, not only for Iran, for the entire world.
And I think Iranians felt this responsibility after what happened last year [in the June presidential election]. They somehow woke up after a historical sleep, and it's beautiful. I heard a very beautiful expression somewhere that said: A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions....'People Are Awake Now'
RFE/RL: The government does have a monopoly on the military in the entire country. It seems that if there is another uprising, a number of deaths will be inevitable. Melody Safavi:
I'm afraid the government will look for new, brutal ways to suffocate people in order to survive. One of these ways is, unfortunately, to create a new war. I think the government wishes to be attacked by an outside force. They might even try to manipulate it and create a new war so that they can stay for another I-don't-know-how-many years.
But people are awake now, you know. And the world is also awake: People in the entire world know that with Iranians, the government is not representing them. You know, justice and truth will always survive. It may take time, but in the end, I think Iranians will also be free. RFE/RL: Do you have a message for Iranian musicians working in Iran under very difficult circumstances? Safoura Safavi:
I think that people who do music, especially under those circumstances, are people who have to do music. I mean, they feel they have to, nothing will stop them.... The reason we started Abjeez was to support the young people in Iran who make music and want to express themselves, to inspire, to show it is possible, and you can do it in many ways. We are always going to be very aware of them and give them all the love and support we can. Melody Safavi:
And I would also like to add that no matter how hard it is to work over there -- and I know it is because I'm in touch with some of them and I know some are really risking their lives, it's not a joke, they're not musicians, they're activists -- no matter how hard it is, they shouldn't give up hope. They should remember that their role is very important, and their efforts are extremely valuable for the future of Iran.