The Heart and Resilience of Iran’s Dance Music Community

Beatportal’s Harry Levin speaks to Iranian acts from across the dance music spectrum to explore their roots, the sound of protest, and what could come next for the country’s tough electronic landscape.

22 min
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Mar 16, 2023
Harry Levin

In Iran, artists have “no future.”

That’s what Niloufar Bahmanpour tells me as she translates Farsi to English for Pedram Bahrani, an Iranian-born producer who goes by the moniker Rebeat.

The pair are speaking via video chat from Bahrani’s current city of Istanbul. In 2018, Bahrani left his hometown of Tehran, the capital city of Iran, after 28 years to build a life as an artist.

Because in Iran, due to the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), the idea of playing headlining sets, getting visas to go on tour, and really doing anything to share one’s art (which is the core function of the artist), doesn’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean artists in Iran don’t exist.

Sepehr Alimagham, a first-generation American of Iranian descent, and an electronic music artist who produces under his first name, owns a record label called Shaytoon Records which, just last year, shared a compilation entitled Sounds From the Iranian Ultraverse, that consists of several Iranian-born artists including Xeen (those on the compilation who aren’t Iranian-born are in the Iranian diaspora like Alimagham).

“There’s a treasure trove of [Iranian] artists that are waiting to blossom, and all the issues that Iran has been facing for the last 40 years have caused us all to be under the surface,” Alimagham says.

Like Bahrani, Xeen has also relocated to Istanbul, but also like Bahrani, she got her start in Tehran. She was a singer and guitarist in the underground indie rock band The Finches before shifting to producing alternative electronica.

The emphasis in the prior sentence belongs on the word “underground,” because it doesn’t matter whether you’re in an indie rock band or a techno DJ like Bahrani, every performance of popular music in Iran is underground because of the IRI.

Check out our ‘Iranian Resilience (Artist Chart)’ on Beatport.
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The IRI doesn’t want artists to have a future, and they especially don’t want women to have a future.

“I felt like I was disappearing. Like whatever was me about me was trying to be eradicated,” says Lily Moayeri, an Iranian-American music journalist, over Zoom from Los Angeles.

Moayeri lived in Iran from 1977 to 1986. She saw the IRI come to power in 1979, and she faced the most brutal administration of their laws as they cemented their control of the country.

Now over 40 years later, those same laws led to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Women over the age of nine are required to cover their bodies in Iran, and the morality police — who are tasked with enforcing these laws through fear and public shaming — arrested Amini for incorrectly (whatever that means) wearing her hijab, or head covering, on September 13, 2022.

According to eyewitnesses, including women who were detained with Ahmini, upon arrest, the morality police savagely beat her, putting her in the hospital where she died three days later.

Negar Hamidzadeh, an Iranian-born artist who makes music under the name Nostalgix, at the age of 16, was almost arrested just the same.

“I have very long arms and I almost got arrested for having this much skin showing,” Hamidzadeh says as she specifies a small section of her wrist over a video chat from her home in Los Angeles.

Hamidzadeh was only visiting Iran at that time, too. She moved from Iran to Vancouver, Canada, when she was seven, but that doesn’t matter. The morality police still could have arrested her.

With such nebulous explanations for these laws, the fear of meeting Ahmini’s fate is a daily reality for women in Iran. One that is engrained into their identities as human beings.

“There wasn’t really any possibility,” says Hamidzadeh of her Iranian upbringing. “I never thought I was gonna have a great career or I was gonna make something of my life. I was born in this environment where that’s your reality.”

Iranians have been fighting to change that reality for over 40 years now, and for over 40 years, artists have been using music as a weapon in that fight, just as Shervin Hajipour did with his song, “Baraye” — which lit the world alight and has been subsequently remixed in a compilation put together by 7Rituals label head Human Rias along with artists like Jan Blomqvist, Victor Ruiz, ANDATA, and more.

At the 65th Annual Grammy Awards last month, Hajipour received the inaugural Special Merit Award for Best Song For Social Change for “Baraye,” but he himself couldn’t attend the ceremony.

On September 28, 2022, Hajipour shared a video of the song on his Instagram, and within 48 hours, the video garnered over 40 million views. The song is now the anthem for the current uprising in Iran that sparked after Amini’s death, and the lyrics include the now official slogan for the uprising: “Women, Life, Freedom.”

Within those same 48 hours, the video was taken down and Hajipour was arrested by the intelligence ministry of the IRI. He is currently out on bail awaiting trial, and thus couldn’t be on stage to receive his Grammy.

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Being an artist in Iran isn’t just rebellious. It’s criminal.

Some artists, like the celebrated Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, are even facing charges for spreading “corruption on earth,” which according to Iranian-American actress and activist Nazanin Nour, is a charge applied to “anyone who goes against the regime.”

Under this charge, Salehi has been held in solitary confinement since October 29, 2022, he’s faced extreme torture, and the charge can also incur the death penalty.

Salehi’s only crime was making music, and like the constant fear that women endure for dressing how they want, artists face that same fear for sharing their art.

Every Iranian artist knows the dangers, but they follow their passion anyway, and this shared understanding bonds them under a simple truth:

Artists in Iran pursue music only because they love it. They are united in their dedication to their craft.

In markets like the United States and Europe where anyone has the freedom to pursue music, there is a persistent conversation surrounding the idea of intentions.

Is someone making music for the money? To be famous? Do they even make their own tracks?

That conversation doesn’t exist in Iran because someone would only risk their freedom or their lives if there were no other options. If they would risk everything for the music.

Iranian artists can’t even purchase DAWs like Abelton because the IRI blocks those sections of the internet, but artists in Iran like Temp-Illusion are making music of the same quality and with the same technical skill as artists anywhere else in the world.

“There are so many talented musicians and artists in Iran that if these restrictions didn’t exist, they would be in the spotlight,” says Aida Rezaei an Iranian-born artist who makes music under the name AIDA. “This type of music was illegal and is illegal, technically, but that doesn’t stop anybody.”

In truth, music is inseparable from Iranian culture. Sharing music is very celebrated, and there are gatherings called mehmoonis where friends and family come together, dance, eat food, and often host live musicians in their homes.

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In truth, music is inseparable from Iranian culture. Sharing music is very celebrated, and there are gatherings called mehmoonis where friends and family come together, dance, eat food, and often host live musicians in their homes.

Ali Shirazinia, an Iranian-born artist who produces music under the name Dubfire, remembers the traditional Iranian music at these mehmoonis very fondly from his years in Iran, where he lived until he was seven years old before relocating to the United States.

The music didn’t resemble the electronic styles he champions today, but another element of that traditional Iranian music continues to inspire him:

“I was intrigued by conveying emotion,” Shirazinia says, speaking via video chat from his home in Washington D.C.. “I would look around the room and see my family members who were grown men and women crying when they heard certain songs, and I remember being curious about what was triggering that kind of emotion in these people. Why are they feeling the emotion that they’re feeling?”

Like the traditional Iranian instruments, hardware and software became tools for Shirazinia to trigger emotions and transfer his specific energy to an audience; tools he uses much of his year as he travels the globe to perform at established nightclubs and major festivals.

Nesa Azadikhah, another Iranian-born producer and DJ, took similar inspiration from traditional Iranian instruments.

At age six she started learning a hand drum called the tombak among other Iranian instruments, and by 18 when she started producing dance music, she would integrate those instruments into her music—whether through plugins, sampling, or other modern production techniques.

“[Nesa’s] dad had disco cassettes and when they were listening to these cassettes, her family noticed her holding rhythms with her hands, tapping everywhere,” says Rezaei, who is translating Azadikhah’s words from Farsi to English.

Rezaei and Azadikhah are sharing a video call because, in response to the current revolution, together they have launched a record label called Apranik Records (the name of which refers to a historical female Persian military commander).

The first release on Apranik is a 12-track compilation from 12 female Iranians (including Rezaei and Azadikhah) featuring styles like house, techno, and ambient, and the title honors the slogan: WOMEN, LIFE, FREEDOM. They are also releasing another ten-track compilation from a set of ten more Iranian female artists in the near future.

“There’s so much unspoken but shared pain and trauma and sadness and hope amongst all of us [female Iranian artists]. Everybody really wanted to contribute their skills and their talent in music towards this cause that they really care about,” says Rezaei, translating for Azadikhah.

Many of the artists on the compilation like Rezaei — who left Iran at age 12 for Vancouver, Canada — live outside of Iran, but some like Azadikhah built their careers in Iran.

Azadikhah only left Iran approximately five months before this interview for the country of Georgia, where she is now a resident of Tes Club in Tbilisi.

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Azadikhah was key in curating WOMEN, LIFE, FREEDOM because she had previously connected with many of the artists on the compilation through Deep House Tehran (DHT), a platform she started in 2014.

Through DHT, she essentially does everything she can to defy the IRI. She hosts mixes, shares new music, and even curates events.

In order to get permits for her events, she would often pitch them to the government as art gallery gatherings, which were sanctioned as long as no one was dancing and there were no beats or vocals in the music, but that didn’t stop her from booking techno artists and it didn’t stop anyone from dancing.

“Since childhood, [Azadikhah] really didn’t want to be forced to [cover her body], and so she always wanted to live, move, and make decisions against what the system is enforcing,” Rezaei says translating for Azadikhah.

Because that’s what it means to be an artist in Iran. It means going against the system.

Even just being a fan of music is inherently rebellious as owning western music carries the same risks to where physical media has to be smuggled into Iran.

Rezaei had some Michael Jackson CDs growing up, and her uncle brought them to her from Sweden by gluing the discs in between pages in a notebook.

Living in Iran when the IRI took over, Moayeri experienced the first rendition of this underground network for buying music.

She recalls a man bringing to her house a briefcase filled with bootleg recordings of albums on tape from artists; mostly British artists like her favorite band, Culture Club.

This was the only way for her to buy new music, but because of her utter and unmistakable love for the art, the risk was worth it.

“That was my lifeline. That was what made things normal for me,” Moayeri says. “My tape collection was out of control.”

Eventually, with that out-of-control tape collection, Moayeri became an extension of the underground network when she started making mixtapes and made “a shit ton of money” selling them to her friends.

“It goes back to being part of Iranian culture. It was just a way to share the music. I wanted to find people to be excited about the music with me,” Moayeri says.

There is no shortage of Iranian people who are excited about music and the arts, both living in Iran and within the 8 million people of the Iranian diaspora spread around the globe, all of whom have united in their rebellion against the IRI.

Because no matter where any one person lives, the despotic rule of the IRI has had a dire effect on everyone with Iranian blood.

Many artists in the diaspora, like Shirazinia and Hamidzadeh, left Iran in their youth for countries like the US and Canada, and so while they didn’t experience the horrors of the IRI in the same way as the people who remained in Iran (some of whom are members of their families) forced relocations are never easy.

“Coming to America was a whole different stress because we weren’t sure how long we were going to stay. We weren’t sure even where we were gonna ultimately stay. We just shacked up with friends of the family, and I didn’t know what would become of our lives as we knew it,” Shirazinia says.

But through determination and hard work, Shirazinia and his family persevered, just like Hamidzadeh and her family, who spent eight years working to get a visa to leave Iran specifically because they had two girls. If they had two boys they would have stayed.

“[My family] wanted to give us an opportunity to create a life and be whoever we want, and I don’t take that lightly,” says Hamidzadeh. “I’ve always worked really hard since I was a kid. I’ve always seen my mom be a really big example for me, and she’s one of the hardest workers I know.”

Both Shirazinia and Hamidzadeh honor their families’ hard work and sacrifices as they build their careers as international artists.

Furthermore, they honor the continuing sacrifices of the Iranian people in their unwavering dedication to their craft.

Though they live outside of Iran, they remain united with their fellow artists in Iran in having no delusions about why they’re pursuing music. There is no other option. They would risk everything for it.

“My approach was never to have a plan B. Always go for what I felt in my heart was my calling,” Shirazinia says.

“This is my purpose in life. Honestly, I love this so much. I’m so inspired to wake up every single day to do better and to learn more and to create more and continue building something beautiful because every day I feel like I just started. There are just so many things that I want to do and create. It’s my calling in life,” says Hamidzadeh.

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Now the people of Iran, the Iranian diaspora, and allies around the world are fighting to give every artist there, and every human there, the chance to build something beautiful, and everyone can assist in that effort through the internet.

“Even if you’re sharing on your Instagram stories to 30 followers, sharing information with the rest of the world is so impactful,” says Rezaei. “[It’s] probably the most instrumental piece of the rest of the world knowing what’s going on.”

Bahrani was able to sign his Butterfly Dream EP to Shirazinia’s label, SCI+TEC, by connecting with him over the internet, and Rebeat’s follow-up EP on Dubfire’s label, Arista/Neval, drops this month (preview below).

Rezaei and Azadikhah were able to connect with the other artists on WOMEN, LIFE, FREEDOM because of the internet. In fact, the slogan itself, “Women, Life, Freedom” came from the internet as Shervin Hajipour’s lyrics for “Baraye” were inspired by tweets from the Iranian people.

“Baraye” means “for the sake of” in Farsi. Each line of the song begins with “Baraye” and follows with tweets from Iranian people.

As such, one line is “Baraye zan zendegi azadi,” which translates to “For the sake of women, life, freedom.”

With Hajipour’s Grammy win combined with the voices of Iranians and their allies around the world, there is more momentum behind this movement than any revolution in the past.

And with the success of this revolution, the artistic culture of Iran will be open to the world for the first time in the modern era.

An entire population of artists who are insurmountably dedicated to their craft would flood the industry with their music.

And far more importantly, an entire population of artists who are insurmountably dedicated to their craft, as well as the almost 88 million people living in Iran, will have a future.

Harry Levin is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter.

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