Iran’s rap battles: youth with a 'pure love' for rap
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The young people gathered are in their twenties, dressed in oversized tee-shirts, hoodies, chains and durags. In short, they look like any young people immersed in rap and hip hop culture. But when they launch into their flow, the words are in Persian. Rap has been popular in Iran for the past twenty years but, recently there has been an increasing number of rap battles staged in quiet streets and parks, and videos are popping up online.
This battle between two young rappers was filmed in Tehran in 2019. “You come in here like a gangster and the rap becomes a bit like gossip. You come around here, but you see that I’m the best,” (noise) says one. “I talk and I make noise (....) You pretend that you’re a man but you are just… you can’t do anything,” says the other. According to our Observers, the rapper wearing a black tee-shirt was later arrested during a protest against an increase in the price of gas in late 2019.
Most Iranian rappers never get approval from the Iranian Ministry of Culture to broadcast their songs and have to record in underground locations. Several well-known rappers have been arrested, including Bahram (who was arrested and held in detention for a week in 2008), or exiled, including Pishro (who fled the country after authorities released an arrest warrant with his name on it in 2018) and Hichkas (who continues to record while living abroad). Even so, rap has been on the rise for the past 20 years in the Islamic Republic and many say that it is the most popular style of music amongst young people today.
The rapper "Hossein Spy" participated in this rap battle in Ispahan in September 2019. “I live my life and I rip up the tarmac with my shoes and my evolution, life is like that. This here is Ispahan and its flag flies high.”
More and more rap battles are being posted on Instagram and Telegram. Ama is the administrator for “Rapid,” an instablog about Iranian rap. He’s been keeping close tabs on the scene for the past 14 years.
“Persian rap is extremely rich because we don’t rap just to talk about one girl or another”
Young Iranians hear rap all of the time and, like young people around the globe, they try to write their own lyrics. The bravest ones, who believe the most in themselves, take part in battles.
The two major towns where battles take place are Tehran and Mashhad [Mashhad is one of the most religious cities for Shi'a Muslims]. Rap fans know the battlegrounds in their town. Most of them take place in parks. Some of them are pretty spontaneous. If you go to a specific place, you know you’ll find other rappers there and you just go for it, pairing up with someone and launching into a battle. There are also more organized battles that are invitation only. You go to a specific place at a specific time and see two rappers face off.
Rapper Ezzat takes part in a battle in December 2018 in Tehran. "Everyone gathers here. It doesn’t matter if you are from east Tehran or west Tehran, we’re all friends. Here, it’s 021" [The area code for Tehran]”.
Most of these rappers are between the ages of 15 and 30. Most of them are men. There aren’t a lot of female rappers, which is pretty typical in rap scenes around the world. But often there are girls in the audience.
Some Iranian rappers have been arrested, while others have been exiled. But it is hard for police to control freestyle rap. What are they going to do-- station an officer at all the park entrances? To date, we don’t know of any freestyle rappers who have been arrested.
“There’s no money in rap here, you do it out of pure love.”
READ ALSO ON THE OBSERVERS: "Taxi Driver," rap song vents about poverty in Iran
Rap battles have become fairly established over the past five or six years. Everything you rap during a battle has to be improvised. At first, people would show up with scripts already written, but, more and more, we have real battles where people create in the moment. In my opinion, Iranian rap is more advanced and more comprehensive as compared to the other countries in the region, including the Persian gulf countries and Afghanistan.
In his freestyle, rapper "Big head" makes fun of a conservative teacher who thinks that women are to blame if their husband cheats on them. "Maybe it’s you that isn’t doing well / Maybe it’s how you behave, he doesn’t want you / (...) you can’t go out often / Call your “marja” [A high official within the Shi'a clergy] and see which side he chooses / They won’t say if your husband is a good guy, they won’t even say anything if he is a thief, they won’t say if he’s an ass (can we say that?), they won’t say if he has a fiery temperament / Maybe it’s your fault". This video was filmed in Tehran in 2019.
Iranian rappers talk about the world around them, about liberty, equality and politics. They don’t hesitate to criticize the regime and religious conservatives. I think Iranian rap is truly rich because we don’t just talk about one girl or another or about drugs or the theme of “look at how great I am and how bad the others are.” Even if we do of course talk about those things, too… like all rappers in the world!
There’s no money in rap here. There aren’t official concerts and you can’t sell albums so you have to have pure love for rap to do it.
“A better day will come,” a track by the exiled rapper Hichkas, was written in 2009 during a time when the government was violently cracking down on the protest movement demonstrating against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested presidential victory.