Iranian Women Rapping and Kicking Ass

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Originally published by Ajam Media Collective on January  19, 2011.

A few months ago TM Bax released its newest music video, “Tehran Mal-e Mast.” The video itself is a great look at Tehran and explores these guys’ relationship with the city (and its many fresh fruit juice stands), but one glaring absence shows up: there are almost no women featured in the video!

This is a particularly problematic feature given the title (it means “Tehran is Ours”).

I’m not an expert in the Iranian rap scene but I’ve spent my fair shares of hours in cars cruising Tehran being subjected to the stuff, and long hours wandering youtube have confirmed some of my fears: the Iranian rap scene has a lot of men, and in particular men with a taste for Los Angeles-style objectification.

Some of the female rappers, meanwhile, seem to typify the worst of North Tehran culture– the ultimate hybrid of Beverly Hills and Persian oil money- like this rather terrifying singer, who goes by the moniker “Isun Barbie”:

Despite admittedly terrible rappers like Barbie, there are a few great standouts from both sides of the pond that are worth highlighting.

A$A (sometimes spelled Asa) is one I recently stumbled upon. A proud Tehrangelesi  of Ahwazi origin (via Germany), her video “Fesenjoon” explores issues of diaspora and food as she wanders an Iranian supermarket in the Valley and later dances with family at their typically Iranian, Persian-carpeted home.

Even while integrating humor and the spectacle of a cross-generational, pre-dinner Persian dance party, the lyrics and images deal with the complexity of diaspora reality.

One of the aspects of the video that struck me was how located in Los Angeles geography it is- while she recalls Iranian landscapes and heaps praise on Persian cuisine (Fesenjoon is a pomegranate walnut stew), the video takes place at Eilat (an Iranian grocery store in Pico-Robertson, a mixed Iranian, Israeli and American Jewish neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley) and has lots of LA street scenes.

This exploration of geography (and the fact of being diasporic that this entails for an LA Iranian) is addressed further in LA River, a more explicit exploration of her relationship to the city.

Rather striking about the videos is the overwhelming negativity of the comments; A$A, like many of the female rappers I have come across, receives a great deal of negative feedback on her videos. Given the extremely low quality of much of the stuff produced by Iranian men, it’s rather surprising that people get  so caught up on the stuff being produced by women. The evidence here is anecdotal, but still seems to suggest some of the patriarchy and misogyny I hinted at earlier.

No post would be complete without straying into the explicitly political, so the next video is one from a few years back addressing explicitly domestic political themes. Mahour, an Iranian-based rapper, takes on the crackdown on dress (and particularly but not exclusively women’s dress) that occurred in the spring and summer of 2006.

The power and strength in her voice, interlaced with sound bites of speeches given by political leaders as well as footage of women being interrogated by morality police, creates an emotionally powerful anthem rejecting state policing of morality and women’s bodies. The best bits are when Mahour responds forcefully to recordings of critiques of girls’ clothing being given publicly by police, creating a dialogue of women’s subversion and resistance that is so rarely able to be articulated publicly by those under attack.

The comments unsurprisingly have long since devolved into a massive flame war between opponents of the regime, supporters of the regime, and racists & misogynists of various stripes and creeds. But don’t let that distract you from this empowering resistance anthem. I’ll admit, playing this really loud in the car while driving in Tehran gets me really hyped up and makes me feel pretty subversive, so make sure it gets onto the soundtrack of your next trip back.

The final rapper I’ll point out is the kick-ass, queer, and currently Toronto-based Saye Sky ( Probably one of the most famous LGBT musicians in the Persian-speaking world, Saye Sky’s song are excellent, extended condemnations of misogyny and of anti-lesbian and anti-trans sentiment.

A video with English translation for “Hagh Koshi (Executing Rights),” a defense of trans rights in Iran, is given above. While the right of citizens to undergo gender correction surgeries is guaranteed by Iranian law as a result of a fatwa penned by Ayatollah Khomeini himself, they face widespread discrimination in society.

“Yek Zane Irani (An Iranian Woman),” is another fantastic rant with deeply feminist undertones. This rap spares few in a scathing critique of patriarchy that confronts both misogyny and anti-lesbianism in Iranian society.

Although Saye Sky now lives in Toronto, she is busy producing new work and I’m looking forward to adding her upcoming hits to my next “Getting Pumped Up while Driving in Tehran” playlist.

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