Another recurring theme in Hichkas’ work has been the growing censorship of artistic expression in Iran, where artists are required to obtain permissions under tight rules from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which ensure that cultural works are harmless in the eyes of the clerical establishment. Shedding light on the impossibility of creative freedom under censorship, Hichkas asked if Iran’s revered literary works would have come to life under these conditions: “What if Hafez for his Divan, and if Rumi for his Masnavi and Muhammad for his Koran were to receive publication authorizations from the government?
A good day will come?
Hichkas’ lifelong collaborator under the pioneering Moltafet label, producer Mahdyar Aghajani, played a pivotal role in the development of Iran’s hip-hop sound. In its early days, Iranian hip-hop artists rapped in English and drew heavily from American rap in their appearance and musical expression. Aghajani, who had a background in classical music, sought to create a distinctly Iranian sound using traditional Persian instruments like the tar, a long-necked lute and the ney, a kind of flute, and Hichkas key lyrics were written in Persian instead of English. Despite the initial inspiration and imitation of Western rap, Iranian rappers have created a distinct identity, as popular rapper Yas put it in 2014: “Poetry is in our blood. Whether [Tupac] could sing of her life, her pain and her culture, why couldn’t I do the same in my own language?
In 2010, Hichkas released a wistful, nostalgic anthem called A Good Day Will Come, shortly after millions took to the streets as part of the Green Movement to protest an election result they believed to be rigged and to demand political and civil liberties. In the song, Hichkas expressed his hope for a day when Iran would be free from violence and chaos. However, the tension following the protests forced Hichkas’ exile to London, and the track became his last to be recorded in Iran (it was released while flying out of the country). The song has become iconic for many young people (the slogan A Good Day Will Come is still tagged by young people on the walls of Tehran). Meanwhile, the movement has been brutally crushed and its leaders systematically arrested by the government, and the “good day”, for many, has yet to be seen.
“The history and legacy of rap in post-revolution Iran is in itself really political,” Nahid Siamdoust, associate professor of media and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, told BBC Culture. “There wasn’t a lot of leeway for musicians or other cultural content creators to express that kind of criticism. Hip-hop and rap provided that space.” According to Siamdoust, the period following the green movement gradually led to the increased silence of rappers, which made any form of political expression difficult.
“When I became a teenager and started producing for underground artists, the Iranian government started cracking down on us, closing down the studios we used and arresting studio staff and the artists I worked with,” Mahdyar Aghajani told The Quietus in 2017. Aghajani, who was exiled to Paris, told The Quietus that underground artists were treated as “national security” cases. For domestic Iranian rappers, especially those who have incorporated political topics into their work, their first track could very well be their last, due to pressure from the authorities.
During the 2010s, there were some attempts to co-opt hip-hop as a pro-establishment art form, with the aim of promoting Islamic values and themes to a younger demographic. The backing of tattooed rapper Amir Tataloo for conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi’s presidential run in 2017 was the most notable of these.
An era of protest
In the late 2010s, political tensions began to rise again, with protests emerging every year between 2017 and 2019. Calls for regime change grew stronger, especially among an increasingly vocal younger generation. The 2019 protests were a catalyst for long-lasting resentment against the state, with security forces killing between 300 people by some reports and as many as 1,500 protesters, according to Reuters, in a week..
Addressing the protests, Hichkas released They’ve Clenched Their Fists in 2019; on the cover of the record was a long list of names of people who had been killed during the crackdown. More talked about than rap, the track was a scathing critique of deteriorating conditions in Iran in a somber tone define (Iranian lute) melody. “They don’t want citizens, they want slaves. They turned the whole country into a big cage and say there are no prisoners.” It ended with a heartbreaking sound of protesters being shot at.
In 2021, Toomaj Salehi, a Bakhtiari rapper who works during the day as a worker in a metal factory, emerged as the embodiment of a rebellious and tired generation. Usually rapping barefoot, he advertised himself in his lyrics as the “roar of a rage” and a “soldier for rights”. The Normal track of 2021, mocked any notion of normalcy in a country of staggering economic inequality. Rat Hole, released the same year, targeted individuals at home and abroad whom he accused of being complicit in allowing human rights abuses to rage in the country by looking the other way.