People light candles at a mourning ceremony for Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, January 2020
Ahmad Halabisaz / Redux

With the United States and Iran on the brink of war, regime change advocates are celebrating the assassination of the Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani as the beginning of a democratic Iran. Royalist expatriate talk shows briefly circulated rumors that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had died of a heart attack, readying the ground for people to rise up to change the face of Iran. After all, the street protests that washed over Iran this past November had unleashed the most widespread and deadly unrest the country had seen since the 1979 revolution.

But if anyone is expecting an inspirational people’s movement to rise up, the music shows otherwise. One might have expected the recent protests to come with an outpouring of revolutionary music. After all, in the absence of a free public culture, music has become an important mode of political expression in modern Iran, as I demonstrated in my book, Soundtrack of the Revolution. Famous Persian classical songs, including “From the Blood of the Youth Tulips Have Sprung,” fueled the uprising against the shah’s security state, and just a decade ago, musicians in Iran revived such hits as “The Winter Is Over” and “My Primary School Mate” to give beat to the Green Movement uprising.

But the soundtrack of the 2019 uprisings has been the sound of silence. Crackdowns on musicians and cyberspace following the Green uprising drove many prominent— especially younger—artists into exile. The Internet that once empowered an underground cultural scene has become an effective tool for state repression. The exiled musician Mohsen Namjoo went so far as to tell me that “Iran’s underground music is dead.” By assassinating Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani last week, Washington has helped the Islamic Republic to supercharge its discourse of resistance to the United States and suppress dissent even more effectively.

The absence of independent music in the fall’s street movement bodes ill for the future of Iran. The role that music plays in the country’s public life is such that the death of its underground music portends the withering of its oppositional politics. Iran’s freedom struggle, which was born in 1906 with the country’s constitutional revolution—the first in the Middle East—and survived dictatorships, wars, and foreign interventions, is now on life support.

The absence of independent music in the street movement bodes ill for the future of Iran.

The predominant tone of this Iranian moment was despair. Following Soleimani’s death, it has turned to indignant resolve for revenge and justice, as promulgated by the state-run news media. The November protests, caused by a gas price hike, engulfed 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces and led to the killing of more than 600 people in the crackdown that followed, according to opposition forces. Only one day into the protests, the state shut down the global Internet for a whole week, causing an unprecedented digital blackout. Iran’s underground went largely offline and reverted to old-school, analog, face-to-face communication. It returned to smaller settings: basement concerts, readings, shows, the streets, and the theater, where boundary-breaking work happens today.

The despair following the bloodbath didn’t lead to notable musical responses even on the streets, and the few clips making the rounds echoed the void. One shows a long-haired santur player strumming away madly on the sidewalk. Another, more widely shared video is a heart-wrenching clip in which a young military conscript sits next to a man who strums chords on a guitar and spontaneously starts singing parts of a poem known among soldiers: “Why did you put me on duty tonight? Sir Captain, don’t hit me, ’cause my heart is weak. Sir Captain, don’t hit me, ’cause I might die. All mothers are in mourning.” Another young conscript joins the singer and starts weeping, causing the singer to cry while singing, with passersby coming to console them. Although this clip is from earlier this year, people are reposting it now because it speaks to the heartache of soldiers being asked to kill their compatriots in the protests.

The absence of a musical response contrasts starkly with the Green uprising ten years ago, when people flooded the streets to protest election results. Musicians created combative songs commemorating martyrs such as Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who bled to death in what Time called the most widely shared video of a death. They turned then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s label of “riffraff” for protestors on its head and made songs calling him the same. The rapper Hichkas produced a track titled “A Good Day Will Come,” in which he criticized in subdued but powerful words the government’s handling of protests. But even this despondent song found a little fissure through which to shine light on a better future: “After all this blood rain, a rainbow will peek through in the end.”

The immensity of the 2009 uprising shocked the state, which quickly leapt to securitize cyberspace. In 2011, the police force established a new cyber police unit, which significantly restricted freedom of speech online. FATA, as the force is known, tracked down Iranian youths following Pharrell Williams’s global call to do the “Happy” dance and imprisoned regular folks for criticizing the state on their blogs. In a systematic disinformation campaign, state television painted many of those not toeing the state line as gullible subjects targeted by foreign “soft war” and broadcast their forced confessions.

The national depression that followed 2009 quickly led to the outmigration of half a million Iranians every year, about 150,000 of whom are highly talented, according to the Iranian Ministry of Science’s own estimate. In a gesture of reconciliation, the state allowed then presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani to run a seemingly reformist campaign in 2013. To everyone’s surprise, Iranians once again mobilized and reached for political reform via elections. Somehow, political optimism had been revived. In fact, Rouhani adopted a key as his election icon—intended as a symbol of new openings—and one hundred days into office, a film director associated with his campaign produced a musical clip modeled exactly on the “Yes We Can” video that supporters created for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

With the promise of a nuclear deal with six world powers in sight, Iranians—artists prominently among them—kept pushing for internal reform. And when Rouhani’s government finalized the nuclear deal in 2015, voters rewarded him with a reelection two years later. His victory in 2017 led to enormous street parties, with Hamed Homayoun’s song “The People of the City” serving as a perfect anthem for festivities that attested to people power. The song’s insistence that “There is a God” at the end of each alley pledged a renewal of optimism.

But already by the end of 2017, economic corruption and mismanagement, as well as a looming U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, provoked widespread discontent. Within short order, Iranians went from the promise of a groundbreaking opening to the world to the worst sanctions ever imposed. The Iranian currency crashed by 70 percent. Overnight, large segments of society lost their ability to buy things like meat and good fruits, let alone necessary medications, and last month the government justified its gas price hike by stating that it needed to give cash handouts to 60 million “impoverished” Iranians. That is 75 percent of the entire population in a country rich in oil, gas, and industry.

The artistic response to this turn of events issued mainly from Iran’s most prominent musicians and filmmakers, who could afford a degree of immunity. In a statement called “The Voice of Ābān 98” (Ābān 98 is November 2019 on the Iranian calendar), these artists wrote: “In these bitter days following Ābān 98, there is not a moment when one can forget the faces of the dead youth, the wounded people, grieving mothers and restless fathers…. What are you doing to the people? Which window have you left open for listening to the voice of the people? Which protest gathering have you tolerated? Which party or institution have you allowed that can express people’s demands?”

Musicians in exile are now the ones echoing the protests, and the overwhelming tone of their lament is one of rage and anguish.

The only widely shared music video that spoke of hope was a slick hip-hop track produced by a state-aligned production company, filmed as if it were recorded by a bystander. The clip shows young men spontaneously breaking into beatboxing on a subway car when they are joined by a soldier in uniform who sings, “Why are you sitting? Stand up, we’re all part of the same family.” Onlookers stare incredulously as the soldier continues, “These hardships are short-lived; better days are in store, tomorrow is full of hope.” Toward the end, he is joined in chorus by others on the subway, and the video signs off, “Made by 80 million Iranians.” Having closed off avenues for underground music and political reform, the state is now attempting to fill the void by coopting the cool cachet of underground music and the political power of hope for its own messaging. Clips like these are part of a state-run disinformation campaign that is likely to ramp up now in order to unify the country following General Soleimani’s assassination. And images of diverse crowds mourning the general’s death across Iran show that the state might not need to work too hard. He was a widely popular figure in Iran after all.

With the deafening silence of independent music from inside Iran, musicians in exile are now the ones to echo the protests, and the overwhelming tone of their lament is one of rage and anguish. In his new track, “She’s Clenching Her Fists,” the now London-based rapper Hichkas points to the Internet shutdown and says, “They’ve caged the whole country but say no one’s a prisoner here.” Hichkas’s album cover is a bloodstained list of the names of those killed, and the track is an austere piece of spoken word set to minimal music, which ends on live audio cuts of the protests, with people shouting, “They’re killing the people.”

Fusion musician Mohsen Namjoo dedicates his track “The Wind Blows” to Pouya Bakhtiari, the 27-year-old electrical engineer who was shot in the head while protesting in Karaj and became the face of the protests. In line with Persian poetry’s simile of flowers for youth, the music video captures the dramatic destruction of flowers set in vases. In another song, called “Remembrance,” Namjoo commemorates the martyrs and sings of the day when their blood will be redeemed, their joyful spirits pouring down as spring showers.

The recent protests were desperate gasps of Iran’s freedom movement, which music has charted over the last century. Iranians have surprised themselves and observers repeatedly since 1979 by going back to the ballot box and the streets to demand greater rights. Through their music, they have given expression to hopes for the future. But crushed under sanctions, systematic corruption, and even greater political repression as a consequence of imminent war with the United States, they are now hard pressed to produce a vision. And without a popular vision for the future fueled with passionate music, even darker times could lie ahead.

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  • NAHID SIAMDOUST is Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International Affairs and the author of Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran.
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