Monday, October 3, 2011

Hip Hop With A Persian Accent

In the Bible, Salome is a dancer who convinces King Herod to serve up John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. In Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play, she is a seductress who takes revenge on John the Baptist after he rejects her affections. In 21st-century Iran, Salome is the Islamic Republic’s first female rapper and a rising star in the underground music scene.

It’s not easy to be a female hip-hop artist in Iran. Not only are women banned from singing in public, but all forms of popular music are subject to strict controls by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (also known as Ershad), which licenses all artistic expression, from novels and films to music lyrics, in conformity with Islamic sensibilities. Any lyrics that even hint of politics or social criticism are unlikely to get past Ershad’s censors, a circumstance that drives many hip-hop artists literally underground – into basement recording studios and makeshift concert halls.

Others, like Salome, turn to the Internet to distribute their music, selling songs from websites and iTunes, posting videos on YouTube. The fact that such outlets are equally frowned upon (Iran blocks access to many sites) does not deter these artists from reaching their audience however they can.

Born in 1985, Salome spent her childhood in Turkey and Azerbaijan and began to write hip-hop lyrics in high school. (She still considers herself more of a poet than a musician, claiming that she lacks the necessary musical technique.) Rap became her way of coping with the isolation she felt after moving to Iran and dealing with a new culture. She speaks Turkish and English but performs exclusively in Farsi, a language whose rhythm and melody make it a perfect vehicle for an art form that is as much poetry as music.

Salome’s first big break came in 2003, when Hichkas, one of Iran’s top rappers (whose name means “Nobody”), invited her to contribute a verse to one of his songs. Three years later, she collaborated with Shirali, an Iranian-German rapper, on the album, Delirium. Next came solo singles, released on the Internet, and a 2010 album called Paranoid Descent. She won first prize in the hip-hop category of the 2008 Tehran Avenue Music Festival for her song, “Shak” (Doubt). And she was a finalist for the 2010 Freedom to Create Prize, an international art award that promotes social justice.

Many of Salome’s lyrics have a political theme. “Sabz Shodim Dar In Khak” (Grown Green on This Land), written in the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 presidential election, which many citizens felt was rigged, urges Iranians to unite and not be tricked by power-hungry authorities. “Dad Bezan Sedat Berese” (Scream to Let Your Voice Be Heard) is about Israel’s 2008 attacks on Gaza, and Salome criticizes her compatriots who would take Israel’s side simply to spite their government for its anti-Israel propaganda. (Many Iranians mistrust their government so much that they will automatically adopt the view opposite to the one put forward by the clerics.)

Nevertheless, Salome describes herself as an “apolitical” artist. “I have suffered more for love than I ever have for politics,” she said in an interview with The Guardian earlier this year. Yet even her apolitical songs have a deeply personal or psychological angle. These are lyrics about inner strength and independence of spirit, expressed in songs such as “Ankabut” (Spider) and “Hoboot” (Fallen). When Salome sings about lost love (as she does in Hoboot), she doesn’t wallow in the misery of a broken heart but looks ahead to the healing that comes with moving on.

The closest this rapper will come to giving her music a label is to call it “conscious rap,” which she describes as a genre in which the artist is politically and socially aware, conscious of her environment. But Salome prefers to avoid categories, which she feels limit freedom of expression. She’s a free spirit who would choose to be an underground rapper even if her country’s restrictive laws on artistic expression didn’t force her out of public view. She prefers to record her own songs at home rather than sign with a record label, which would mean making concessions to someone else’s creative vision.

And despite the Islamic Republic’s ban on women singing in public, Salome has little patience with the view of Iranian women as victims of oppression. She sees her own difficulties in finding outlets for her art as no different than those of the men. After all, male rappers are also prohibited from performing in Iran. Instead of focusing on the limitations imposed on Iranian women, she celebrates their inner strength and determination, the opportunities they create for themselves, and the respect that is their due.

Salome is well aware of the risks she faces by practicing an illegal art form. She refuses to divulge her real name, is careful not to put her family in danger, and lives “conservatively” (as she puts it), not drawing attention to herself in her daily life. But unlike many other underground musicians who have left Iran to pursue their musical careers in a less restrictive environment, Salome chooses to remain in Tehran. Her songs are filled with love for her country and pride in her culture, so why would she want to live anywhere else, far from the culture and society that inspire her art?

To see Salome in action, here is a selection of her videos:


  1. Salome, you're a brave woman. I wish you well and hope life returns to more artist-friendly atmosphere soon. Take care.

  2. Ellis, Salome has an amazing talent, doesn't she? Thanks for stopping by.