Rapping provides an outlet for Iran's female MC

It’s not often you hear about rappers from Iran and it’s even rarer to hear of female MCs, but 25-year-old Salome is used to being an exception.

Although hip-hop is increasingly popular with Iran’s youthful population (two-thirds of whom are under 30), the theocratic regime that controls the release and performance of music in Iran has never been a fan.

In 2007 the government denounced rap—played at parties and in cars by urban teens accustomed to flouting the country’s strict laws—as vulgar and obscene. The culture minister vowed to shut down recording studios producing it but these restrictions did not silence Salome.

‘Any kind of problem you face, there is always a solution,” she says airily.
But, speaking to this charmingly truculent performer, it is hard to imagine what she would admit was a problem.

Certainly not the fact that there is an official ban on women singing in public—Salome simply started creating her own tracks in her bedroom. ‘When I started, there were challenges” is all she will admit. ‘But I don’t know if they wouldn’t still be there for a man.”

Living in Iran until a few months ago, Salome was forced to duck and weave around tough regulations set down by its rulers. Late last year she moved to Japan to study printmaking but is still releasing tracks on her MySpace page and working on an album. The handful of concerts she has performed have been in Turkey and the Netherlands.

Salome discovered hip-hop at the age of 15. It helped her deal with feelings of isolation and alienation in a new culture, after a childhood spent in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Yet despite speaking Turkish, English and Farsi (Iran’s national language), she can rap only in the latter. Farsi, she says, ‘is a very poetic language. And poetry is very important in Iran—every house has a book of Hafez poems. [Hafez was a very influential 14th-century Iranian poet.] Maybe that’s why hip-hop is so popular.”

Salome is keen to emphasise that not all her songs are political: ‘I have suffered more for love than I ever have for politics,” she says. Yet it’s hard not to imagine it was her political songs that caught the attention of the judges of the Freedom to Create prize, an international award for art that promotes social justice.

Although she didn’t win, the judges praised her courage—courage that is clear in such tracks as Don’t Muddy the Waters, written after the disputed 2009 elections that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retain his presidency amid accusations of vote rigging, sparking large protests, which became known as the green movement.

Her light voice is in contrast with her furious delivery as she raps: ‘One night, they stole my light of hope/ If I stay silent, If I stay still/ Who is going to make it right?” The raw, insistent style was born out of her anger, she says, at what happened during the election, although she did not take to the streets.

‘I didn’t know anything about the green movement. The police were beating me. On the streets I saw all different types of people—from women in hijab to young girls who were high-school pupils.”

Despite her outspoken attitude, Salome has so far managed to avoid the ire of the government. She insists she has never censored her work but tries to be careful to ensure her and her family’s safety.

She refuses to reveal her real name, saying she chose Salome after reading Oscar Wilde’s play, because it expresses the other side of her personality. ‘Inside me there was the shy girl who wanted to hide and a rebel—an angry girl who wanted to scream—and that was Salome.”

Much of her occasional tetchiness derives from a fear of playing into what she sees as the distorted image of women in Iran, which she says is reinforced by Iranian artists, such as Shirin Neshat, who won the Venice film festival’s best director award.

‘There are a lot of female Iranian artists outside Iran using this image that women here are oppressed [to] get themselves famous. If you say things the Western media wants to hear, then they will embrace you. Women are really prominent in Iran —

‘All this propaganda about how people are oppressed will give Western countries more excuses if they are interested in occupying us. I see Iran as a family—even if the regime is ruling the country, at least they are still Iranian.”

It’s an idea she voices in the song Grown Green on this Land. ‘Don’t let our home burn/ The fight will not be over/ We are always a family but they are strangers.” And Scream to Let Your Voice Be Heard is a diatribe blasting the young Iranians who support Israel as a form of rebellion against the Iranian regime’s support of the Palestinians.

But after spending four months in Japan, the strong-minded Salome says she is in a more reflective mood and will be concentrating on her music and the art, which she hopes will support her, rather than on politics.

‘I don’t think I will ever stop what I am doing. If I don’t write poetry, I start to feel bad inside.”—Guardian News & Media 2011

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