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Iran: ‘Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran’

5 October 2006

Excerpt from Chapter 8 in the report ’Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran’, published by Article 19 in September 2006. Chapter 8 is about music in Iran

Shahkar Binesh-Pajouh is a lecturer with a doctorate in urban planning, who blends rap music with Persian classical poetry to condemn poverty, unemployment and other social issues. In spite of Mr Binesh-Pajouh’s deeply conservative message, he too spent four years struggling with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG – previously the Ministry of Culture and Art) to obtain permission for his album. Getting approval from the censors was a prolonged affair and was only granted after six songs from his original ten were deleted and inappropriate lyrics changed. ‘It kills you as an artist,’ he says. Furthermore, following the release of his album, officials imposed a two-year ban on his live acts after zealous vigilantes attacked one of his concerts.

For many, President Ahmadinejad’s decree is just one of a multitude of restrictions, currently suffocating musical expression. In an interview with ARTICLE 19, Tehran-based thrash metal band Explode commented, ‘the situation is so bad that I can’t think that we can sink deeper,’ before adding, ‘I don’t know, at least I think we can’t sink any deeper!!’
According to Shadi Vatanparast, a writer on the Iranian web-magazine TehranAvenue.com, ‘Music can be considered the most vulnerable and problematic art form in the Iranian history.’ [159]   ‘The state,’ she continues, ‘has always tried to control artistic production and music is one of the more effective ways of directing desires.’

As with all other art forms, Ms Vatanparast writes that one of the greatest obstacles facing musicians is the barrier of bureaucracy with which they are faced. For any musician who wishes to play music, release a CD, arrange a concert, or even teach, permission is required from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance who are responsible for the following:   [160]

1. Protection and support of music.

2. Guidance and orientation – musicians must be guided to preserve music and safeguard the authenticity of the culture, especially native music.

3. Supervision and control – supervision must ‘preserve the authentic and ancient culture of our country.’ This includes:

a. Control of recorded music – issuing permits for distribution. This also applies for recorded poetry which must be vetted to ensure that it does not offend public sensibilities. Love poems or poems of despair are not for example deemed appropriate.

b. Permits for music teaching – the aspirant must have a degree in music, or be examined by a commission from the MCIG. The proposed teaching space much be adequate (50-60m). Islamic standards must also be observed at all times, which means that women can only be taught by women. Music concerts require permits.

c. Organisation of musical events – these usually take place within the framework of a religious ceremony.

Musicians must submit both their music and their lyrics to three councils: the Lyric Council, the Music Council and the Cultural Council. ‘Rejection,’ according to Freemuse, an NGO dedicated to music censorship, ‘is the norm’. [161]   The list of what is forbidden is lengthy and fastidious. Prohibited are inappropriate lyrics, especially those that declare love for anyone but Allah, grammatical errors, solo female singers, shaved heads, improper sense of style, too many rifts on electrical guitars and excessive stage movements. [162]   This latter proviso it should be highlighted, is, however, a development from the early years, when band members were required to play sitting down. [163]   Even though today the band is permitted to stand, those in the audience must still remain seated. According to a BBC correspondent, ‘Dancing, even moving energetically in your seat – is forbidden.’ [164]
Mr Riahipour describes his audience members as ‘headbanging while sitting’. [165]

Excerpt from Chapter 8 in the report ’Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran’, published by Article 19 in September 2006

Quotes from the report

‘Music dulls the mind because it involves pleasure and ecstasy, similar to drugs. It destroys our youth who become poisoned by it.’
Ayatollah Khomeini, religious leader of Iran, 1979

‘The payment of musicians was illegal in terms of religious law. The very act of signing a document mentioning the word “music” was considered a sin.’
Roshanravan, composer – about the period in Iran in the 1980’s when revolutionary fervour was at its peak

[Since President Ahmadinejad’s election] concerts are completely banned, apart from in one or two places. Not that they are illegal, they simply won’t be granted permission.’
Mr Mashkouri, editor of Zirzamin, an alternative and underground on-line music magazine which is a tribute to rock music in Iran

‘It is hilarious and this method of restricting people and telling them that you can only sing for women is humiliating.’
Mahsa Vahdat, singer – commenting on that all female entertainment has been banned in Iran, unless for a female-only audience, since 1997.

‘You can’t make a career at music in Iran unless you are willing to compromise. Maybe it’s good that the best music is all underground. It keeps us on the edge. It keeps us fresh.’
AZ from the banned Rap duo ‘AZ & Sina-ti’ who claim to be the ‘voice of the youth’. The duo’s lyrics speak of disillusionment and the longing for greater freedom.

‘It kills you as an artist.’
Shahkar Binesh-Pajouh, musician who blends rap music with Persian classical poetry to condemn poverty, unemployment and other social issues, and who spent four years struggling with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to obtain permission for his album. It was only granted after six songs from his original ten were deleted and inappropriate lyrics changed. Following the release of his album, officials imposed a two-year ban on his live acts after zealous vigilantes attacked one of his concerts.

‘The situation is so bad that I can’t think that we can sink deeper. There is near to none chance to release a metal album officially here.’
Explode, thrash metal band

‘There are so many problems in trying to gain permission to release music and very often bands give up.’
Norik Misakian, musician – whose instrumental album entitled ‘Trails of the Soul’ was banned by the MCIG claiming the music was overly reminiscent of Western rock, a product of drug addicts.

‘We can still get music we would like to listen to from somewhere else. We can get it from the Internet, we can get it on Tehran’s big black market, anywhere.’
Babak Riahipour, member of a heavy metal group – about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005-revival of Ayatollah Khomeini’s harsh cultural decree banning all Western music

‘All CD shops are still selling foreign music and are covered in posters of foreign musicians such as Nirvana, Bob Marley and The Doors, even on the outside.’
Mr Mashkouri, editor of Zirzamin, an alternative and underground on-line music magazine which is a tribute to rock music in Iran

‘Music can be considered the most vulnerable and problematic art form in the Iranian history. The state has always tried to control artistic production and music is one of the more effective ways of directing desires.’
Shadi Vatanparast, a writer on the Iranian web-magazine TehranAvenue.com

 


Read more about the report
…and about how artists self-censor their works in fear of risking harassment, arrest, flogging, or worse still, imprisonment:

’Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran’


Notes

159  Freemuse, ‘The Most Problematic Art Form in Iran’, 21 Oct 2004, www.freemuse.org/

160  Youssefzadeh, note 3 above at 42-49.

161  ‘World Premiere of Film about Music Censorship in Iran’, 4 May 2006, www.freemuse.org/.

162  Ibid.

163  S Peterson, ‘Iranian Musicians Try to Hit the Right Note’, The Christian Science Monitor, 3 Oct 2005, www.csmonitor.com/2005/1003/p04s01-wome.html.

164  M Eeles, ‘Fresh Iranian Bands Ready to Rock’, BBC News, 9 February 2004, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3471841.stm.

165  Peterson, note 163.


About Article 19
Article 19 is an independent human rights organisation that works around the world to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It is based in London and takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.

  Click to download pdf
‘Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran’Click to download full report in pdf
 

Sources

Free copy of the report in pdf-format:
‘Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran’

Article 19 – Global Campaign For Free Expression:
www.article19.org

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