As someone who has spent the better part of the last decade involved in the underground hip-hop community, I took particular interest in a story that recently surfaced regarding Iran's latest attempt to eradicate the genre from its borders. "Underground" has taken on a whole new meaning in Iran as the regime, in its ongoing crusade to eliminate all things Western, has decided to target hip-hop music and its unique cultural aspects. Although I am personally appalled by this move, I have found the reaction, or lack thereof, by the various music communities within the United States extremely disappointing.
I first became involved in the underground scene during the early 2000s after coming across the music of the recently deceased artist Eyedea on a file-sharing website. Having previously believed that all hip-hop was what I had heard on the radio, I quickly became aware of a community of independent artists producing quality, conscience-driven music outside the mainstream. As I dug deeper into the underground, I discovered a vast array of artists from all over the world, each with a unique message and style. It didn't take long to realize that independent hip-hop was going global, and with the ever-expanding use of the internet, the music of artists from Munich to Bogotá soon found its way to my desktop.
During my freshman year of college, I began to experiment with various music software programs in my dorm. I soon taught myself how to produce instrumentals, which I would send to friends who would in turn write and record their lyrics to the tracks. My life was consumed with music over the next few years, as I did several U.S. tours and produced instrumentals for multiple albums under different aliases. Although I ceased touring in 2008, I still stay involved in hip-hop and occasionally work on a song with friends when I have the time.
I have always found it puzzling that so many musicians hold tyrannical icons such as Che Guevara in such high regard. Che, hands-down the most identifiable "revolutionary" figure in the world, held contempt for both minorities and music, yet his face finds its way to album covers, instruments, t-shirts, and other music attire. On African-Americans, he wrote, "The Negro is indolent and lazy, and spends his money on frivolities, whereas the European is forward-looking, organized and intelligent." He also attempted to ban musical expression, which he thought imperial in nature and considered a threat to the revolution. Numerous roqueros were jailed following the revolutionary takeover of Cuba, and not even Che's grandson, Canek Sanchez Guevara, was exempt from the policy. The musically inclined Canek eventually fled to Mexico following a series of altercations between the police and his band, yet groups such as Rage Against the Machine proclaim Che as their "honorary fifth band member."
Although the Ayatollah Khomeini has not yet received the same pop-culture admiration as Che, I have noticed an unfortunate tendency within the music community to turn a blind eye to the regime's various forms of oppression. The parallel between Communist Cuba and the Islamic Republic of Iran isn't far-fetched -- both governments insist on a single moralistic viewpoint, under which those who express or engage in any form of opposition are to be jailed or executed.
What I have so much trouble comprehending is why so many musicians in America -- virtually the only nation on earth where you can make a living out of criticizing the government -- hold Che and the Cuban "revolution" in such high regard and remain silent while bearing witness to ongoing oppression in Iran. Most recently, the Islamic republic has directed its sights on the nation's underground hip-hop scene. Government censors are required to review all music before it is authorized for release, and hip-hop artists are routinely denied the right to record and perform. On 7 November, artists near Tehran were clandestinely attempting to record in abandoned, camouflaged houses when police discovered and raided the buildings, subsequently confiscating recording equipment and musical instruments and jailing the men and women found on the premises.
Following the raid, Tehran's police chief reportedly stated, "These groups use the most trashy, juvenile and street-like words and phrases that have no place in proper grammar ... More importantly, they have no regard for the law, principles, proper behavior and language." The chief went on to claim, "Those who have been arrested are among those who have veered away from proper behavior, who have distanced themselves from all of life's hardships and are in search of comforts that have no limits."
This latest turn of events in Iran has resulted in virtually no outcry from the American music community, including the underground hip-hop scene. Where are the self-righteous "artists" who claim to be activists? Where are the plans for benefit shows to raise community awareness? Nowhere. The same people who raced to the studio time and time again to condemn the so-called "imperialistic motives" of the George W. Bush administration are conspicuously silent when faced with the realities of true oppression. This needs to change.
Hip-hop is about expression, and artists often disagree with one another based on their political positions, values, or belief systems. However, we should all stand together and express outrage toward any form of speech suppression, especially when it comes to hip-hop, the most vocally expressive genre of music there is. Hip-hop is worldwide, and regardless of background or style, musicians must stand together and express our support for those who have been silenced. This should start by putting an end to the glorification of anti-free speech tyrants such as Che Guevara and speaking out for our brothers and sisters trapped under oppressive regimes such as those in Iran. I hope to see a shift not only within America, but throughout the worldwide hip-hop community to bring awareness to this issue. Artists have a voice -- they should use it.