Iranian rapper SÄYE SKYE: “They go after us because they know the power of art”

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Revolutionary rapper SÄYE SKYE has escaped kidnap and been chased from his home country for standing up for his beliefs. He speaks to Shayan about fighting a vicious dictatorship and the power of music

  • Words: Shayan | Photos: Montecruz Foto & Ibrar Hossein
  • 20 January 2023

Over the past four months, protests have engulfed the entire nation of Iran, following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian Regime on the September 16, 2022. This started as an individual uprising at Jina’s funeral in Saqez, Kurdistan, but quickly spread across a nation who are sick of a regime exercising control through misogyny, homophobia, terror, censorship, inequality, pollution and corruption. The Kurdish rallying cry ‘Jin Jiyan Azadi’ (Woman, Life, Freedom) continues to be chanted by thousands, despite more than 18,000 protestors and civilians having been arrested across Iran according to the Human Rights Activists’ News Agency (HRANA).

Aside from more than 500 deaths during protests, official executions are being carried out on false claims, such as the cases of 21-year-old Mohammad Mehdi Karami and 39-year-old Seyed Mohammad Hosseini. Until recently, Saman Yasin, a Kurdish rapper making anti-regime music, was among the next group of protestors facing imminent execution. Another much-loved rapper, Toomaj Salehi, was recently arrested, forced to confess and is currently under threat of capital punishment.

However, despite the regime’s brutal crackdown, artists continue to view music as a crucial anti-government tool, and use it to rouse global support. Most notably, Shervin Hajipour’s ‘Baraye’ song, for which he was arrested, is now integral to protests worldwide. The powerful song was formed from replies to Shervin asking his followers on Twitter what motivated them to go and fight on the streets, with answers ranging from “For dancing in the streets”, “For our fear when kissing loved ones” to “For the girl who wished she was born a boy” built into the lyrics. The track quickly went viral amassing over 5 million plays on Spotify, and became the unofficial anthem of the Iranian movement. From protests in Barcelona, to being performed by Coldplay at their sold-out concert in Buenos Aires, the song is sung across the globe as a defiant act of solidarity with the women of Iran.

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SÄYE SKYE, who is a transgender rapper and LGBTQ+ rights activist from Iran, has been making revolutionary rap for over a decade, and had to leave due to the Islamic Regime’s violent search for him. His songs vary from hopeful melodies and rhymes promoting conversations and pride around ‘ADHD’ to unapologetic anger at loneliness and discrimination in ‘TNE’. During the 2009 Green Movement he made illegal songs in Iran, calling for Iranian LGBTQ+ visibility and condemning the dogmatic regime. He is now based in Berlin where he records and performs songs dedicated to the ongoing revolution. Whether at sold-out venues or demonstrations on the street, he performs and raps with the aim of injecting energy and hope into the ongoing uprisings.

I sat down with SÄYE in early December to talk about the vitality of art and music throughout the ‘Woman Life Freedom’ movement and how it feels to create music under a violent patriarchal dictatorship.

SAYE, it’s been a really harsh couple months for Iranians around the world, how are you doing right now?

To be honest with you, it’s been rough the past few weeks. The government has started coming forward with official execution orders. They are forcing so many confessions, there are so many lives at risk, there are so many youths facing danger and there are so many campaigns about them. But at the same time, as we speak, the biggest nationwide strikes we have seen in the past 40 years are happening. The internet is shut down and although my messages don’t go through most of the time, the few people I can speak to, because they have the privilege to buy various VPNs, are telling me that we are moving into a new stage of the revolution. By striking we can hit the government from new angles, avoid casualties, and everyone can get involved, even the elderly that might be too weak and slow to run away.

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You were very active at demonstrations, social media and performing at concerts where you shared stories and information about all the people who have been injured and killed during these past months, but I saw you were less active the past week or two?

Yeah, a lot of people were wondering about this. It’s because a dear friend of mine in Tehran was arrested. I am not going to identify who they are for their own safety. They’ve been arrested, interrogated and tortured multiple times. They’ve been questioned about me and my involvement in Berlin. They’ve been horribly threatened if they don’t reveal information about me, even though they don’t even have any information about me. I’ve never experienced this in the past so I am very enraged by this. To think that someone’s life is in danger over there because of what I do over here, even though they have nothing to do with it, is really unfair.

I have also been receiving a lot of threats in Berlin, and it really raises the question: what is the free West doing for our safety and our freedom of expression? Of course the danger we are facing is not even a fraction of what they face in Iran. They are confronted with bullets, they lose their bodies and eyes. But the fact that the regime there is able to infringe on democratic values here needs to be taken more seriously.

At the end of the day, I am not worried about my life. Nobody knows what my plans are, the choices I make and the work I do for this revolution is up to no one else than myself. I’m not going to stop what I do. The regime already threatened me, tried to kidnap me about 12/13 years ago. That has never stopped me from fighting my fight and speaking up for people who don’t have a voice. They’ve arrested artists, they’ve arrested free thinkers, brilliant minds, the youth, even children, for shouting “woman life freedom”. So we need to speak up and raise awareness, every day.

Well, I will have to ask you about those threats you received in a bit but first, I was wondering whether we could talk a bit about the role of music and art in the current revolution. Every protest I go to songs, such as Shervin’s ‘Baraye’, are a crucial part of the demonstrations. Why is that?

I think art is the best medium for this awareness. Art comes from the heart, the pain and the suffering. I know that’s the case for me and other artists doing amazing work right now. The truth of my work is what is happening in Iran right now. I am just mirroring it, reflecting what is happening. It’s really important to keep this art going. So many musicians are being arrested. The most famous is Toomaj Salehi, he has been tortured and his forced confession was aired on state TV. There is also a Kurdish rapper Saman Yasin who is facing imminent execution. Behrad Konari is another rapper from Ahvaz who was recently arrested. The regime takes these mediums, and deals with them, very seriously. They know that having a podium and speaking the truth of the people can resonate with society, it can unite communities and that’s what they are afraid of. For the past 40 years the regime has been trying to diminish the power and value of art. There were no investments into public art. So, even family members stand against you at times because the regime made it evident that there is no future in becoming a musician, let alone rapper.

Let me say, rap is forbidden in Iran. It is not legal to make rap music. It’s ironic because so many rappers from different genders have been arrested. But now, they’ve realised the power of rap and for the first time ever, on state television, they showed a pro-regime rapper. This whole genre is forbidden in Iran! But they realised they need to mimic this medium, they need to use it for propaganda. They pumped money into high production sound and video quality, while at the same time they are arresting all the real rappers, even if they aren’t famous. They go after all of us because they know the power of art. They know it can change minds and culture. It’s funny because it seems like lots of people don’t take art very seriously, but the regime does. This is the back end of the war.

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What was your experience of making music in Iran?

Well, it’s been like seven years that I identify as ‘he’. In Iran, I lived and identified as a queer girl. Making rap music during that time, during the Green Movement, as a queer girl was not easy. You couldn’t just walk into a studio and record your track. I got so many rejections from producers, ‘you wanna talk about queer rights? Get the fuck out of my studio!’. But the reason I had to use this medium was because I wanted to say we exist. Our president at the time literally denied our existence during public speeches. So I needed to write a song about it, and I did that for me and my community because no one was doing it. I recorded three songs in Iran all of which were about LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. I recorded the first one in 2009. I didn’t have access to YouTube or anything, so I gave the CD to my friend. He uploaded it somehow and it went viral. It was picked up by magazines and news outlets across the world. I got hundreds of emails, from Tabriz to Mashhad, from all over Iran. People used the song to come out to their families, they sang along to it with their partners and some people told me it gave them motivation to keep going, not to give up and be themselves. Those messages alone meant the world to me and its right there where the value of art lies. But soon enough the government was after me. After my very first song. I had never thought about leaving Iran until then, but Fars News [state media] published an article about me saying my head is halal. They said I’m spreading sin,anti-Islamic propaganda, corrupting minds, so I ought to be erased from Earth. So, I had to leave. I didn’t even know where to go or how to leave the country. I never thought the government would have enough time to care about me, in my head it was just one queer song. But it was proof, straight out of Iran, that we queer Iranians do exist. So, they bugged me, they blacklisted me and they tried to hunt me down.

That’s unbelievable. How did it feel to read that there was a bounty on your head?

Oh, I felt like I did something right. I accomplished something really good. I was like: ‘Oh, I’ll take that as a compliment!’

In what ways did you notice that you were being monitored and chased down by the government?

Well, I noticed that my landline was having technical issues and when I tried to get it fixed no one was talking to me and I kept being referred to other people. I realised this was fishy, and since Iran can be very corrupt, I paid a guy to try and find out what was up. I was waiting for this person in a café in Tehran, drinking a cappuccino, and I saw him walk in. I had never seen someone look that scared in my life. He nervously moved his hands and gestured ‘Where is your cell phone?’ I pointed at it sitting next to me on the table. He just walked up to me and smashed my phone against the wall. I had been bugged for six months. He came with prints of my emails, messages and conversations. I put my cup down and decided I needed to leave.

What do you hope to achieve with your songs in the context of the revolution?

Where we are right now, people need to connect to their pain and suffering, and hear it from people that are just like them, in a way that’s hopeful. Music can do exactly that. They can listen to a song that’s about three minutes, with melodies they can relate to, melodies that remind them of their childhood and their homeland. And also, fresh songs, songs that represent the future. That’s really what they need. I want to listen to my audience and talk about their pain, but I also want to have redemption in my music. I want to give hope, confidence and inspiration. I need to remind my audience that they can do this and that they have the power to change things. That I am with them and we can work together. So, when I produce, write songs and melodies, I try to add this positivity, so that at the end of the song I feel empowered. That I can do everything I want, and I feel rebellious. That is the message of my music, because right now is not the time to mourn and be sad. It’s time to stand up and believe that the bright sky of the future is a possibility, and it is nearer than ever. So yeah, I’m focusing on that, I am trying to get people to channel their anger into collective activism. During concerts I ask audiences to stamp their feet together and I tell them to listen. That is your sound, and altogether with those stamps you can shake an entire dictatorship.

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How should we treat Iranian art with urgency towards the current situation?

First of all, anything that comes out of Iran is worthy of attention because nothing is simple over there. There are so many obstacles and barriers to making music in Iran, especially if you are a minority, a woman or identify as LGBTQ+. We need to maintain a bridge to the artists over there and the least we could do is acknowledge their work and create space for it. We are informing each other, sharing our styles, it’s a dynamic back and forth. A lot of the music coming out of Iran is very dark right now and that makes sense. I often try to make that darkness more tangible to people here in Europe.

Any musicians you would recommend?

Yeah and if this was a normal situation I would have plenty. But to be honest, I am very afraid for their safety so I prefer not to identify anyone.

What can artists and music-lovers reading this around the world do to help?

Educate yourself. Jin Jiyan Azadi is not only about Iran, it’s a message of freedom for every single oppressed person around the world. Today you see pictures from Sudan, a woman writing ‘woman life freedom’ on a wall, or women marching down the streets in Afghanistan right now. This movement does not only belong to Iran, but Iranian people. And when I say Iran, it includes Kurdish communities, Arab communities, Azeri communities and so on. They are the ones fighting the fight for everybody else right now.

Think bigger, think above and beyond the borders.

Think of ideas that are practical and feasible and connect to artists from different societies and communities. There are so many artists under oppression around the world. Giving time, resources and funding for artists that are talking about the ‘Woman Life Freedom’ movement is really important. Maybe create bodies of grants that Iranian artists can access. It’s so hard to make art in Iran, the politics and the economy stands against you. It would be nice to have these grants and to create ways that they can do their art there, but get some resources from here. We need to share resources between us. If you want to show solidarity and contribute, whether big or small, it’s appreciated and helps. It’s crucial to raise awareness with our art and to remember we have the power to change everything.

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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