Alireza JJ on Iran's Thriving & Illegal Underground Hip-Hop Scene

An Iranian rapper reveals the country's love for hip-hop and the government's fight to control it.

The world has never been more globalized, but while we're ever more connected to our neighbors around the world, it can still come as a shock to realize how similar yet sometimes staggeringly different countries and cultures can be.

For example, consider the life of an Iranian rapper named Alireza Jazayeri, better known by his stage name Alireza JJ and a member of the group Zedbazi. In a recent interview with Public Radio International's Moira Lavelle, Alireza JJ spoke about both the thriving and immensely popular hip-hop scene in his home country, where he's no longer based, and Iranian hip-hop artists' continuing struggle against the government to evade censorship and even arrest. 

"Now rap is undoubtedly the most popular genre of music among 18-25 year old Iranians. Even 13-17, rap is like the main thing teenagers like to listen to," Alireza said in the interview. But while it's amazing to watch hip-hop culture spread across the globe, the Iranian hip-hop fans' interest does not necessarily equate to local artists being able to create, record and perform the music they've grown to love. Significant roadblocks remain, as evidenced by recent media scrutiny, and the requirement of approval by the country's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for all musicians in the country to legally produce or perform their music. The article claims that as of 2010, the Ministry only approves 20 percent of music it reviews for release.

"Our group was the first group that used what they call explicit language in Iranian music. Even before the revolution there was no explicit language or curse words in art. We were the first who actually brought it to mainstream, like they did in American hip-hop in the late 80s."

This is a big reason for why, despite the strong local pride and frequent referencing of Tehran's 021 area code, Alireza and Zedbazi currently make their home in France. In fact, the rapper goes on to say that he doesn't think the group would be legal musicians in the country in the near future. "I would say inside of Iran 99 percent of rappers are working underground," said Jazayeri. They're not exactly being arrested but they can't legally perform or sell their music."

Forced to move their activities underground, musicians must then work in bedrooms and basements, flocking to the Internet where they can share their music for free and perform at virtual shows projected on computer screens, bringing together artists from Paris to London to Tehran. In doing so they risk legal repercussions ranging from facing arrest to having fatwas issued against them. In the end, Alireza says that he and his group are not even considered Iranian artists because the government considers them foreigners now and haven't given them permission to sell records and give concerts.

While Alizera says that he doesn't see widespread change happening soon, he remains hopeful for the future, especially after the recent Iranian nuclear deal which could potentially open up political and cultural exchanges with the West and America.  

"I don't know what will happen ... I think when Iran's doors begin to open to the west there are some things that are going to change for sure. I think they're going to be more relaxed in some areas especially with a lot of foreign investors and people coming in and tourists. But that's going to take time. A country doesn't do a 180 in just a few years time so we'll see. But I'm optimistic. It was a good deal, and it was great for Iran I think."

We're so often caught up on beef and record sales that we can lose track of hip-hop's real power as a music that can provide a voice to the voiceless, and Alireza JJ's story is proof of just how diverse hip-hop truly is on a global level and a reminder both of the culture's global influence and a powerful reminder that those of us in the U.S. shouldn't take our freedom of speech, even in rap, for granted. 

[By Brendan Varan. He had absolutely no idea Iran had a hip-hop scene until today. Follow him on Twitter.]