Iranian composer faces jail for Grammy award
âI ask all artists around the world to help me bring the voice of musical freedom to the world,â Rajabian said. Billboard in an email interview. “I have lived through years of imprisonment and bans, isolation, hunger strikes, etc. – just for the music.”
Rajabian was arrested in 2013, placed in solitary confinement for three months, released on bail and arrested again in 2015 for recording an album titled Iran’s story told by Setar (a lute-like instrument used in traditional Persian music). According to a 2016 Amnesty International report, after a three-minute trial in April 2015, he was convicted of “insulting Islamic holiness”, “spreading propaganda against the system” and ‘âIllegal audiovisual activitiesâ. His alleged crime: distributing “unlicensed music by Iranian singers from outside the country, some of whose lyrics and messages are political or cover taboo subjects,” according to the report.
Rajabian says the unfinished album, which was confiscated, spoke of “the absurdity of the Iran-Iraq war.” His label, Barg Music, was also seized. (In Persian, “barg” refers to the leaves of trees. In English, it is a measure of pressure.)
After his conviction in 2015, Mehdi says he was transferred to Evin prison in Tehran, where in 2016 he went on a 40-day hunger strike that led to his parole in 2017 ( He says his three-year prison sentence, which has been suspended, could be executed at any time.) He was arrested again in 2020 but was not jailed because of his album Middle East, which was released but was part of a larger performance art project that involved dancing, painting, and a book that went unrealized. The charges against him at the time were that he “encouraged prostitution”, he says, because female singers, banned in Iran, were singing on the album.
Due to the long-term effects of his imprisonment and hunger strike, Rajabian says he’s finished Coup de Dieu was accomplished with great difficulty. âMy body and soul have been damaged,â he says. “I lost 15 kilograms of weight [33 pounds] and 40% of my vision and my joints swelled from the hunger strike, âhe explains. âI couldn’t even play an instrument on my album. I could only compose and arrange. I did it just to say that no power can stop the freedom of music. “
From his basement, Rajabian worked via the Internet with musicians, including two American singers, Lizzy O’Very and Aubrey Johnson, who appear on four of the tracks. Not all of the performers on the album are Iranian, Rajabian says, due to the ban on his work, musicians from his home country “won’t cooperate with me.”
The resulting album is a truly international work: âI was able to connect with an orchestra in Brazil, Lizzy and Aubrey from the United States, and musicians from Turkey, Russia, India, Argentina and from several countries in the Middle East, âsays Rajabian. . And yet, he adds, the synthesis of these performances allowed him to create “a new sound color”, which he describes as “music that has no place, neither East nor West. Some of the work was free and improvised to create a real feeling of liberation. “
Rajabian says there are autobiographical aspects of Blow of the Gods. âThe first track is ‘Whip on a Lifeless Body’, in which the narrator no longer has a physical presence,â says Rajabian. âThe feeling for this piece came from when I was on a hunger strike, between earth and heaven, between life and death. On the 29th day, I opened my eyes that morning, and I didn’t know if I was alive or dead. “
Satisfied with his raw blend of Coup de Dieu, Rajabian contacted Mason by email. “He told me his story, which blew me away, then he asked me if he could send me some music,” says Mason. “I was interested in the story, but when I heard the music I was really interested and excited. It’s beautiful and unique and it really resonated with me.”
Rajabian says he speaks little English, so with the help of a translator, he and Mason started working remotely, often by texting. âWe could communicate about art and tempo because it’s kind of a common language,â Mason explains. “I could hear a word he was saying in his language, I could understand the context and he could understand some of the musical terminology I was talking about, but the translator was obviously very important.”
He was asked if the output of Coup de Dieu could send him back to prison, Rajabian says, “I don’t care about the consequences of producing the album. When you’re free and your freedom is like a prison, going back to prison doesn’t matter to you.” He adds: âSilence in the face of oppression is complicity with the oppressor. I cannot be silent.
Mason says he is concerned about the consequences Rajabian might suffer upon releasing the album, but says that “the best proof of support for Mehdi is to listen to the music. Enjoy the art.”
Rajabian says that Coup de Dieu has been submitted for consideration for a Grammy nomination. âI’m going to try my luck at the Grammy Academy this year without a flag and with complete independence,â he said. “I hope this voice of musical freedom will be heard by the world.”