For more than nine months, musician and composer Mehdi Rajabian hid in an underground room in Sari, northern Iran, working to create his latest album undercover.
While many artists will tell you that they shed blood, sweat and tears in their art, it is much more than just a throwaway sentence for Rajabian.
He has already served more than two years in prison for making music that Iranian authorities disagreed with, including a period of solitary confinement and a hunger strike, but is not discouraged – despite the very real threat of a bigger prison sentence. No power, he says, can stop “the freedom and thought of music.”
So despite his limitations and the danger he faces in a country where art is heavily censored, the 31-year-old recorded his second album, Coup Of Gods, in a secret basement, patiently facing the challenges. to stay hidden, lower- broadband internet, to connect with other musicians around the world.
The album features tracks featuring an orchestra from Brazil and singers and musicians from all over the United States to Italy to Russia. It was mastered by record producer and songwriter Harvey Mason Jr, who has worked on celebrity tracks including Beyonce, Britney spears, John legend and Justin timberlake, and became CEO of the Recording Academy (which manages the Grammy Awards) earlier in 2021.
Rajabian contacted Mason by email and the Grammy the boss told Sky News he was “blown away by his story” at first, but ultimately the music had to be pretty good. âFor me, it all came down to what came out of the speakers,â he says. “The music was beautiful, captivating, and played so well. In my mind, it’s real art.”
Rajabian, also an email correspondent with Sky News, says he’s proud of the album and believes it “came out really strong”, despite “all the complications” he had to overcome.
“In Iran, women cannot sing and it is forbidden,” he said. âEven I was arrested a few months ago for finishing an album with female vocals. Prison and prohibition made Iranian artists afraid to be in my album.
Rajabian is only too aware of the horrors he could face if he were imprisoned again. In 2013, he spent three months in solitary confinement for anti-state propaganda. Solitary confinement “kills the human soul,” he says. “You are no longer a normal human being afterwards.”
From 2015, following what Amnesty International called a âmanifestly unfairâ trial, he served two years in prison until his release after a 40-day hunger strike. “Loneliness kills the soul and the hunger strike kills the body,” he says, describing it as “like eating your own flesh” because of the damage inflicted. “I lost 15kg of weight and 40% of my vision.”
The musician was arrested again in 2020, for his debut album and for working with dancers and singers, and again, he says, because of his new album earlier this year. He is currently in the midst of a three-year conditional sentence, which could be activated at any time.
Rajabian spent his time behind bars in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison. “You could say it is one of the most horrible prisons in the world,” he said. âI spent several months in a Somali pirate cell as a punishment. Prison is a difficult place to live, but what matters is how much you believe in your own thinking and working philosophy; the more you believe in it, the easier it is for you. overcome difficulties.”
After his arrest, his office was closed and his recordings and hard drives seized. He spent his “whole life” making the album in his underground chamber, alone. But he is determined.
âA few months ago, I was arrested by the Iranian regime,â he says. “Handcuffed in a court, they asked to seize the project, and [ordered me to] stop making music. But I told the judge that even if it means I go back to jail, I will do my job. I don’t think about the consequences of producing a work of art and I am prepared for all the consequences. They can imprison me again. I [will] also write music in prison like I wrote before. The music will never stop. “
The hunger strike has left Rajabian with incredibly swollen joints, which means he can no longer play an instrument himself. He therefore composed and arranged the album working with collaborators including American singers Lizzy O’Very and Aubrey Johnson and musicians such as violinists Yury Revich and Emmanuele Baldini, cellist Rafael Cesario, duduk player Soroosh Nematollahi and sarangi player Vanraj Shastri. His underground chamber has now been cleaned, to remove all traces of his work, and the album is ready to go.
The first track, Whip On A Lifeless Body, is his more personal. âThis play is the narrator of a human body that no longer has a physical presence,â he says. “The feeling is for the time when I was on a hunger strike, between earth and heaven, between life and death, between the living and the dead … the 29th day of the hunger strike , I opened my eyes that morning and I didn’t know if I was alive or dead, on earth or in heaven. I was in a trance. It was a strange feeling. “
Making music, or whatever kind of music Rajabian wants to make, is clearly a dangerous business in Iran. Many would ask why he continues. âFor me, forbidding me to play music is like sewing my lips together,â he says. “I cannot be silent. In times of oppression, silence means betrayal. Prohibition of art means prohibition of truth and suppression of conscience. So I must believe in the freedom of music, even if I go back to jail for it. “
The release comes just a few weeks after the Taliban takeover of the Afghan border, where concerns have been expressed for musicians and artists and how their work can be censored. Rajabian says he knows the mentality of the country’s new rulers all too well.
âThere is only one question for me: how can we, as artists, express our pain to the world with the language of art, when these kind of painful images are sent to the world. from Iran and Afghanistan? As artists, our work has become difficult. , because feelings, sadness, surprise and pain are no longer effective.
“The world is no longer amazed by any sound or image; humanity has seen all that exists. That is why humanity is moving towards pleasure and entertainment with art. Philosophical art, Protestant and poetic no longer has its place. Humanity shuns the philosophical and the painful art because humanity wants to get away from these pains. And that makes the task difficult for us. “
Rajabian says that despite everything, hope keeps him alive, “although I know we have a difficult future ahead of us.”
He continues: âAfter every darkness there is a light. Finally, I am optimistic about the future.
Coup Of Gods by Mehdi Rajabian to be released on Mason Hundredup’s label streaming platforms on September 17th