Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian faces prison for making music.
In fact, he has already been imprisoned for two years, including a period in solitary confinement and a hunger strike, for releasing songs that the Iranian authorities did not approve of. But he is unafraid.
“I’m not going to back down, and I’m not going to censor myself,” he tells BBC News.
As a result, he has been working on a new album undercover from the basement of his home in Sari, northern Iran.
Coup Of The Gods features a Brazilian orchestra, as well as musicians from Turkey, Russia, India, and Argentina, as well as two female singers from the United States, Lizzy O’Very and Aubrey Johnson.
Those voices bring Rajabian’s songs of heartbreak and struggle to life. However, they are also making a bold political statement, as female vocalists are effectively prohibited in Iran.
When Rajabian announced last year that he wanted to work with female musicians, he was arrested and taken to court, where a judge told him that he was “encouraging prostitution.”
Despite the threat of imprisonment, he continued to record after posting bail.
Now the album is complete, “they may re-accuse me”, he tells BBC News. “It really can not be predicted. But I will not step back.
“It is very ridiculous that in this day and age we are talking about banning music.”
Rajabian’s ordeal started in 2013, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard raided his office, closed down his recording studio, and confiscated all of his hard drives.
He was running a record label that supported female musicians at the time, and he was working on an album called The History Of Iran Narrated By Setar, which he described as a commentary on the “absurdity” of the Iran-Iraq war.
He was imprisoned on charges of distributing “underground music, many of whose lyrics and messages were deemed offensive to the Iranian authorities or the country’s religion.” Rajabian claims he was held in solitary confinement for 90 days while blindfolded and unaware of his surroundings.
He was eventually released on bail, but was arrested again in 2015, this time with his film-maker brother, Hossein Rajabian, and sentenced to six years in prison after a three-minute trial.
In protest, the brothers went on a 40-day hunger strike. Rajabian claims he lost 15 kilogrammes and vomited blood.
Whip On A Lifeless Body, his new album, was inspired directly by the experience. It progresses from a staccato cello line to a spectral, almost transcendental, swell of strings and voices.
“The narrator is a human body that has lost its physical presence,” the musician explains.
“I opened my eyes on the 29th day of the hunger strike, not knowing whether I was alive or dead, on Earth or in heaven.” I was engrossed in a trance. It was a strange feeling… and that’s what I wanted to capture in this piece’s mood.”
Rajabian’s joints became swollen as a result of the hunger strike, and he is no longer able to play music.
Rather, he scores his songs and distributes them to sympathetic musicians all over the world. They record their parts and send them back to Iran, where he painstakingly assembles the songs, battling a slow internet connection and assumed Iranian government surveillance.
The procedure is lengthy and laborious. Rajabian claims he communicated with the Brazilian orchestra “for hours at a distance” to express the emotions he wanted to convey.
“I was looking for a different sound colour.” “Music that has no geographical location, neither east nor west,” he says. “I even tried to get rid of their western accent,” he says, encouraging them to improvise. “To feel liberated, to create a genuine feeling,” was the goal.
The album was mixed and mastered by Harvey Mason Jr, a US producer who has written and recorded with Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears, and who was elected interim president of the Grammys earlier this year.
“When I first met Mehdi, I was intrigued, and when I heard his storey, I was even more so,” he tells BBC News. “I was blown away when I finally heard the music.”
“Under difficult circumstances, Mehdi has created something compelling and beautiful.”
‘A weapon of truth’
The album is set to be released this Friday, just weeks after the Taliban took over Iran’s eastern neighbour Afghanistan. The new regime has already outlawed public performance of music, calling it “un-Islamic,” and folk singer Fawad Andarabi was killed after being dragged from his home by Taliban forces.
According to Rajabian, the only solution is to resist.
“In the Middle East, an instrument can be as powerful as a gun,” he told BBC News when announcing the album for the first time in January 2020.
“One day, people will look back and realise that we did not just make music,” he says today. We brought philosophy and thought to humanity through music, demonstrating that we did not remain silent in the face of oppression even during the darkest days.
“In the face of oppression, silence is complicity with the oppressor.” I am unable to remain silent. “Music is the only weapon of truth that can be used to combat superstition.”
While Rajabian’s music is not currently available in his home country, he hopes that people around the world will embrace it and its messages of compassion and strength.
“The fact that people are listening to my album and following me helps me to say that I am alive, that my voice is not muffled,” he says.
“I can tell the world that no dictatorial power can stifle the freedom of music; I went through all the prohibitions and barbed wire of prison, and today I brought [new] music to the audience, even if it means returning to prison myself.”