Just a few months ago in Tehran, I bought a ticket on the phone for an underground rock concert. I knew the singer and I knew what to expect: the gig would be in a small hall that was forced to play acoustic music only, and the venue would be packed. The first song was not yet finished when the young audience stood up and accompanied the singer with loud voices. The little underground hall became hot and humid as 60 or 70 people stood up and gesticulated with raised hands the way rockers do. As a first-timer, it struck me as odd that so many people were singing banned songs together, all from memory. The singer had sent most of the audience the complete album well before the concert; we had all listened to its songs so many times we could not forget them. We might have been strangers to each other but, as we sang together with the same voice, the small, hot room was the last thing that could have bothered us. And it was then that I wondered: how do people share this kind of music? How does it get distributed among fans?
Alternative Iranian music download website Barg Music distributes a considerable amount of work by underground singers and bands. If someone was to google Barg Music even as recently as early December, nothing out of ordinary would appear on the screen. But now, the third item that appears in the search results is the news that musician Mehdi Rajabian, his brother Hossein Rajabian and Yousef Emadi, who run the Barg Music website, were arrested in October, together with a woman known as Azadeh S, also affiliated with the website. Mehdi Rajabian, 25-years old, is a resident of the northern Iranian city of Sari. Using the pseudonym “Mehdi Dalton”, he started out as a singer, set up his own recording studio and later started the Barg Music site. Although he is also a graphic artist, he makes his living and pays the expenses of his underground studio by selling banned music.
In these times of political and bizarre arrests, this news may appear simple, even a common occurrence. Islamic Revolutionary Guard officers tracked down and arrested the operators of an unauthorised download site. But, if we look closer, we discover a tangled web full of twists and turns.
“Tramadol”, the latest album by Shahin Najafi, an Iranian musician and singer based in Germany, was due for its Iranian release via the Barg site on October 7. Previous Najafi albums had been distributed among the singer’s fanbase; Barg Music merely published the news that the albums were available. But with “Tramadol”, there were plans for Barg Music to be the official distributor of the album, and for it to sell it directly from the website. To pre-order “Tramadol”, Iranian fans were asked to deposit 15,000 ($6) in to the personal account of Mehdi Rajabian. Everything went according to plan and the funds were deposited, but precisely 48 hours before the album was due for release, Mehdi suddenly disappeared. His phone rang but nobody answered. Emails were left unanswered, as were text messages. His family did not know of his whereabouts. They assumed he had travelled to Tehran. His friends said they searched for him in Sari and Rasht, another town in the north, but he was nowhere to be found. Increasingly, people who had paid money became suspicious and began to complain. The only clues were updates on Barg Music’s Facebook page, which baffled everybody. After a few days, the page was updated again: the singer Najafi offered an apology to those fans who lost their money:
“I waited a few days so that the sweet taste of ‘Tramadol’ would not turn bitter for our friends. Since the morning of the publication, our contact with Mehdi (who is the CD distributor in Iran) has been cut off. The idea that after years Mehdi would do such a thing for a small amount of money is unfounded and unacceptable; at the same time, there is no evidence that he has been arrested. For me, the only thing that remains is to personally apologise to you. Don’t get excited; have patience and let us find out what is going on. We have had difficult moments before and our true friends are those who have stuck by us in good times and bad times.”
These few lines opened torrents of abuse against Mehdi Rajabian. “We commented [on Facebook] that it was impossible for Mehdi to do such a thing,” said one of his friends, “but nobody listened. To be honest, we were confused as well. Facebook was updated but we heard nothing from Mehdi himself. We tried to get information from his family in Sari but not in a way that would raise their suspicions. They said maybe he had remained in the studio [in Tehran] to record.”
Finally, towards the end of December, after two months without news, Mehdi’s family was informed that he and Hossein Rajabian were being held in Tehran’s Evin prison. Yosef Emadi was released after paying a substantial amount as bail. Then came the news that Mehdi and Hossein were being tortured and pressured to agree to a televised confession.
“How many people deposited money to buy the album that has created such suspicion?” I asked one of Mehdi’s friends, who talked to me under the condition that he would remain anonymous. He apologised and said that he did not know the exact number. “We are many,” he said. “Do you know how many ‘Bandits’ there are? Seven hundred thousand.”
“Bandits” is the name Shahin Najafi’s fans give themselves. They have their own set of rules. They use Shahin’s words and lyrics as part of their speech. They have slogans. They have their own jargon and catchphrases. And these days, they are all on edge. They think of their kind of music as protest music. And now, after the recent arrests, they themselves have become protesters. One of Najafi’s most popular and controversial songs is a rap track called “Naghi”. Through a monologue addressed to a Shi’a saint, “Naghi” satirically criticises the social and political conditions in Iran today. It led to charges of apostasy being brought against the singer.
“After the ‘Naghi’ song,” said Mehdi’s friend, “the site was under the microscope. After the apostasy charges were filed, Barg Music was the only site that dared to keep ‘Naghi’ on its playlist and even distribute it officially. They were not afraid of anything. Barg Music continued to support Shahin and stayed with him even under the worst conditions.”
“Is this happening now because of Shahin and the charges of apostasy against him?”, I asked Mehdi’s friend. Barg Music, he said, was the official publisher of Shahin’s albums and singles, but it also collaborated with other underground singers and kept its independence. Threats and pressures initially began after Shahin Najafi’s video “Like This Without You” was hosted on the site. According to the friend, the Intelligence Ministry sent Mehdi instant messages and threatened him. “He did not say what exactly, but they were threatening him. They also sent messages to some friends of Mehdi and told them that they were under the influence of foreign propaganda and must end their relationships as soon as possible or they would be subject to Islamic laws.”
Shahin Najafi was accused of apostasy after this video, “Like This Without You”, was published.
On December 2, rap and pop singer Amir Hossein Maghsoudlou, who goes by the stage name of Amir Tataloo, was arrested. He was released a few days later after he issued a written statement promising to change his ways.
The news also followed that Azadeh S was arrested in Hamadan (the ancient city of Ecbatana). She had been responsible for interviews published on the Barg Music site and remains in Evin prison.
Meanwhile, the Bandits have set up a new page, underground singers initiated protests and, in reaction to the new wave of arrests, even wrote a letter to the minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Iranian singers outside the country have joined the protests too. The Abjeez (“Sis’”) band, along with Arash Sobhani, singer for the Kiosk Band, have publicly reminded their audiences of the plight of underground musicians in prison. And, in a concert in London, Shahin Najafi dedicated his song “Standing Dead” to Barg Music’s webmasters.
The protests have often been directed at the new government of President Hassan Rouhani, which many had hoped would be a government of pragmatism and hope. “The mood was one of opening up, but what happened?”, protesters seem to be asking. They point out that those speaking on behalf of the government say that they want to bring underground music above ground. As they see it, as things stand at the moment, this is simply not possible.
When I read the comments I understand that these fans, performers and musicians are not only protesting against the arrests, but also against the discrimination they have faced by spreading news of these events. The arrest of Amir Tataloo has been reported in some media, but when it comes to Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian and Azadeh S of Barg Music, the voice of the Bandits is not heard. The news is not getting out.
“What do they want Mehdi to confess to?”, I asked his friend. “To confess that he has collaborated with Shahin Najafi and other musicians outside Iran. They also want him to name everybody who is in contact with Shahin.”
Mehdi’s friend asked me to refrain from quoting some of his remarks. He talked about officials questioning and harassing people and the fact that many of Barg Music’s friends and supporters have stopped visiting Barg Music’s Facebook page, with its thousands of “likes”, because they no longer trust anything. Not anything.