This week a popular Iranian rapper is coming out of hiding to perform in Berkeley at his first U.S. concert.
Last spring an Iranian cleric issued a religious proclamation, or “fatwa,” putting a $100,000 bounty on the head of Shahin Najafi after he released a song criticizing Iranian politics.
Najafi is so controversial he’s even the subject of an Iranian video game in which the object is to kill him. Najafi says he’s actually played the game himself.
“It was pretty cool, I got to kill myself,” Najafi says in Farsi. “But then I came back. So, I enjoyed that.”
Najafi finds it sad that anyone would want him dead badly enough to produce a video game to that end.
“I feel pretty disappointed that…an Iranian person sat down and made that game. And how much hate they have in their heart disappoints me and I feel sorry for them.”
The fatwa is just the latest in a series of problems with Iranian authorities that Najafi has experienced. In 2005 he was arrested for performing concerts that officials claimed were “inciting unrest” and “undermining leadership.” He fled the country and moved to Germany, where he produced the work that prompted the fatwa — a rap about issues facing the country. The song criticizes international sanctions, empty political slogans, and the irony of nationalists praying on Chinese-made rugs. It was released on Youtube and it’s called “Naghi.”
“Releasing Naghi was the final nail in the coffin,” says Najafi. “Where they unequivocally stated how they felt about me, which was I should die.”
That’s when Najafi went into hiding in Germany. But after six months of keeping a low profile, he’s now taking a risk and going on a concert tour. His first stop — Berkeley, California.
“We have security, we are being security conscious about different aspects of the concerts and everything else, where I’m staying and all,” Najafi says.
Najafi says he’s actually less scared here than in Europe. That’s because he thinks the Iranian government is less likely to lay a hand on him on U.S. soil for fear of international attention. Najafi says he hopes his concerts can bring the Iranian diaspora together.
“Art is like a sledgehammer in that a sledgehammer’s function is both to shape and to break.”
Najafi thinks his sledgehammer music is a lot more effective than politics.
“I’ve always doubted the power of politics in bringing people together. Art, on the other hand, brings people together all the time. Art can make you cry, it can make you laugh.”
And it can make your life pretty complicated if you’re an Iranian artist who’s challenging authority.