Mehdi Rajabian once had his own recording studio in Sari, Iran, boasting moody overhead lighting and blond wood walls. Now, he spends most of his time in the dark basement of his home, crouching on a pile of rugs in front of a computer and a keyboard. Despite being functionally under house arrest since August 2020, Rajabian has been obsessively piecing together an album that’s become his singular dream — one that could also land him back in the most notorious prison in Iran.
“Despite all the restrictions and prohibitions, I will complete the album,” Rajabian, 31, tells Rolling Stone. “Maybe that will lead to a return to prison, but it really does not matter to me. I am doomed to produce music.”
Rajabian has been tangling with the Iranian government for eight years now, and as the release of his newest album, Coup of Gods, approaches, he risks ending up back in jail — all because he insists on using female voices and refuses to bend to Iran’s restrictive rules on who can make art and why. Mixing Eastern and Western sounds — classical strings, Middle Eastern instruments, and gorgeous vocalizations — Rajabian’s music doesn’t sound like an angry revolution, but it’s a rebellion all the same.
Music and other art forms have been a point of contention in Iran since the 1979 Revolution. At the time, the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called music and television “no different from opium” that “stupefies persons listening to it and makes their brain inactive and frivolous,” and strict rules were enforced on music production and performances. Music is not entirely outlawed in Iran, but restrictions, permits, and the like make the art form a minefield.
Female musicians have felt the strain decidedly more than their male counterparts — especially when it comes to performing solo or in front of mixed-gender audiences. “The act of banning female vocalists is not explicitly written in the law,” according to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “The way it has worked is by interpretation of Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code by judges and other judicial officials as well as by the authorities at the Islamic Guidance Ministry, which is in charge of regulating and censoring cultural productions such as music, film, and performances. They interpret this article by claiming that solo female vocalists are performing a ‘forbidden act’ under their understanding of Islamic law.”
While it’s not wholly impossible to make music legally in Iran, the path to obtaining the proper permissions can be tricky. “The permit process is through the Ministry of Islamic Guidance,” Ghaemi says. “It is rather chaotic, as it is based on the whims and understandings of bureaucrats with no cultural backgrounds who get to decide on allowing [whether] cultural products such as music or film should be granted a permit or not.” (Iran’s Ministry of Justice did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
The consequences for performing or making music sans permits are equally unpredictable. “The rules have been quite vague, especially in terms of governing arts and culture scenes in the country,” Dr. Srirak Plipat, executive director of Freemuse, tells Rolling Stone. Freemuse is an international, non-government organization that advocates for freedom of artistic expression; they have been working with Rajabian since 2016. “We’ve seen cases where a similar act gets different consequences for doing the same thing. So, the rules, especially when they’re related to religious authorization, have not been written very clearly and are subject to interpretation by law enforcement. [This] allows authorities to use broad, flexible rules to go after dissent. Especially those who have challenged authorities before.”
Rajabian started his production and distribution company Barg Music in 2007, when he was 17, in an effort to advocate for, as he says, “anti-censorship of art. Freedom of music. A work of art that was censored and not allowed to be broadcast, we independently helped to make its voice heard. From women’s singing, which is forbidden, to other arts.” Due in part to the government’s treatment of women in music, Rajabian says he never has and will never try to obtain a permit to make music in his home country. And he operated largely without issue until Barg Music started getting serious online traffic, which led to Rajabian’s first arrest in 2013. His crime? Propaganda against the regime, blasphemy, and illegal music activity. At the time, he was working on an album titled History of Iran Narrated by Setar, about the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980, which he considers “absurd and useless.” All materials related to that record were confiscated at the time of his arrest — along with the Barg Music headquarters and all of its holdings.
According to Ghaemi, it’s almost impossible to verify arrest and imprisonment records. “People are not even given their own court document or judicial documents,” he tells Rolling Stone. However, he can confirm Rajabian’s history of arrests; Freemuse says that, to the best of their knowledge, they can also confirm these details.
After his first arrest, Rajabian says he spent three months in solitary confinement at Evin Prison, which, according to the U.S. Treasury, is notorious for committing “serious human rights abuses” against intellectuals and creatives who criticize the government, including musicians. One such musician, who declined to reveal his name, tells Rolling Stone that he was initially scheduled to be executed for producing socially conscious hip-hop records. Describing the place simply as “hell,” he says he suffered frequent beatings while inside and was interrogated ruthlessly about who he was working for. Officials did not believe that he was just one of a group of young people enamored of hip-hop; they were convinced he was being manipulated by foreign intelligence.
Rajabian had a similarly rocky stay at Evin. “The solitary cell kills the soul,” he says. “When you experience solitary confinement or the same white room, you will never be an ordinary human being again. I was blindfolded for days and months. So much so that sometimes I mixed the time of day and night. After several months, they allowed me to call my family. I was so wrong about the day and the hour that my mother thought I was crazy because of the pressure. I hope no human experiences my life.”
Rajabian wound up back in Evin in 2016 after what he says was a three-minute trial and was sentenced to six years. He ended up spending roughly two years behind bars, sharing cells with violent inmates and Somali pirates, one of whom Rajabian claimed was known as one of the 10 most violent men in the world. “They sent me to that cell to punish me, but I became friends with [the pirates], and they played Somali music for me for many hours and days,” he says. “They wrote Somali poetry for me. The language of music made us friends.”
After undergoing a lengthy hunger strike in an attempt to get outside treatment for health issues, Rajabian was released, but not without lingering side effects. “A hunger strike is a terrible thing — it’s like you eat your own flesh,” he says. “I lost 15 kilograms on a hunger strike, I lost 40 percent of my vision, all the joints in my body were swollen, and my stomach was bleeding. … Even one of my friends [Vahid Sayadi Nasiri], a human rights activist and cellmate in prison, died in the next hunger strike.” Moreover, he says, he’s now under constant scrutiny by the government and could end up back in Evin at any time to serve the rest of his sentence.
Despite those hardships, Rajabian refused to stop making music. During his second stint at Evin, he started conceptualizing his next record, 2019’s Middle Eastern, which included around a hundred artists from across the Middle East. That record was released by Sony Entertainment in 2019 — and, in August 2020, Rajabian was summoned by the police to the Revolutionary Court of Sair after he enlisted Iranian dancer Helia Bandeh to appear in and produce a music video for the project. It didn’t help matters that he also told the BBC that his next album, Coup of Gods, would include female singers.
A Dutch-Iranian citizen, Bandeh used to travel back to Iran to teach classes, until 2018, when she was put under house arrest in Iran for a year, despite her family being back in Holland. “I danced on his song not because of what he experienced, but because it was my own experience,” she tells Rolling Stone. “When I came back to Holland, I was like, I can finally dance again, because I couldn’t dance for a year. It was a disaster for someone who needs dance. … I really lost so much. After two years, I have so much trauma. … I believe that every country and every person should be able to dance because it’s an art form.”
“That video was an excuse [for the government] to announce that I was completely under surveillance,” Rajabian says. “They arrested me. The court officially announced that I would stop working on this album and that I would not do any artistic activity at the moment. I announced in court that I would continue my artistic activity and complete the album even if I returned to prison.” He says he was released on bail but has refused to stop working on Coup of Gods, even if he ends up back at Evin.
“The solitary cell kills the soul. When you experience solitary confinement or the same white room, you will never be an ordinary human being again.” —Mehdi Rajabian
Rajabian’s music-making process, then, is complex — and takes place almost entirely online. He says that many artists from his home country are scared to work with him for fear of retribution. “I needed an Iranian instrument in this project; we asked 10 Iranian musicians to play this Iranian instrument. None of them would be present on my project; all of them are afraid of the ban and imprisonment and the philosophy of my projects,” he says. Due to lingering health issues from the hunger strike, he is also too weak to perform on the album.
As a workaround, Rajabian largely worked with artists in other countries. He reached out to Emmanuele Baldini, concertmaster of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, this past summer via Instagram and asked him to collaborate on the instrumentals. “I changed the color of the orchestra on the album; the color of the orchestra is between East and West, a dialogue between East and West sentences and harmonies,” Rajabian says.
Baldini was moved by Rajabian’s story and agreed to help out pro bono, working with his orchestra to bring the Iranian producer’s vision to life. Rajabian sends him concepts for songs, the orchestra records instrumentals, and Rajabian then mixes in pre-recorded vocals and traditional Iranian folk instruments. Both of the album’s featured vocalists, Lizzy O’Very and Aubrey Johnson, are from the U.S.; Rajabian contacted them via Instagram as well. O’Very, an American Idol contestant from Utah, was so taken by his passion that she agreed to lend her voice to the project. “The fact that he is risking so much for music is so inspiring to me; it has really moved me to look deeper at my musical passion and want to take it as seriously as Mehdi has in his creations,” she tells Rolling Stone.
O’Very recorded herself in her home studio and then sent clips to Rajabian to incorporate into the album. “I had to do my best to get rid of my Western accent and bring more of a folkloric Eastern-type accent,” she says. “Luckily, for me, I have always loved singing more in the Eastern-sounding vocals. I think that the accent is beautiful, and that was another reason I was excited to work on this album.”
Johnson, who lives in Brooklyn, says that Rajabian didn’t want the voices on the album to be easily placed in time or space. “He wanted it to sound like ‘East meets West’ in terms of style,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I drew on my influences from jazz, folk, Brazilian music, Turkish music, and ancient Sephardic music to create improvisations that he felt fit his music the best.”
“I think it’s horrible that women are not allowed to perform or record as soloists in Iran, and I think what Mehdi is doing is brave and noble,” she adds. “I greatly respect Mehdi’s desire to protest against these grave injustices toward women, and I think his sacrifice is incredible. I have a student that I teach at Berklee College of Music who is a young woman from Iran, and she is part of the reason I agreed to take part in this project. I want to fight for her rights, and for the rights of all women vocalists in Iran, and I believe Mehdi is doing just that through this project.”
The record also includes improvisations by Turkish musician Gorkem Sen on his self-invented yaybahar, basically an acoustic stringed synthesizer. “I asked him to create an atmosphere on the music I produced,” Rajabian says. “He worked on music and melody, rhythm, chords, scale, themes … which had already been performed by the orchestra. After a lot of negotiation of philosophy and thought, he improvised. His instrumental voice is truly a historical voice.”
Rajabian wasn’t able to share much of the album with Rolling Stone, but did send us a few brief clips via WhatsApp featuring dark, dramatic strings and soaring, trilling vocals. “When Mehdi talks to me about this project, he speaks with so much hope for his future,” Baldini says. “He’s very optimistic about his future. In a way, he involved me in this fight for freedom. I feel I am at his side, fighting together. [This record] could be very dangerous for him, but at the same time, when I spoke to him, I understood that this project is his hope for the future. So, I made the decision. I will be with him. I am very happy to fight this battle.”
Meanwhile, Rajabian continues to work on Coup of Gods, tweaking and perfecting the songs as more and more instrumentals come in from Baldini. He’s not yet sure when it will come out, but he’s hoping that it will catch the attention of the Recording Academy — and, subsequently, activists overseas. “I’m really tired. It is very difficult to work remotely,” he says. “I completed a large project through cyberspace with stress. You do not know the consequences. Will the government attack it again? Will something happen to the album? Can [anyone] understand that after producing my music, I have to prepare for the fight after all this fatigue? They think my talk is fiction. No, I experienced all this.”