As Dawn of Rage played a Tehran amphitheater last summer, Iran’s morality police arrested the metal band’s three members, as well as more than 200 spectators, just for being at a rock concert. The cops stripped several fans naked, searching for satanic tattoos. They confiscated cell phones. The musicians were behind bars for five days. “I’m not scared,” said Dawn’s lead singer, Pouria Kamali, after he was released. “Metal is totally forbidden in Iran, and everyone knows that someday the Basij may arrest them.”
The music of dissent will always find a way, anywhere, even in Iran, where the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has decreed, “Promoting and teaching music is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic.” The rockers featured in the following photos are free people in a repressed country.
They wear lipstick and go-go boots. They listen to English bands such as Foals and Radiohead, and they live in constant fear that the Basij, the religious police, will knock at the door. The penalty for playing the devil’s music is 40 lashes.
Shot earlier this year, these photos capture Iran’s indie rockers at a critical juncture. In November 2013, two members of Iran’s most vaunted rock band, the Yellow Dogs, were murdered in Brooklyn. The victims were brothers Arash Farazmand, 28, and Soroush Farazmand, 27. Another musician, Ali Eskandarian, 35, was also killed. Their attacker was a failed rock bassist, Iranian émigré Ali Akbar Mohammadi Rafie, who carried his assault rifle in a guitar case. The Dogs came to the U.S. as political refugees in January 2010. Since then, the nation’s new president, Hassan Rouhani—a moderate elected in 2013—has pledged to support creative expression. “There is a direct link between art and freedom,” Rouhani said in January. “We should know that art is not a threat and artists do not put the security of the country in danger.”
Two weeks after Rouhani’s speech, a small miracle happened: Iranian state television showed a 10-second clip of musicians playing traditional Persian instruments. The clip aired without introduction and without context. Since 1979 the government had deemed the display of instruments ghena—that is, a sinister enticement to dance.
Also in January, an Iranian country-rock band, Thunder, played a state-authorized gig in Tehran for 1,400 fans. There was a smoke machine, and the male musicians wore 10-gallon hats as a female guitarist wailed away on her ax while wearing a head scarf. Afterward, Thunder’s lead singer, Ardavan Anzabipour, was ecstatic. “This has not happened for 35 years,” he says. “These are not the small-town cretins the ministry had under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They are real musicians. And now we are going to play in some smaller cities, for more conservative people.” Anzabipour believes the tour could open the door for edgier musical genres—metal, hip-hop and indie. “Things could change in five minutes here if the top guys say yes to rock music,” he says.
Skeptics disagree. Rouhani must answer to Khamenei, the ayatollah. Although Rouhani stepped into office promising free speech and the release of political prisoners, he has largely failed to deliver. Rock and roll in Iran is still shadowed by the ayatollah’s boot heel, and it sings with the keen, fresh rage of wild youths who feel as though they will be trapped forever. “The people running this country are fundamentalists,” laments musician Mareza Hariri. “They will not change. All we can do is have fun underground.”
The photographer’s identity has been withheld for protection.
Pedram Niknafs first heard Judas Priest at the age of 14, on a bootleg cassette. He found heavy metal’s black disdain so exquisite that he began saving his lunch money. “When you went through alleyways here,” he says, “everyone whispered in your ears, ‘New cassettes, new music.’” He bought 100 tapes—Megadeth, Metallica, Iron Maiden—and the music still thrums through him as he fronts Digital Lanterns. Here he’s singing “You Cannot Adopt Me,” directed at unnamed powers.
Milad Mardakheh is lead singer for Achromatic, and his words are from a song he wrote about the Iranian government’s 2009 crackdown on the Green Revolution. “It’s called ‘Shields and Guns,’” he says, “as in riot police. Hell doesn’t refer to Iran specifically but to difficulties we all face as artists. You keep the light alive by being creative, by being heard in this world.“
“It’s like Britain in the 1960s here,” says Thunder lead singer Ardavan Anzabipour (circled at right). “Conservative people are scared of rock music, but that will change. We are at a historic moment.” Guitarist Farzad Golpayegani disagrees with Anzabipour’s optimism. Incredulous, he asks, “Is he doing drugs?
“Please do not move in your seats,” the singer said before this government-sanctioned show. Seated swaying is outlawed in the Koran.
“If the police find you in the street wearing a short dress that exposes your knees,” says Aida, whose pale arm dangles into this photo, “they’ll take you to the police station. In public we have to contain ourselves, but at a party we can do whatever we want.”
“The drum kit is a Mapex Saturn Pro,” says Sam Ziaie proudly, “the same kind used by Chris Adler of Lamb of God.” Good kits are like hen’s teeth in Iran, thanks to U.S. trade sanctions, but this one trickled into a Tehran shop from the United Arab Emirates. This summer Ziaie will play it to maximum effect as the band Langtunes tours Germany and Switzerland. “We will make the Europeans shake and dance,” Ziaie says. “Why not?”
“I screamed a lot and headbanged a lot and sweated a lot,” says lead singer Hamid Kosari, front left, recounting a recent sanctioned gig the Muckers played at a music school. “Our blues-like solos were fuzzy and distorted. Afterward the school director got a call from the police: ‘If those guys play another night, we are going to arrest all of you.’ We were done.”
Digital Lanterns host booze-soaked gigs in their secret recording studio almost weekly. Their sound is dreamy and lovely, the singers’ voices an entranced muttering above a rain-like wash of keyboards. Yet the musicians are stuck in a backwater. “I have played with real sound equipment only once,” says bassist Mareza Hariri, “in Dubai in 2008. It was real. It was music. Afterward I was too crazy to sleep.”
Hariri, in the white T-shirt, is 28 and unemployed. A year ago he taught English to adults, but, he says, “in class no one felt free to talk about their personal lives. I could never get discussions going.” He quit, and today he spends his days snowboarding and doing parkour, rarely talking to anyone on the streets of Tehran. “I’m afraid of people,” he says. “In traffic jams, if someone honks, people get out of their cars and start beating each other up. The people of Iran are sick. I don’t want to be connected to them.”
“Actual life is not going on in the streets here,” says one Iranian rocker. “You cannot communicate with people on the streets, so everyone is on Facebook and Viber constantly.”