Shahin Najafi reached the point of no return

by Charlie Crooijmans

The song Naghi by Persian rapper and poet Shahin Najafi has caused a lot of commotion. The satirical song is written in the form of a prayer to Ali An-Naqi, the tenth of the 12 Shia Muslim Imams, a religious figure highly respected by millions in Iran. In the song Ali An-Naqi should get Iran back on track, solving real problems like sanctions, the rising dollar to nose jobs, and prayer rugs made in China. Soon after the song’s release in May the fatwa is pronounced. Najafi is declared an apostate by religious leaders, a crime punishable by death in Iran. The site Shia-Online, which runs on the regime-controlled .ir domain, has offered a $100,000 reward for anyone who kills Najafi. (Guardian)

Najafi is now residing in Germany. He doesn’t regret releasing the song Naghi and will continue with his music. Here you can read a transcription of an interview with Shahin Najafi by Jian Ghomeshi of CBC Radio One, public radio international of the USA on the 6th of June.

JG: This must have been a troubling few weeks for you, so first, how are you doing?

SN: Well, in the past two weeks it’s had it’s own difficulties but I am fine and everything is okay.

JG: You say you’re doing okay, you’re in hiding, are you still receiving death threats?

SN: Well, yes we do have to worry for these threats, and yes they do exist,  and where I’m residing right now is unknown, but I have to stay strong and I am coming on powerful and strong and I am working and everything is fine for me. But yes naturally I have to follow the security procedures

JG: Shahin, how seriously are you taking these threats, I mean these are strange times. There is even a new video game circulating on the internet in which the goal is to kill you. You live in Germany, do believe your life is in danger even if you don’t return to Iran?

SN: The threat is serious enough that the German government and the German police are taking it very seriously and the argument is basically it wouldn’t look very good for the German government. So there is a seriousness, there is no doubt about it and you have to be careful.

JG: Shahin, how is you family doing both in Iran and Germany?

SN: Well I don’t have much news in Iran, but I do know that they’re well, but I’m not really in touch with them much right now.  And since my work has nothing to do with my family, I don’t think it should really affect them, and they’re just living their own lives.

JG: Are they scared?

SN: Well, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think there should be any problems, there haven’t been any problems yet.

JG: Shahin this point, several fatwas have been launched against you by religious clerics in Iran, tell me about your reaction when you first heard about this.

SN: Well, when I first read it on the internet, I didn’t really take it as seriously because I looked at the date and I knew it was from the past and I just figured this is just a temporary little game that they’re playing and it’s gonna finish there.  But when the talk of the $100,000 came about and the following fatwas were also received, on that very night on the 8th of May I went to the police and we basically complained, we filed a report.  My first reaction was that they didn’t take it very seriously, but that very night the internet was basically filled with all the reports, and that carried me with the worries that would come with that.

JG: You say you thought maybe it was a joke at first, when you found out it was serious, and you saw all those threats, were you scared?  How did you react emotionally?

SN: Well, as I said with my friends around me, I consulted them and the first thing we did was at midnight we went to the police and we discussed the situation with them, and the German police wouldn’t really grasp the situation, they couldn’t really understand it.  And my reaction was basically just that, I’m not that kind of a person, I don’t really worry too much I don’t really get filled with stress or get fanatic over it.  To be honest with you, at some point I was expecting this to happen, and I knew it was basically a matter of time, not necessarily with this song, but with maybe another song this would happen.

JG: You thought you that this […]

SN: Yes, that’s what I was thinking because their problems with me isn’t really about religions or Imams, or anything like that, their problems with me are political and my work basically because they see the influence I have on the young and that’s their problem.  And I’ve said this many times before, but they’re not really worried about people’s religion and I always suspected that at the end, they would somehow try to agitate the public opinion or associate me with blasphemy but as you can see there’s so many other people that curse at the Quran and the Imams and Islam in general but you don’t really see anybody going after them.

JG: So you say this is entirely political, this doesn’t have anything to do with the content.  Let me ask you about the content. The song that started all this, you released Naghi earlier this month, the lyrics are satirical but they are pretty provocative, there’s a fair bit of sexual language and pretty pointed criticism of Iran. It’s done in the form of a plea of to a venerated Imam. You said you didn’t intend to insult religious believers, what were your intentions when you wrote it?  What did you want to say?

SN: In fact, we can’t really say that we have a goal or what our goal is going to be.  I just follow my feelings, and I’m a slave to the moment that the work takes over me. When I look back to the previous year, I feel like 2011 was a year filled with paradox and very funny humorous contradictions.  Contradictions always existed, but this time around I thought it was very humorous and I believe after the Golshifteh-incident it kind of morphed into Naghi for me.  Also, the Naghi parody group on Facebook, I would read people’s comments and I would find them very interesting because their comments would be humorous and funny and this is basically how Naghi started for me.  I never actually thought this would happen with Naghi because Naghi to me was a comic, it was just a comic work and I always thought it would happen with some of my other works because they were a lot sharper and I would target the heads of the state and I never actually thought it would happen with Naghi because it was a satire.

JG: Shahin, you say that you thought of this as a funny song.  You are a critic of the power structure in Iran, and this album does seemed designed to be provocative.  The cover art depicts the dome of a Mosque as a woman’s bare breast.  You recently told a German newspaper der Spiegel in an interview that fundamentalists just can’t take a joke but you also said you believe art is a force that can change the world.  So what kind of change do you hope this song or your music in general, even when you say it’s a joke song can bring about?

SN: Not necessarily when it comes to Naghi, but what I think about art is, it is actually my believe, I actually believe in that if there is ever mean for the world to change this should happen through art and not through politics because I don’t trust politics. But art isn’t like that, art has this purity, has this honor, that I understand it much better. Yes, it’s true that I do use art as a sledgehammer and sometimes to me art does get a destruction meaning, but I don’t think this is in contrast with the definition of art at all, because it’s just natural. When you need to make something you have to break something else. And this is the problem that we have with Iran and this is a very delicate issue, because how can we ever talk about religion but for example our conversation wouldn’t be considerate an insult. And I have taken all these sensitivities when it comes to Naghi and at no point in the song have I ever insulted any of the imams. But if I say Mahdi is sleeping or if I’ve used one of the other imams names like in Naghi next to a word like viagra or sex and find that insulting that’s just a lack of tolerance and understanding that you’ll get from the religious radicals in Iran. And I think we should get to a point just like America or the western world there should be an environment where we can make jokes. And everyone should have their own opinions, and we should honor them but at the same time talking about someting shouldn’t be considered an insult. And I think art can make that happen.

JG: When you say that art can make a change that politics can’t, that political protest can’t, do you as an artist then feel a responsibility in this case to make a change in Iran?

SN:  I am a little bit worried and scared with words like this, because words like responsibility they might sound like a slogan, that’s why I try to stay away from it. But if I had to use it I would use it in a way that in my opinion an artist, a poet, a musician anything, at the very first they’re responsible to themselves and my responsibility to the events that are taking place in Iran is basically just like someone who used to be in a house but has escaped and there is still a lot of that is happening in that home and I have that ability I have the freedom right now to say “Hey world, this is what’s going on in Iran” and people in Iran don’t have that luxury because if they scream out or cry for help they’ll be killed and a government in a lot of situations could act like a father but when a father is not responsible enough, me as an abused kid and some as a runaway child it’s my responsibility to go to the cops, go say to the people of the world – this is what’s going on – and yes from that aspect this is my responsibility

JG: You’ve been called the “Salman Rushdie of music”, how do you feel about that comparison?

SN: Well I don’t really find it that interesting because in general I don’t really like comparisons and yes they did use that in German newspapers about Salman Rushdie and Eminem or the Iranian Eminem and or some people said the Salman Rushdie of music. In general I don’t like these comparisons because mister Salman Rushdie he had his own work and his story was completely different than mine, my problem is with one part of Shias, but his was basically with all muslims and I can’t really grasp this comparison.

JG: Some commentators are saying that the international community, but particular your adopted home of Germany are not doing enough to speak out against this threats during your life. How do you feel about the support you’ve been getting?

SN: Well maybe this isn’t the time to talk about this. To be honest with you, when it comes to politics and the German government taking into consideration that the way the German government is and the way they have their own stories and that’s just natural or when it comes to police the support that I received I haven’t had any problems with it and at the end I think that even like 1 percent something were to happen to me this wouldn’t look very good for the German government and I think at one point with the German media I was basically second headline and I don’t think they would want anything to happen to me. But in terms of how much the government has supported me has helped out, well, I think we still need to wait and we need a little bit more time.

JG: Are you angry that all of this is happening?

SN: Angry, no, not really, I am not angry, because when someone knows what you are doing there is no anger and the argument is if I am angry I won’t have control over me and I won’t be able to work. And right now I am at a point that I am doing a work a day and I read and write and I exercise therefor I can’t really say I am angry. Because I do get upset I, because I look at how things are and I look at in the 21st century my country. There are people living in my country they still think it’s 1400 years ago and they can talk about people’s lives even when they are living thousands of miles away and this doesn’t really anger me, but it just dissapoints me and it saddens me.

JG: Shahin, given all that’s happened and the treats, I know you believe in what you are doing and speaking out, but are there times when you regret writing and releasing this song?

SN: Not at all, never, absolutely not

JG: You are currently in hiding, how long do expect you have to stay in hiding?

SN: From what I know about myself I don’t think it would last long. Let me just tell you this way. It’s been offered to me that – well, maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I am going to say it anyway – it’s been offered to me for a year or two I will get any opportunity,  anything I need just so that I won’t work, but I am not going to accept it and I won’t do that. And I am going to take the next step, I will absolutely not take a step back from the path that I am right now and even right now when I am speaking with you, tomorrow I am going to release a new work, nothing is going to affect the road that I am on right now.

JG: It sounds like as a performer you believe you’re gonna to perform in public again, right?

SN: Definitely

JG: Do you believe you be ever able to go back to Iran?

SN: I couldn’t go back to Iran even before this, with this government, no!

JG: What do you think, what do you hope will happen from here?

SN: Well, about me, I don’t have many wishes. I don’t really wish a lot. Because I am a true believer of history and saw my faith because I believe that something is out of my control is what’s driving me and because of that it’s very difficult for me to talk about my wishes. But about Iran, what’s going to happen in Iran, at the end I only hope, I only wish that one day I live in a country, even if I am not there, even if I’m not around, I would hold my head up high and say my people are living in a country that’s free and save and so that my countrymen won’t get associated with terrorism or anything negative else like that. And the world don’t have this terrible image of us because we do have this potential even in USA, Canada or Europe we have all these educated people we progidees and this is representive to all Iran and but unfortunately only because of this government these past thirty somewhat years have been able to tarnish or engage and even after that I believe this would be a long term project and we would need a some cultural reform it would start at the way the system is governing and would probably end with the education system

JG: What can you say you’ve learned from this whole ordeal?

SN: A lot of things. I’ve experienced living in hiding but not to this extent. There are a couple of things that are very important, even before this I’ve had people that didn’t like me, cursed at me, they would disagree with me and that led me to learn the first lesson which was patience. I learned that I wait and see what’s going to happen. But nothing happened to me in this scale and because of that in the current situation that I am in right now I truly believe that I am testing myself in a very confined space with limited communication, I am exercising, I am making new music, I am writing I watch movies. Well my only problem I tried to quit smoking but hasn’t really been succesful but other than that everything is going well and the most important thing is that it’s my power and after all this whole ordeal has this only increased.

JG: Shahin Najafi, thank you very much for this, good luck, merci!

This is the video game Jian Ghomeshi was talking about

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