One month, one week and two days ago, Mahsa Jina Amini succumbed to her injuries at a hospital in Tehran, and sparked the most widespread Iranian uprising since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Amini was not an activist or a political leader. She was a shy law student who enjoyed singing along to Iranian pop sensation Googoosh and was visiting Tehran from her hometown of Saqez in the Kurdistan Province.
The 22-year-old was detained on the street by Iran’s “morality police” due to the style of her hijab (head coverings are mandatory in Iran for females over the age of 9) and taken into a van by officers. She fell into a coma in police custody, and died two days later.
While Iranian officials claim she died from a heart attack, a United Nations report — as well as Amini’s relatives and nearby eye witnesses — say she was severely beaten during her arrest, and later died as a result of her injuries.
For the last 38 days since her death, the streets of Iran have been flooded by protestors across class and gender, all demanding a new government and basic human rights. According to experts, the protests may be the first counter-revolution in history to be led by women. Across the globe, solidarity protests are being held in cities like Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris, with over 80,000 people gathering for one protest alone, 2,000 miles away in Berlin.
“I switch between feelings of hope and despair like day and night,” explains Iranian-Dutch artist Sevdaliza. “Yet, this might be the first time in my life that I believe in change.”
Sevdaliza, born Sevda Alizadeh, has been vocal about the uprisings, releasing the song “Woman Life Freedom” in support of the plight of women in her home country. Music is an instrumental tool in uplifting individuals driving change in any given society, with Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” exploding overnight into the battle cry of Iranians back home and across the diaspora. After going viral overnight, the song was removed from social media and later re-uploaded. “Baraye” even racked up 95,000 out of 115,000 submissions for the Grammys’ new song for social change merit award. Hajipour was arrested by Iranian officials due to the song, and was subsequently released on bail awaiting trial.
According to current Iranian law, women are not allowed to sing in public. This means that for artists like Sevdaliza and Grammy-nominated R&B singer-songwriter Snoh Aalegra, the act of creating and performing music means fearing violence or imprisonment upon return to Iran. “I long for the day I am able to visit my home country without having to be afraid of what might happen to me as a female artist who sings openly about love and life,” says Aalegra. “Iran is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It always felt so strange that I can’t physically experience my own home country that I am so deeply proud of being from.”
For many Iranians outside of their homeland, a successful revolution would mean the chance to step foot on their own soil for the first time ever, without fear. “I have not been [to Iran], and my dad hasn’t been back since my parents left in ’79,” says Rostam Batmanglij, songwriter, producer and Vampire Weekend founding member. Batmanglij’s parents fled to France as refugees following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and later settled down in Washington, D.C.
“I do think those young people [protesting] will take over and bring on a system of government and a constitution that really protects the people and allows them to live freely,” he says. “This is my hope.”
While protests erupted in Iran many times since the 1979 revolution, the latest string of uprisings are the boldest and most internationally visible since the 2009 Green Revolution. Celebrities and politicians alike have stepped up and expressed solidarity with the Iranian people, including president Joe Biden, Oprah, Harry Styles, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, and countless others.
Billboard spoke to Iranian musicians Snoh Aalegra, Sevdaliza and Batmanglij on what’s happening in Iran and how fans can help.
What feelings does it bring up for you to see what’s been taking place in Iran over the last month?
SEVDALIZA: It’s incredibly painful to see your country suffer. I switch between feelings of hope and despair like day and night. Yet, this might be the first time in my life that I believe in change. I also feel more proud than ever to be an Iranian woman. The rest of the world is finally starting to understand what our mothers, sisters, and grandmothers had to endure for the past 40+ years. Iranian women are lions.
AALEGRA: A mix of hopefulness and pride for my people, but I also feel very helpless at the same time. It’s very touching and inspirational to see how Iranians from all genders, generations, and ethnicities are coming together to fight for the change I know the people have been longing for.
BATMANGLIJ: At this point, it seems like the protests and the response from the Iranian people is going to do something. It hasn’t quieted down. I felt optimistic that what was happening wouldn’t be like before. My parents felt a little differently. [When it began], they felt like there was a futility to any kind of response the people could have. But I think they are getting more and more optimistic.
What does this uprising represent for the people of Iran?
AALEGRA: The oppression against women has been going on for way too long. It is very important that the world supports the people of Iran and their loud cry for basic human rights. The courage and bravery these incredible women possess is beyond powerful. They are leading the voice for a brighter future. They are willing to die for the freedom of the Iranian people. Thanks to social media, we can see the news being spread and talked about, but there has been a brutal silence from the major media outlets and it’s shameful. We need more attention in the media on what’s going on in Iran.
SEVDALIZA: I feel like this is the end of an era. It feels like the Iranian people’s revolution. These girls, women, and activists are changing the lens the world sees Iran. They are a new frontier of leadership and courage, and if we lean in and listen to them and amplify their voices, we may all be able to return home. We are here to help execute their vision. They are the one’s doing the work while we [allies] are all here rooting for them.
Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” (For…) has become the anthem of Iranians everywhere. What’s the role of that song, and music in general, when it comes to sociopolitical movements?
BATMANGLIJ: When I went to the protest [in Los Angeles], that was the song on repeat as we marched. It’s a powerful song. That’s why it’s hard to listen to sometimes because you’re like, I’m going through this again. I’m reliving every emotion that I’ve ever had about Iran and injustice. I think a song like that has the universality to reach however many millions of people around the world within one day, and I hope more people get to hear it.
SEVDALIZA: Music, for me, serves as a reflection of the times. I feel a responsibility as an artist to create art that reflects my inner world. Art has the ability to reimagine a new world. Music is like the visionary, while its audience serves as a platform for those ideas. Music is a powerful catalyst for change. Specifically in Iran, freedom of expression continues to be suppressed; when music is created to empower communities in need, it becomes incredibly meaningful.
AALEGRA: Music has always been a healing and comforting medium, the glue to all art forms. It’s so powerful to see “Baraye” unite all Iranians across the world. I think every Farsi-speaking person can sing that song at the top of their lungs and mean every word regardless of who they are. I commend Shervin Hajipour’s bravery of releasing this anthem and taking the consequences for it.
How can people help Iranians right now?
SEVDALIZA: By staying united and focused. By sharing the news from credible and trusted sources. We must be extremely careful to not oversimplify when speaking about the revolution in Iran. We must be mindful of not being tricked into sharing divisive messaging as we can involuntarily bring harm when we attempt to help. If there is no room for all, there is room for none. Blood and life are shedding in the streets of Iran. It is up to us to make it count.
AALEGRA: By amplifying the voices of the people of Iran through posting and spreading awareness as much as we can. Support human rights organizations in Iran such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the campaign for human rights in Iran. Join the demonstrations taking place in a lot of the major cities around the world. Anything that can shine some light and give the people of Iran the support and hope they deserve.
BATMANGLIJ: It feels super critical that what happened in 1953 is part of the context for how everybody in America talks about Iran. It’s been erased for so long. Americans need to know the history of how we got here, and they should feel responsible. They have to make a somewhat active effort to learn about the history of their own country’s colonialism and white supremacy. I think that once you get there, then we can have more conversations based on shared knowledge and amount of information. People weren’t taught it in their classrooms. Maybe they were taught what happened but they weren’t taught why, because it incriminates the West.
What is most important for non-Iranians to take away from what’s happening in Iran?
SEVDALIZA: I read this in an article, and I think it’s important to understand why revolution can only be successful if it’s led from within.
“The only way resistance against the dictatorship can endure is if all struggles obtain recognition and are represented in the narrative of this ongoing revolution. To make room for others does not equal stepping aside. If there is no room for all, there is room for none.”
The reality in Iran is such that there are complex parallel struggles led by different groups. These must be fueled with oxygen in order for the protests to continue and not die out.
ROSTAM: Just like we in America aren’t happy with everything that’s happening, I think people living in Iran are not happy with everything that’s happening in their country and they want change. We have a lot to learn in America about how to effectively change our government, because the will of the people is not being obeyed here either. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade, it’s clear that’s not what Americans want. We have to figure out how to get what we want, just like Iranians are doing in Iran.