Iranian composer and musician Mehdi Rajabian would like nothing more than to be nominated for a Grammy. But the Iranian government’s plans to shut down communications to the outside world may prevent him from promoting or even discussing his work with the outside world.
In September, Rajabian, 31 — who was imprisoned in 2013 and 2015 because of his music — risked arrest once more when he released the album Coup of Gods, which he recorded and completed in a basement via the internet using musicians from Brazil, Turkey, India, Argentina and the United States. U.S.-based vocalists Lizzy O’Very and Aubrey Johnson sang on the album, and Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. mixed and engineered the record and released it via his Hundredup label.
The composer says Coup of Gods has been submitted for consideration in the best global music album, best arrangement and instruments and vocals categories. But because he is forbidden from leaving Iran he is unable to travel to the U.S. to engage in the socializing and self-promotion that takes place during the first round of Grammy voting from Oct. 22 to Nov. 5 when nominations are determined. (The Recording Academy declined to comment for this story.)
If Rajabian is nominated, the Academy may even have a difficult time notifying him. In late July, despite fierce public opposition, Iran’s parliament voted in favor of a bill to hand control of the country’s internet gateways — which are already heavily censored — to its military and to criminalize virtual private networks (VPNs). If the hard-line Guardians Council ratifies the bill, which is expected to happen, the ban could be implemented for a trial period lasting years and eventually made permanent.
Iranian citizens can still make phone calls, but many prefer using VPNs and social media to communicate online — tens of millions use WhatsApp and Instagram — because phone communication is monitored by the government, which is led by ultra-conservative Islamist Ebrahim Raisi.
Writing for Slate, Iranian journalist Sayeh Isfahani reported that the bill — which has been in gestation since 2018 — “is expected to curb access to the internet, invade users’ privacy, infringe net neutrality, and suppress freedom of speech in Iran.” Isfahani added that, “For years, Iran has been seen as constantly trying to emulate the more extreme censorship regimes of Russia and China. This bill would help the Islamic Republic set a new standard for other authoritarian states to follow.”
While artists can be coy about their desire to win a Grammy, Rajabian says he wants Coup of Gods to be recognized because, “a Grammy Award is an opportunity to use my voice for freedom and send a message that no dictatorial regime can stop the freedom of music.” Beyond that symbolism, he adds, “No prize or achievement can fill a second of my hard days.”
Rajabian was arrested in 2013, put in solitary confinement for three months, released on bail and arrested again in 2015 for recording an album titled The History of Iran Narrated By Setar (a lute-like instrument used in traditional Persian music). According to a 2016 Amnesty International report, after a three-minute trial in April 2015, he was convicted of “insulting Islamic sanctities,” “spreading propaganda against the system” and “illegal audio-visual activities” and tortured in prison. His alleged crime: distributing “unlicensed music by Iranian singers from outside the country, some of whose lyrics and messages are political or cover taboo subjects,” according to the report.
After his conviction in 2015, Rajabian was moved to Evin prison in Tehran, where, in 2016, he began a 40-day hunger strike that led to his release on parole in 2017. (He says that his three-year prison sentence, which was suspended, could be enforced at any time.) He was arrested again in 2020 because of his album Middle Eastern, which was released as part of a planned larger performance art project that involved dance, painting and a book — facets that were abandoned. The charges levied against him then were that he was “encouraging prostitution,” he says, because female vocalists, who are banned in Iran, sang on the album. This time, he was not imprisoned, but he has been prevented from leaving the country.
Asked what kind of feedback he has received for Coup Of Gods, Rajabian, who listens to Hans Zimmer, Yo-Yo Ma and Martha Argerich, says he is largely in the dark. Although some of the musicians who perform on the album have messaged him to praise the result, he says his target audience, Iranians, “are afraid to contact me because of security and imprisonment and bans. They are right,” he explains.
“Some time ago, a journalist tweeted that he had been detained and interrogated for five days for mentioning my name in an article. Even a female singer stated in an interview that she supported me in cyberspace, was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison, and she fled Iran. My office is closed, my company was confiscated, and I have been alone at home for a long time and I do not leave the house. I am the first and last audience of my music.”
His own appraisal: “We have a professional album that can attract an audience. I am very hopeful.” Listen to some of Rajabian’s work below.