Coldplay‘s version of “Baraye,” a soft-spoken Iranian revolutionary anthem that recently landed its singer in state detention, was not just intended for the crowd at the Estadio Mâs Monumental in Buenos Aires last month.
Amid weeks of street protests in Iran over the Islamic Republic’s policing of dissent and violent treatment of young women, the stadium singalong went viral, landing in worldwide news reports and generating hundreds of thousands of YouTube views.
Shervin Hajipour crowd sourced “Baraye” with lyrics he collected from tweets from Iranian protesters. The hymn is “like a Joan Baez song, not a Rage Against the Machine song,” says Sam Zarifi, the Tehran-born secretary general of the human-rights group International Commission of Jurists.
It quickly became an anthem for the protest movement, which was triggered when police arrested a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, for allegedly wearing her state-mandated headscarf not tightly enough. Three days later, Amini died at a police station — beaten to death, according to her family, although the government cited a heart attack — leading to the mass street protests.
Since her death on Sept. 16, street protests have resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests, according to news reports.
“The constant refrain of the protesters right now is ‘be our voice,'” says Zarifi. “What they really want is to not be forgotten. Attention must be paid.”
Hajipour, a 25-year-old pop artist from northern Iran, posted his version of “Baraye” on social media on Sept. 28. It includes the verse “because we want to be free to dance outside in the streets/because we feel terror when it’s time to kiss.” The track hit 40 million Instagram views in one day, according to the Washington Post and others. Since then, it has streamed 3.2 million times globally, according to Luminate, which doesn’t receive data on streams within Iran. The track has also sold 2,500 downloads, hitting No. 4 on Billboard‘s World Digital Song Sales chart last month.
The Iranian government quickly arrested Hajipour and the song vanished from his Instagram. But it was too late to prevent “Baraye” from turning into a worldwide anthem supporting the protesters. The Coldplay version in Argentina was a duet with a guest, Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, with verses sung in Farsi. Last month, Iran released Hajipour from detention, and he appeared in an Instagram video to say “Baraye” contained no links to a “movement or organization outside the country.”
The song’s worldwide attention is “huge,” says Zarifi, an American living in Switzerland who grew up in Iran listening to rock ‘n’ roll on headphones to avoid punishment from a government opposed to western music. He cites Baez’ 2009 version of “We Shall Overcome,” including a verse sung in Persian, as particularly inspirational for Iranians at the time.
“Nobody saw it, but it meant a lot,” Zarifi says. “This protest is absolutely the desire of a generation of Iranian kids just to be part of the regular world — if you see some of the people who were killed, they’re just kids who want to do TikTok videos and listen to music on the street. They’re being bullied by backward-looking old mullahs.”
Iranian protests have a history of music and verse going back centuries to the 13th-century Persian poet Hafez, who commented on political instability and religious hypocrisy, according to New Lines magazine. More recently, Iranian leftists retrofitted Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara‘s anthem “El Pueblo Unido” into an inspirational theme for Iran’s 1979 revolution, according to Zarifi, who says that the revolutionaries gave little thought to the repressive regime that would follow Mohammad Reza Shah, Iran’s last Shah (king).
Negar Mottahedeh, a Duke University literature professor who teaches gender and feminist studies, says “Baraye,” which translates to “because of” or “for” in Persian, is “wholly new and grounded in the conditions, desires and demands of the present.” She adds that the song is both relevant and flexible, recently landing in video versions by English-language interpreters, a Dutch dance troupe, worldwide animators and Swedish Eurovision stars.
“It’s a very gentle and soft song, but it’s full of mourning and grief,” says Mottahedeh. “Someone asked me about the raging anger that is beneath that — of course it’s there, but there is also a sadness about this moment.”
Or as Coldplay’s Chris Martin told the crowd in Argentina on Oct. 29: “Young women and young people are fighting for their freedom — for the right to be themselves.” Then he added, “You may not know this song, but we’re going to give it everything.”