September 26, 2023

The Ballad of Mehdi Yarrahi: A Singer’s Struggle for Justice and Freedom of Expression in Iran

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Iranian singer and composer Mehdi Yarrahi has not only captured hearts with his soulful melodies and poignant lyrics but has also faced mounting criticism and official bans for using his platform to address social and political issues. This is the story of Yarrahi, a musician whose career has paralleled his life as an activist and advocate for change.

Born in Ahvaz in November 1981, Yarrahi’s first foray into music was through Quranic recitations and school choirs. Between the ages of 10 and 13, he said that while participating in Quran recitation competitions, he was unknowingly drawn to the intrinsic musicality of the verses and the lyrical arrangement of the words. Though initially wanting to become a film director, his love for music led him to become a self-taught guitarist and pianist. Yarrahi moved to Tehran with a diploma in computer science and a dream to establish himself in the music community.

By his late teens, Yarrahi had already recorded an album titled “Hijrat,” which the Ministry of Culture and Guidance refused  to license. This denial forced him to carve a niche as a composer for others. He found opportunities to collaborate with renowned artists like Saeed Shahrouz, Dariush Eghbali, Behrouz Safarian, Hossein Zaman, Ali Lohrasbi and Sirvan Khosravi. During Ramadan 2009, his song “Havaye To” was featured in the popular TV program “Mahe Asal,” cementing his growing reputation.

“Azan” Echoes Beyond Borders, Despite Restrictions at Home

In the summer of 2014, he released a song called “Azan.” With his own unique melody and style, Yarrahi performed the Islamic call to prayer, which was arranged by Homayoun Namdari. The release of this captivating Azan by a Muslim singer garnered significant international attention, becoming one of Yarrahi’s most widely listened-to works, even as his music remained restricted at home.

Prominent figures reacted to the release of the Azan by sharing it on their personal pages, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey; Mohammed Hadid, an American millionaire; Eric Abidal, a former Barcelona player and current club executive; French Montana, a renowned American-Moroccan rapper; Sibel Jan, a Turkish singer; and Dida Diafat, a world champion kickboxer.

Six years later, the Lebanese magazine ‘Raseef 22’ featured an article titled, “From Turkey to America with the Sweet Sound of Azan, While Forbidden in His Homeland.” Initially, some had even mistakenly attributed Azan to the Andalusian Muslims because of its musical style, unaware that it was Yarrahi’s voice. The article introduced Yarrahi, his works, and his social and political status in Iran, painting a nuanced picture of the artist and the complexities he faces in his home country.

From Pop Sensation to Civil Society Activist

Yarrahi’s initial success was quickly followed by another leap in fame in 2011 with his first officially released album, “Mano Raha Kon.” He was already a popular guest on youth-oriented TV shows, receiving high ratings and positive audience feedback. However, Yarrahi wasn’t content being just a pop icon. He evolved into a more socially active figure, writing an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani in 2018 following protests, advocating for the public’s right to express political views.

Yarrahi’s activism had roots in his Ahvaz origins. Troubled by local issues like drought and dust storms, he became increasingly involved in environmental protests. During a 2014 concert, he wore a mask as a symbolic protest against air pollution, prompting authorities to question him. Later, his performance of the song “Khak” became a rallying cry against environmental degradation in the region.

Criticism against Yarrahi reached a tipping point after he performed in protest uniforms supporting detained workers and released an anti-war music video. Consequently, he faced an official ban on his artistic activities and concerts. Despite the bans, he remained an unapologetic critic, emphasizing in a concert that even security agencies should be open to critique.

Before his latest arrest in August 2023, Yarrahi had released the song “Rosarito,” a powerful protest against compulsory hijab and the Iranian government. It was denounced as “unlawful and contrary to the ethics and norms of Islamic society” by Iranian authorities. His lawyer, Mostafa Nili, said they are still in the dark about the exact details of his detention.

As Mehdi Yarrahi continues to navigate a complex web of fame, activism, and persecution, his story remains an emblematic tale of artistic resilience and courage in modern Iran and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. It also raises alarming questions about freedom of expression and human rights in a country where a song can lead to arrest and artists have to fight for their right to speak.

NIAC, while condemning the breach of freedom of speech and the detention of Mehdi Yarrahi along with other artists and journalists, reiterates its calls on the authorities of the Islamic Republic to promptly release all individuals who have been arrested due to their political, social, and cultural activities, including Yarrahi. Individuals deserve to exercise their internationally protected rights including freedom of expression, assembly, lifestyle, and other personal freedoms. 

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