Mehdi Rajabian was producing an album that criticised the nature of Iranian conflicts in history when he was arrested in 2013.
Mehdi Rajabian is an Iranian musician, who was arrested and imprisoned in 2013 after taking part in illegal music activity in the country.
Music, as with all arts, is heavily censored in Iran and must be in line with Islamic tradition and culture in order to be accepted in the mainstream.
When the now 29-year-old Mehdi was arrested, he was producing an album that criticised the nature of Iranian conflicts in history.
Speaking to Sky News from Iran, he says that musicians are afraid to perform, and that despite his release from prison, he does not feel as if he is free.
I’m not a musician in an ordinary situation. I’ve spent two years in prison and I’ve been through more than 40 days of hunger strike, and three months in solitary confinement.
I am totally banned from making music in Iran. Musicians are afraid to play an instrument for me. Journalists are afraid to interview me. The Iranian government wants to silence my voice.
I got arrested for creating an album, and managing a company named Bargmusic, which I started when I was 17, so that’s when I became an activist. I supported prohibited artists and female vocalists, who are forbidden to sing in Iran. I supported them and it caused me my confinement.
Now, I am in Iran and I am forbidden to fly. That is, to leave Iran. I even have a three-year suspended prison sentence. For this, I have non-stop pressure on me — all because of my art activities. And I’m writing this in Iran… I could be arrested at any time.
Iranian authorities isolate individuals like me so we can only stay at home. People are afraid of talking to me, so I’m deprived of everything.
My album at the time of my arrest (History of Iran Narrated by Setar) was about the wars which Iran was involved in, which I declared absurd, especially Iran-Iraq’s war.
When I went on the hunger strike, I lost 15kg in weight and my stomach bled. I vomited blood. I could have died.
I had this cellmate who was a human rights activist who also went on a hunger strike. That human rights activist was my friend. After a while he died of hunger strike, while no one covered his story.
A human being should never experience two things in their lives. One is solitary confinement, which kills one’s soul, and the other is hunger strike, which kills one’s body.
Unfortunately Iranian authorities kept me with Somali pirates and drug dealers in prison as a punishment. My cellmate was the leader of those Somali pirates — one of the most violent men in the world — and he gave me handwritten poetry, which I shared on social media. Of course after this, one cannot be a regular person and can’t ignore whatever happens in the world.
Iranian artists supported us very little but many organisations worked for my release. When someone is in prison, all of their hope lies on the deeds of those on the outside. There were many campaigns, including ‘Art Is Not A Crime’, supported by Johnny Depp, Peter Gabriel, Ai WeiWei. I thank every one of them from here.
The album and all of it’s materials were seized, and my work office got barred shut after seven years of activity. Maybe it’s hard to believe but I was still just 22 when I experienced prison time for my music activities.
Artists in the Middle East have always been censored. I wrote the idea for this [a new] album while in prison — even in that situation I was thinking about creating art. Music cannot be stopped.
I was transferred from a small prison to a much bigger one. I feel I’m still in prison now…. this can’t be called freedom. There’s no difference for me in or out of prison because the I’m under the almost same amount of pressure.
Of course there are many in Middle East who are going through hardships. Even Zehra Dogan from Turkey who paints for this album, was in prison for two years. Reza Deghati, who holds the credit for the album’s cover, was in jail for three years in Iran. My musician from Yemen is in poverty, my groups in Palestine and Syria are going through wars, my musician from Egypt is banned, and another one created his melody in the middle of the sea while escaping his country.
All of us are going through hardships. Middle Eastern people are exhausted. We need human rights and freedom, not war.
But music cannot be stopped. I believe in the power of music. No power can pass through the grip of art.
In the Middle East, art can be as massive as a war weapon. Art is our peaceful weapon.