“you know when you make something, and it just makes sense?” – Gola probes at the beginning of our conversation. The Iranian singer-songwriter is speaking about her newly released single, ‘The Line’, but as we begin to unpick the story behind it, we learnt truths that are far bigger than just her own.
‘Western Music’ – ie. Popular Music, from any all musical genres we know and love – is still considered largely illegal in Iran. Its government believes its messages can corrupt its young minds, and that music can convert them into a un-Islamic world. If you want to make music in Iran, you must acquire governmental approval, and any given kind of music must have at least two permits: one for the lyrics, and a separate license for the actual melody. In April 2010, Hamid Shahabadi, then–Deputy Minister of the Arts for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, stated that only 20% of the music reviewed receives a stamp of approval. Iran’s Ministry of Culture has rigid policies and heavy sanctions on how its music can be produced, distributed and even consumed, yet it has been unable to accurately describe and define what are the parameters on which it classifies music as ‘Authorized’ and ‘Non-authorized’. Music contraband is punishable by law, but smuggled CDs and cassettes are still the soundtrack to its country’s youth, and it is a business that’s pretty much alive and kickin’.
“I learned how to sing and play a variety of musical instruments from the age of five, to keep the art of traditional Iranian music alive. When I told my family that I wanted to go to the University of Tehran to study Music Performance they told me – ‘why don’t you become a doctor?’” – She pauses – “You can be a songwriter in Iran, but you can’t ever perform it. [as a woman] you can’t ever sing it as a solo artist. You can only perform as a shadow to a male singer. You gotta be in the back, and your voice must not be noticeable.” – Gola comments on how women are not permitted to perform their own music in public.
In all fairness, parental concern towards pursuing a career in music is a global affair. Aged 18, Gola joined the first Iranian’s first all-female band, the Orchid. The group was prohibited from releasing any of its original music, but they could perform it for a stringently female attendance, and they sold out venues commensurate to London’s Royal Albert Hall.
“Our concerts were so closely guarded by the morality police. It’s kind of funny, and tragic, to remember the impact of such surveillance on the lives of other female artists in my country. We were allowed to perform, but our audience would have to sit still on their chairs never allowing their bodies to be fully transported by the music. You can also forget about having a drink to get you in the mood – that is worth 80 lashes no less (but people still smuggle alcohol into parties – we Iranians are a resourceful bunch!)”
It suddenly became clear that Gola’s only chance at establishing a lasting career in music was to leave Iran. Moving to London in 2011, to pursue a Masters in Music Psychology at Roehampton University, the past seven years has given her plenty of time to edify her uncompromising, dizzying and dense artistic persona she presented to the world last week.
“The Line is all about change – I strongly believe that we, the women, are moving forward in an unstoppable way. We are getting stronger, from Saudi Arabia to Iran, we are finally finding our voice. No-one should tell us what to wear, what to say or what to do. We are individuals and deserve respect. That’s what this song is about – the power of the collective, and about us no longer hiding in the shadows – a Line has at last been drawn, and it’s for us to cross it and push the boundaries for a new future.”
‘The Line’, her first single in English was brought to life by Twenty5’s oscillating beats and production, into a pop-tinged R&B record that provides a powerful platform to project her messages of empowerment. In conversation, the singer-songwriter praised the creative collaborative that has worked with her in London to get this project off the ground, and assured us that this is just the beginning of her release scheme. There will be a music video, more singles and an album set for release in 2019.
Gola’s case is far from being an isolated one. Nor one that is restricted to its females. For the past decade, there has been an increase in Iranian artists that seek asylum in other countries, and there have been others that have been verbally open about its country’s creative limits and censorship.
Culture is a matter of constructing a relationship between oneself and the world. It can take many shapes or none at all – but, at its very core – culture embodies an unconscious sense of the values we share, and always will be dictated by people who made it. The unconscious incompetence of attempting to prescribe what kind of information its inhabitants should or not consume has paradoxically strengthened and widened relations between those who dare to imagine a world in which their collective attitudes, and institutions, further everyone’s individual growth.
Over 60% of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30 years old, which makes ‘Youth’ the country’s largest demographics. Fuelled by frustration of it’s government continuous ambiguity, and constant contradictory interpretations of what’s morally permissible or not; it’s highly educated, enterprising and resilient young minds are writing new chapters of Iran’s unofficial culture: A youth-driven underground movement, that hopes to give it’s young people the much-needed space for self-expression.
Words by Catarina Ramalho