Iran: Music Is Not A Crime

Mehdi Rajabian, Hossein Rajabian, and Yousef Emadi are Iranian musicians and filmmakers each sentenced to three years in prison and three years of probation on charges of “insulting the sacred” and “propaganda against the state.” Originally arrested in October 2013, each of the three men were sentenced in December 2015, and were denied an appeal in January 2016. In February 2016 a second appeal saw their sentences reduced from six years and a fine to the current sentence of three.

Musician and producer Mehdi Rajabian and his brother, filmmaker Hossein Rajabian were originally sentenced with Yousef Emadi, a musician as well, during a 45-minute trial in December 2015. With Emadi, the Rajabian brothers founded the underground music distributor BargMusic in 2009. BargMusic applied on multiple occasions to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for a permit to operate, as such a license is required by all organizations wishing to perform, produce, or distribute music for any commercial purpose in Iran. The Islamic Republic’s government censors use these permits to keep a tight rein on what art is allowed to be heard by the public.

As its requests for permits were repeatedly denied, BargMusic continued to operate openly in an underground manner up to its founders’ arrests in 2013.

In addition to their involvement in BargMusic, the Rajabian brothers are celebrated artists in their own right. At the time of the arrest Mehdi Rajabian had been working on a concept album of Iran’s history through music. Mehdi’s album History of Iran Narrated by Setar combined histories spoken by the artist with traditional Persian instrumentation and ambient noise.

Hossein Rajabian has directed a number of short documentary films which have been screened at international festivals. Hossein Rajabian’s work in film gained him acceptance to the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna. However, when he attempted to fly to Austria for his education the filmmaker’s passport was confiscated and he was banned from studying at any institution in Iran or abroad. Hossein had just completed his first full-length film The Upside-Down Triangle at the time of the arrest.

Iranian authorities confiscated all hard drives and materials related to both Mehdi’s album and Hossein’s film. In protest, Hossein released The Upside-Down Triangle online with English subtitles.

It is not uncommon even for artists whose work has been approved by Iran’s government to find themselves suddenly on the wrong side of censors and find their projects halted. For many of these artists, underground distributors like BargMusic are the only way to release their work.

During their trial and appeal, the accusations brought against the three artists included distributing the music of female singers as well as “political and anti-revolutionary” ones.
BargMusic’s website is currently out of service, although a Persian-language Facebook group continues to exist for updates and activism regarding the three artists.

Mehdi Rajabian, Hossein Rajabian, and Yousef Emadi are currently imprisoned in Evin Prison, Tehran’s high-security facility for political prisoners and other prisoners of conscience. They are scheduled to remain there until June 2019.

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