Every so often, like clockwork, an artist threatens to jar the Western music-loving world from it’s perpetual obsession with digital life.
They enter our myopic realities and remind everybody that on the fringes of American soft power, there are musicians doing amazing things in places where the stakes might be just a little bit higher.
Almost a decade ago, MIA set the template for hip-shaking, globally confrontational music in the post-9/11 era. Quite unlike any other artist before her, she opened up the channels for artists making sonically and lyrically incendiary music that is rooted in the conflicted socio-cultural spaces. Since then, the rise of the digital age has allowed more of these artists – different from the “world music” we’ve encountered before, calling for structural reinvention instead of harmony – to enter our collective line of sight. A psych-rock banshee from the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle ended up kicking off festivities for the 2010 World Cup. Some Russian punk rockers become the face of anti-authoritarian struggle worldwide.
The most recent incarnation of this archetypal narrative surfaced this fall when members of the Tehran-bred indie band The Yellow Dogs and other Iranian musicians became casualties in a senseless murder-suicide by a member of yet another Iranian band-in-exile. These bands become a sort of template onto which the world might place their collective anxieties about art with revolutionary power. Are these acts simply destined for cataclysmic destruction, neutralizing commercial appropriation, imprisonment, or general mediocrity at every step? Can they sustain what made them special?
Renowned Iranian singer-songwriter, setar (traditional Iranian four-stringed lute, plucked with the index finger) player, and music scholar Moshen Namjoo, also based in New York City, recalls having seen The Yellow Dogs play at a party in the spring of 2011 (about two years after they were first granted asylum by the United States consulate in Istanbul). Their passion for life outside of Tehran’s high-risk club scene was apparent from the outset.
“They were enjoying living outside of Iran. They had their own jobs, musical careers…they were trying to do their best. I had a conversation with the singer, who is fortunately alive,” laments the soft-spoken Mohsen over a crackled phone line.
Mohsen, who performs tonight at Rosemont College, says his core concern, however, is one of essentialism. He cautions against interpreting too much from The Yellow Dogs’s story.
“Unfortunately, you can just say that they were really unlucky. But I think it’s not a musical question…It’s not about Iranian musicians. When an Iranian artist goes to [another country], there is so much media attention on them. The media is always looking for something new,” he explains, also addressing concerns for his own music. “As an artist living in the US…I’d really like that [people] see me as simply a musician, and not a Middle Eastern musician. It’s complicated because if you’re going to be something for Western audiences, you have to be something special, something exotic.”
English is not Mohsen Namjoo’s first language. This interviewer sent his questions ahead of time so that responses could be planned ahead of time. But the caution with which he responds to all of his questions – self-qualifying, aiming for a wholeness to every response – should not be interpreted as timidity. For a number of years, Mohsen Namjoo was exactly the kind of artist who could have been made a martyr way before he reached a global audience.
Mohsen Namjoo’s incendiary spirit can be traced to a unique tapestry of influences, reflecting his training in both traditional Persian folk music and American blues and rock.
“Many of my songs use a mixture between some degrees of the blues scale and a few degrees of the Iranian scale,” says Mohsen, characterizing a surprising amount of Iranian pop that continues to be popular both within Iran and various Farsi-speaking diasporic communities
This hybridization of musical styles, including the very Western ones that the Islamic Republic’s dogmatic leaders thought to be corrosive to its national fabric (we prefer to call it “soft power”), underscored poignant lyrics that aimed satire and scorn at those same authorities. Drawing from his scholarly knowledge of classical Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez to create anti-authoritarian songs with the same kind of ideological passion, Mohsen created songs that reflect the concerns of his politically-aware generation (the Iranian equivalent of Generation X, coming of age in the 1990s) that seemed to have “more emotion than reason,”
The subversive message behind his songs has led to the New York Times and NPR dubbing him “The Bob Dylan of Iran”, and both publications have extensively chronicled his ultimate exile. Despite his songs being played on the radio and the widespread sale of sporadic live recordings throughout the black Market, Mohsen was sentence to imprisonment in absentia while touring in Italy nearly four years. He has since moved to different places, including California, where he was an international visiting scholar at Stamford University; he sees Brooklyn, his current home when he’s not touring, as “where [he’s] going to stay for the rest of [his] musical life.”
The fully-realized songs, whether fleshed out with electric instrumentation or presented live with a minimalist setar-and-drum setup, present the patchwork of his influences with seamless synchronicity and shimmering beauty. As a performer, Mohsen is utterly captivating, his voice moving between nasal recalcitrance and warm robustness with the same intensity. As he expands his sound past the roots to which he is so used, he looks to younger generations of Iranian artists for inspiration.
“I’ve learned much about jazz music being outside of Iran. The Iranian young generation has completely embraced jazz,” he says.
Past the music, younger generations of Iranians (like The Yellow Dogs) have also showed his generation another way of engaging with music that is revolutionary without attacking structural oppression too directly.
“I think that, at some point, this generation’s music has become more progressive than [mine]. They don’t care about the concept of yelling, concept of protest. And they’re not angry. I have an appreciation for this, and it’s a sign of progress,” he says.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to say whether or not artists like Mohsen Namjoo will ever be seen without that lens of otherness. His growing audience in the United States is inevitably going to come from a place of curiosity or knowledge about his struggles against the Islamic Republic and a sense of what that ultimately means. This artistic history is integral to his art and journey, and rightfully should not be ignored. Still, in a time where the next game-changing music story might be one green card application away from reaching our headphones, the inclination to grasp towards narratives of other-worldly struggle should be balanced with the understanding that people like Mohsen simply want to create.
For now, it might be enough that people want to listen and see him perform – his luminal space, in which his performative magnetism captures an audience’s attention should take care of the rest.