If Fereydoon Farrokhzad was alive today, chances are the soulful Shervin Hajipour would have appeared on his TV variety show. He would have debuted his original song and received wide acclaim. Hajipour likely would have emerged as the newest sensation in Iranian music.
Sadly, on what would have been Farrokhzad’s 84th birthday on October 7, the young Hajipour has been silenced by the Islamic Republic. The 25-year-old singer is facing criminal charges for his music, and what remains of Farrokhzad is little more than some grainy YouTube videos and fading memories of his passionate patriotism and the bloody assassination that took his life 30 years ago.
Farrokhzad was a renaissance man: a TV personality, variety show host, gifted poet, skilled writer, and talented musician. Farrokhzad, a prodigious intellect who had earned his PhD in political science from Munich University, masterfully used music and entertainment to please the ear while also provoking the mind. After the Islamic Revolution that forced him and other artists into exile, he found his true calling abroad as an iconic champion for a country and culture now lost to religious zealots.
His identification as a gay man was largely accepted and remarkably respected even in the Iran of 1970’s, a country with conservative Islamic roots. Perhaps this was because his love for humanity was so boundless and captivating. Regularly citing references from Iranian history and world affairs, he elevated the value of culture and music as powerful tools for combating oppression and fanaticism. His program poked fun at the mullahs but did so in a manner that appealed to the broad sensibilities of his audience.
Farrokhzad’s passion for his homeland and its culture fueled his advocacy for the preservation of Iranian art and music. He encouraged exiled artists to write and perform joyful and innovative songs to appeal to the younger generation of Iranians who had limited knowledge of their own heritage. He believed passionately that, through music, the old and the new generations could come together. But most importantly, he believed that art was a source of hope and empowerment, a means to escape even the most difficult moments of despair that seemed so pervasive at the times.
Farrokhzad unabashedly used his music and platform for political purposes. He led numerous in-person demonstrations against the Islamic regime, including one in Washington DC, that drew over 7,000 Iranian expatriates. It was a remarkable moment of unity as people across socio-economic and sectarian lines put aside their differences for the love of their shared homeland. They chanted and sang as he led the crowd. Farrokhzad often proclaimed that “music can do the work of thousands of weapons” and put it upon himself to lead, musically.
But sadly, 30 years ago, Farrokhzad was brutally assassinated by an Iranian regime agent in his modest apartment in Bonn, Germany. The gruesome murder scene told the story of the vicious cruelty and hatred of the Islamic republic. Investigators found that he had been killed with forty stab wounds from a knife into his much-feared mouth — his only weapon.
Farrokhzad’s dream of leading through music seems prophetic in light of the protests currently convulsing Iran in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s brutal murder last month. All of the world has seen the vivid images of crying women and girls cutting their locks of hair in protest; crowds burning hijabs in broad daylight; masses of people marching through the streets and public squares; and of course, the trending social media hashtags marking this modern revolution. Amid all this frenzy, a young doctoral student and singer, Shervin Hajipour, from northern Iran wrote a simple, heartfelt ballad, “Baraye,” that literally has captivated the nation.
Although Hajipour had a small following in Iran, his work was unknown outside the country. In large part, this was a function of the Iranian regime’s practice of regulating and restricting music and the written word. Hajipour lacked Farrokhzad’s stage and support to help launch his career.
Nonetheless Baraye, which translates roughly as “for the sake of,” evokes the rich tradition of Persian poetry. It remarkably captures the collective sentiments of love, loss, despair, and ultimately, hope that are coursing through the protests. When the video of Hajipour’s heartfelt performance of Baraye was released on Instagram, he became an overnight sensation.
The mournful ballad received nearly 40 million views in a matter of days before it was taken down. Baraye plays like a soundtrack to decades of suffering. It hauntingly uses images recognizable by ordinary Iranians as reminders of the regime’s rampant human rights abuses. In sparing words, it speaks of poverty, arrests and torture; the downing of the Ukrainian airliner; the collapse of a structurally flawed building; the pervasive environmental crises; and many other calamities facing the Iranian people.
Within days of the release of the Instagram post, Hajipour was arrested by regime officials. The news enraged the Iranian masses who already were incensed about the murder of Mahsa Amini and the repressive conditions that restrict nearly every aspect of their lives. As protests spread across the entire country and even around the world, Baraye was no longer just a soundtrack of suffering, but an anthem of unity for the protesters, locking arms and marching to end their misery. Hajipour was leading, musically. The regime quietly released him on bail just a few days ago, a sign of their inability to resist public pressure.
Farrokhzad would have been overjoyed to see the millions of his compatriots around the world, putting differences aside and singing Baraye, “women, life, and freedom” — the mantra of this movement. Just as his voice was a sharp weapon that instilled fear in the enemy, Hajipour’s hearfelt lyrics terrified the autocratic regime.
The Iranian regime tried to take Farrokhzad and Hajipour away from their people, but their legends persist, their songs echo. As their melodies are chanted on the streets, protesters invariably will be arrested, jailed and brutalized for the “crime” of protesting and singing an anti-regime melody. But at this point, there’s no going back. The future will be different. The Iranian people have shown extraordinary courage and a determination to sing, chant and protest until they are free.
When the history is written, we will remember the artists who managed to capture the essence of this moment in words and songs that became eternal. The regime long has believed that it could stop the music and silence the masses. However, as Farrokhzad said, no matter what, an artist cannot be suppressed – and neither can a people.
Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is a human rights activist and the founder of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities (ARAM-Iran) and co-producer of HOMANITY, a compilation album featuring Iranian banned music. She is a member of NUFDI’s Advisory Council.