Iranian song brings people together to protest Mahsa Amini’s death

As protests against the Iranian government grow, a song rings out, uniting people around the world who are fighting for – among other things – the basic human rights of women.

Baraye, which translates to « for » or « because of » in Persian, was chanted by tens of thousands of protesters during protests following the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody in Tehran. The song was also frequently used in social media posts relating to the protests.

In a sense, the song became an example of the power of music in social movements and its ability to unite people for a cause.

The song « resonates with so many Iranians because it touches so poetically and beautifully on a range of issues that concern us all as human beings », said Shiva Balaghi, a Middle Eastern cultural historian at the ‘University of California, Santa Barbara.

Shervin Hajipour, a well-known singer in Iran, posted the song on his Instagram account on September 28. The lyrics are made up of dozens of tweets posted by Iranians expressing why they are protesting. Each of these tweets begins with « because of ».

WATCH: Sahar Golshani reposted Shervin Hajipour’s video after his withdrawal:

The protests erupted after the September 16 death of Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman. She was in a coma after being detained by the country’s vice squad for allegedly wearing her headscarf incorrectly.

« [Hajipour] brought in ordinary people’s tweets [and] their daily suffering in music,” said Nasim Niknafs, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s music department who specializes in the relationship between music education, social justice and activism.

Niknafs, who has also published research on music in Iran, sees part of the song’s powerful resonance in the emotion it conveys, something she attributes to Hajipour’s own experience.

« It wasn’t an out-of-body experience for him. He was going through those [hardships] living in the country every day, so he brought that as inspiration. »

One of the first lines of the song is: « Because we were always afraid to kiss our lovers in the street », referring to the illegality of affection in public. Another said: “Because of the girl who wished she was a boy.

« Even if you didn’t experience it, you heard about it. I think that’s why it touched the hearts of so many people because, first of all, it was in real time what people were saying in Iran, but it’s also stuff you’ve heard before,” said Sahar Golshani, an Iranian-Canadian podcaster from Toronto who identifies as an activist and helped organize a protest in Toronto.

« So it really touched deep in your soul when you heard the lyrics. »

A protester cuts his hair during a demonstration after Amini’s death, outside Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on September 23. (Christian Mang/Reuters)

Golshani said the song connects Iranians, both in Iran or in the diaspora, including herself. Although she has never lived in Iran – her parents left before she was born – she says she still feels very attached to it because since she was a child she has heard about her family’s struggles.

« It gets to a point where you’re like, ‘I’ve got to do something about this,' » Golshani said. « That song was kind of like a powder keg moment for a lot of us. »

40M views in 48 hours

Almost instantly after the song was posted on September 28, it went viral, garnering over 40 million views within 48 hours on Instagram before being taken down. Reports indicated that the 25-year-old singer had been arrested. On October 4, a statement posted to his Instagram story said he was out on bail, but the song was never reposted to his profile.

Many are also circulating links on social media asking for him to be nominated in a new category for the 2023 Grammy Awards: best song for social change.

« I would like the Grammys to recognize [Hajipour’s] song. Part of its popularity is that it’s just a beautiful song, » Balaghi said.

People light a fire during a protest in Tehran on September 21 over Amini’s death. (West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

“The idea that he gathered social media comments, crowdsourced lyrics, really speaks to the movement…I heard him sing on the streets of [Los Angeles] by the diaspora community and in the classrooms of Tehran by middle school girls. It’s powerful. It speaks to this generation. »

While songs and music are a powerful part of social movements, Iran has a rich cultural history with art and continues to play an important role.

« Creating music is part of life in Iran. It’s how people live their lives…it’s how they think and understand the world around them, » Niknafs said.

“Even after the 1979 revolution, when official institutions were not allowed to have western classical music or popular music, like jazz, rock, metal…the music was still there, the poetry was still there, » Niknafs said. « They are very integrated into the fabric of society. »

Women, the young generation at the head of the movement

Unlike previous protests in Iran, the Mahsa Amini protests were mainly led by women and young Iranians.

In 2020, approximately 37% of the Iranian population was under the age of 25, which means that a significant number of people living in Iran were not alive during the 1979 Iranian Revolution or the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988.

Experts said it makes younger generations more fearless when they drive this movement.

Students hold a rally at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on Tuesday to protest the recent death of Amini. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

« This generation is not naive. They know the risks they take. But they support each other to effect fundamental change, » Balaghi said. “One of the street chants is, ‘Have no fear, have no fear, we are together.’ It’s a struggle between hope and fear, explained an artist in Iran. And hope has become greater than fear.

Niknafs agrees, adding that the song speaks to their aspirations.

« They hope for a better life and that is reflected in their music and music creates hope. It’s hand in hand, » Niknafs said.

Unlike previous movements in Iran, and despite harsh internet repression, the younger generation has also found power in the use of social media.

Many have been circulating images and videos of what is happening in Iran to get their message across to international audiences.

« Gen Z and Millennials have a voice and power within social media to amplify their voice, » Golshani said. « They see how social media can initiate change. »


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