Last month, Iranian clerics, politicians, and websites declared that rapper Shahin Najafi must be killed for his song "Naqi", in which he used the figure of Shi'a's 10th Imam to criticise Iranian politics and society.
Far from being silenced, Najafi, who lives in exile in Germany, put out another song, "Our Codewords Are 'Dying Upright'" in response. And he has given interviews, including this one to Ari Siletz of Tehran Bureau:
Years before the fatwa calling for your death, you sang a song in memory of Fereydoun Farrokhzad [a popular Iranian singer stabbed to death in 1992] in which you said, "Living in your path is full of troubles, steps on a road that moment by moment is closer to danger. I'm sheep, let me close my eyes. Not into politics, sorry, I'm ashamed to say." Obviously you didn't heed the warning in your own song, and perhaps "sheep" and "ashamed" don't refer to the singer himself. Is there an inner struggle between Shahin Najafi the militant and a Shahin Najafi who wishes he could go through life as sheep?
Quite. I believe some people are chosen in a historic way to be trumpets. Generally, their fate is to be shattered and shunned, followed by a self-destruction caused by anguish descending from their mental no-where-lands. I believe humans were not born for thinking; rather, humans are afflicted with thinking. Those who carry on mundane daily lives and who stay in this state are more natural and closer to the instinctive human-animal of my mind. So we should look at being sheeplike in positivist terms. Right or wrong, good or bad is not relevant. It is about being or not being.
Many times I have tried to stop writing poetry and composing songs to rid myself of this illness so that like many others I can fall into a level where life has fewer dangers and headaches. One could read books or even be involved in art, literature, and films, and still not get tangled in complications. I'm like a cancerous tumor that must be choked and destroyed or it will take over the whole body. Being a cancer on history or culture doesn't necessarily take courage, but if I were anything else, the meaning of my existence will come under question and I may be misdiagnosed as appendicitis so that sooner or later they will surgically remove my uselessness. I am no longer the shared pain. I am, myself, pain.
In the midst of your artistic works, you suddenly produced a brief biography of singer Kurt Cobain. The artist in Cobain was tormented by the fame he had achieved to the point where he spat at TV cameras and insulted his audience, to the point of suicide perhaps. What did you suffer in your own life that drew you to Kurt Cobain's story?
It was a project that I did while I was working for a radio station. But it is as though Cobain was me except he lived in the '90s. I used to watch him as a child, when without a care he spat at the whole world, its games, magic tricks, and illusions. I loved his virginity and I had promised myself that I would join him and other friends in the 27 Club as housemates when I turned 27 years old. But that did not happen and I did not want that because I thought my work was not yet done. How can I explain what I suffered? Being an artist in Iran, especially an artist working from this angle, is like running barefoot on sharp nails.
On the one hand, extremist Shiites offended by your song "Naghi" call for your death and on the other hand your harsh criticism of the hypocrisy of expat Iranian reformists, intellectuals, and feminists has made it so they don't think of you as being a team player. Far from home and in the absence of close family, what part of society do you see as your sympathizers and likeminded allies?
In many of my works, I have shown no mercy to any group or any part of the political spectrum. Even so, from every spectrum, belief system, and current of thought I have friends one would not imagine. Classifying the audience is no longer very interesting. Students from various cross sections connect in one way with my works, and homeless street-sleepers in Tehran, far-flung towns, and villages in a different way. There are several Shahins inside me that have had each of these experiences. From the universities and intellectual circles to associating with criminals and the rejected to ordinary people. My doubts about social theories stem from this background. You can't speak of scalding sand until you have walked on the beach.