A group of Grammy-winning and nominated musicians and artists have come together — virtually — to help Iranian dissident composer Mehdi Rajabian get another shot at the Recording Academy’s highest award.
On Sept. 10, Rajabian will once again risk arrest and imprisonment by the Iranian government when he releases his new age composition It Arrives on both his Barg Music label and Grammy-winning conductor and producer Amy Andersson’s Higher Purpose Music label.
“Mehdi’s music has sparked international interest, so Grammy-winning and Grammy-nominated musicians from around the world have collaborated with him,” says Andersson of It Arrives. “Many of the featured artists are colleagues and friends of mine, and it is through this connection that our collaboration evolved.”
The largely instrumental album features 20 musicians, including ukulele and slack-key guitar specialist Daniel Ho, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, flutist Wouter Kellerman, jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, cellist Peter Jacobson and drummer M.B. Gordy, all of whom are Grammy winners; violinist Curtis Stewart and vocalists Nicole Zuraitis and Priya Darshini, who are Grammy nominated. Album cover artist Claudio Roncoli won a best album package Grammy in 2018 for Colombian folk singer Magín Díaz’s El Orisha de la Rosa, and the sound engineer on the project, Michael Romanowski, is a multiple Grammy winner.
“They are all my friends for many years,” says Rajabian, who reached out to the musicians to suggest collaborating. “They all are also human rights activists who demand the freedom of music all over the world. After the production of the previous album, I thought that I would never be able to produce music again,” he adds. “If it wasn’t for their help and persistence, I would never have been able to continue.”
“How can anyone say no to someone risking so much for their art?” says Coffin. “It’s about supporting the human condition and establishing a connection and relationship through sound from over halfway around the world. Supporting this project is part of my service of being a musician and a human being. It’s truly a profound honor.”
“Composers and their music have been restricted or banned throughout history, most notably during the 20th century, with Shostakovich, Korngold, Zemlinsky and Viktor Ullmann, among others,” says Andersson. “The natural reaction of artists is to support one another in the best way we know how — it is in our nature. Artists are not political; we are creative souls who are filled with love for what we do and strive to elevate humanity.”
In 2021, Rajabian released the orchestral composition Coup of Gods that was engineered by Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. After the initial rush of his accomplishment, Rajabian says he fell into a depression because of the mental pressure he was under. “I have never been able to put on a concert. I have never been able to have physical CDs, my office has been sealed, my company has been confiscated,” he says. “All these pressures made me stay at home all the time.” And though he received positive feedback from fellow musicians via social media, he adds that it is disheartening that “all collaborations, all conversations, all communications in my life have become virtual and remote.”
As with his previous album, It Arrives — Rajabian says the title is intentionally “vague” — was created, recorded and completed via email and the internet. Like Coup of Gods, it features sweeping string arrangements and driving drums, but the music is lighter and more upbeat. “This time, the pieces are full of different colors,” he says. “Maybe this anger and loneliness of mine have reached happy colors.”
Rajabian says he hopes Grammy voters will smile on It Arrives as awards season ramps up. He has submitted the album for nomination consideration in new age, ambient and chant category.
The stakes are exponentially higher in Iran, where Rajabian says, “Anything can happen when you produce music. Even conducting this interview can be a crime.”
Rajabian was arrested in 2013, put in solitary confinement for three months, released on bail and arrested again in 2015 for recording an album titled The History of Iran Narrated By Setar (a lute-like instrument used in traditional Persian music).
After his conviction in 2015, Mehdi says he was moved to Evin prison in Tehran, where, in 2016, he began a 40-day hunger strike that led to his release on parole in 2017. (He says that his three-year prison sentence, which was suspended, could be enforced at any time.) He was arrested again in 2020 but not imprisoned because of his album Middle Eastern, which was released but was part of a larger performance art project that involved dance, painting and a book that were not realized. The charges levied against him then were that he was “encouraging prostitution,” he says, because female vocalists, who are banned in Iran, sang on the album.
The long-term effects of Rajabian’s imprisonment and hunger strike took a toll on his health. “My body and soul have been damaged,” he told Billboard in 2021 after the release of Coup of Gods. “I lost 15 kilograms of weight [33 pounds] and 40% of my vision and my joints swelled because of the hunger strike,” he explains. “I couldn’t even play an instrument on my album. I could only compose and arrange. I did it just to say that no power can stop the freedom of music.”
With the release of It Arrives, Rajabian says, “I can be a platform for the voices of my people’s pain — from human rights violations to my artist friends who are in prison — in a country where they don’t even allow us to use loudspeakers.”
“Mehdi is an inspiration to me and to so many others, and I want him and those like him to know that we are here and fighting for and with them against the mediocre minds that try to stifle higher thought and higher art,” says Coffin. “Censorship and silence are not options.”