“The situation in Iran is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” says Hesam Garshasbi, a music journalist, promoter and activist who moved from Tehran to London during the 2020 uprising.
Over the last nine weeks, protests have erupted in Iran following the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amina in police custody for allegedly breaching strict dress rules for women.
Unlike previous movements, demonstrations have taken place nationwide, with people from a range of social classes and age groups taking to the streets to defend the freedom of women and girls. School girls have removed their hijabs in public and university students in northern Iran have reportedly removed law-enforced gender segregation barriers in their cafeteria. Meanwhile, “Women, life, freedom” has been chanted in the face of violence, arrests and a rising death toll.
This evening, a lineup of artists, poets and activists will perform at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall to shed light on the ongoing events and to show solidarity with women in Iran.
Lianne La Havas, Kelsey Lu and the London Contemporary Orchestra will be joined by musicians with connections to Iran and the diaspora, including Faramarz Aslani, Lafawndah and Golnar Shahyar.
“We are facing lots of anxiety right now,” says Garshasbi, who co-organised the London event alongside fellow promoter Adib Rostami. “Being together as a community helps: seeing each other, talking with each other, singing with each other. This concert will gather the Iranian community with non-Iranian friends who have sympathy with the matter. It helps them to be heard.”
Using performance as a tool for pushing change made sense to Garshasbi, whose relationship to his motherland has always been connected to music and resistance. With genres such as rock, rap and EDM banned, he has organised unofficial underground music competitions to celebrate the sounds forbidden in Tehran.
But the importance of music is shared by Iranian people, he says: “Music is unifying, uplifting and healing. Its value is critical to most cultures, but for Iranians it’s also loaded with huge amounts of symbolism and meaning, because it’s been so heavily restricted by the Islamic republic for so many years. So for us, just playing music or holding an instrument can feel like an act of resistance.”
As well as the ban on certain genres and styles of music, women are prohibited from singing in public in Iran. “This concert is a chance for these women to be heard, because they never had this kind of platform back there,” he continues. “Of course, we would not be able to organise this kind of thing in Iran. But here, it’s a possibility.”
Composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Shahyar had to leave her native Iran seven years ago in order to safely pursue her career in music. Now based in Vienna, she still delivers her songs in farsi and explores political and social themes, including women’s rights and her own experiences. “I make a personal interpretation of what I understand as music. I mix a lot of different styles and create my own world of sounds,” she says. “But my work is always related to Iran because I use a lot of the musical vocabulary from there. I’ve kept the connection to the country very strong.”
Participating in the event is a way for Shahyar to channel her rage and generational trauma into something positive. “I feel overwhelmed. I’ve always been singing about my situation in Iran, but this is the moment. Everything is coming into its place,” she says. “I hope it will push the cause forward because it needs to be talked about. Change won’t happen tomorrow, so we need to keep it going; we need to keep this energy, this attention, up. And to push the politicians in the west to make direct actions against this regime.”
Contemporary musician Sakina Teyna, who is also based in Vienna, will be performing alongside Shahyar. She was exiled from her native Kurdistan in 2006 and continues to sing about women and freedom across her musical projects. “I’m a political artist, it’s part of my identity” she says.
Showing solidarity with Iranian women at this event means a lot to Teyna, whose personal experience holds similarities, she says. “I’m Kurdish, so I know how hard it is when nobody listens to you, when nobody wants to be your voice, when you’re let down. As discriminated-against women, we want to do something. This is our fight too.”
Despite the current threats against protesters in Iran, she, like Garshasbi and Teyna, maintains hope. “Music can’t save the world,” she says, “but it can help to create a better place.”