Arts & Culture

Persian Hip-Hop Tonight at Ibiza in Pioneer Square

By Jonathan Cunningham March 4, 2010

I first got wind of a Persian hip-hop presence on the West Coast last week while talking to Alicia Amiri from Neumos. Although plenty of local music insiders might only know Alicia as the den mother behind Neumos, and the great decider on who ends up on the guest list and who doesn't, she's also a solid musician and advocate of Persian culture here in Seattle. She's half Iranian and quickly schooled me to a growing presence of Persian hip-hop in both English and Farsi coming out of places like Vancouver and L.A.

I figured that was the beginning and end of the story about a cool, yet-probably-too-insular world for me to penetrate. But then yesterday, I heard about a Persian hip-hop showcase happening tonight at Ibiza in Pioneer Square. Turns out the headliner tonight is Shahin Najafi, an Iranian MC, poet, and activist now based in Germany with a big following throughout Europe (He was forced to relocate to Germany under pressure from the Iranian government.) He's developed a reputation based around his political lyrics with songs such as "Singer in Blood" and "Tarafe Ma" clocking tens of thousands of hits on YouTube.

While I wasn't able to get on the phone with Najafi, I did check in with A Uno, the lead MC in Seattle-based hip-hop/RnB group Steelo who are opening up tonight's show. As an Iranian-American himself, A-Uno was able to shed some light regarding Persian hip-hop culture.

What does it mean for you to be on a bill tonight with Shahin Najafi?

It's really exciting,  especially since the show is in Seattle. I don't think anyone would expect that to happen here. It's great to see that there's a community that can support this type of event. I think this really shows the versatility of our group, where we can open for main stream artists such as Pitbull and Sean Kingston then go and open for a Persian artist like Shahin.

Do you think there's a legitimate Persian hip-hop community yet or are there just select Iranian MCs beginning to form one?

A Uno: I think that it's definitely a genre that is growing within the Persian community as a whole. It seems like there are more outlets as far as websites and blogs that feature up and coming Persian hip-hop artists.  Keep in mind that hip-hop has a global influence, connect that with the fact that 70 percent of the population in Iran is under 30 years old, there's no question that "Persian hip-hop" can become more main stream in the near future.

What was your first exposure to hip-hop coming out of Iran or from Iranian-American artists?

Actually, my younger sister and brother keep me up to date on new artists coming out of Iran and the rest of the world. They tell me which artists are creating a buzz and what websites out there feature them. It's been cool finding out that this genre exists within Persian music. When I was growing up it really was about Iranian pop music from artists based in Los Angeles, CA. Now I hear about Iranian artists coming out of Europe and Iran itself making their mark.

Who are the front-runners now within that sound? And moreover, what is the sound?

Artists such as Hichkas and Erfan have really made a name for themselves within the genre. Just like in hip-hop coming out of the U.S., there are different sounds and subjects being spoken about in the music. On one hand, you have lyrics about the current state of the society in Iran, changes that are needed and social awareness. On the other you have artists that talk about having a good time, parties, and of course ladies. It's a wide spectrum.

I was surprised, but a lot of the Persian hip-hop being made now is stuff that you would expect to hear in English, only the MC is spitting in Farsi. There's beats that have a more traditional Middle Eastern feel to them and hard hitting underground hip-hop.

How do you keep your heritage alive through the music you make?

At live shows I can spit a verse that incorporates 3 languages going from Farsi to English to Spanish. [His mom is Mexican]. We have a song on our debut album Music called "Lift Ya" where we mix hip-hop and traditional Middle-Eastern melodies. I throw in words and phrases in Farsi.

Steelo opens for Shahin Najafi tonight at Ibiza. Tickets are $10 and doors are at 8 p.m.

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