The popular Iranian underground rapper, Sasi Mankan, who supported the defeated presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi in last year’s elections, was detained in the Kish Island resort on Saturday for “disrupting public peace” and deported to the mainland.
The songwriter, whose real name is Sasan Yafteh had travelled to the Gulf island in southern Iran, where thousands of people spent the Iranian New Year holidays, to perform at a few private parties according to the hardline Serat News website.
An unnamed police official quoted by Haghighat News, a website affiliated to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s close aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, dismissed any political motivation for the arrest and said the rapper was detained only to “eliminate the ill atmosphere created by the group”.
“Sasi Mankan was arrested when he and some of his friends, dressed in outrageous outfits, danced and performed repulsive acts that were offensive to the public’s morals in a shopping centre in Kish Island,” the police official was quoted as saying. “Police had received complaints from people.”
It is not clear whether the 28-year-old artist is still being held in police custody on the mainland.
Despite there being no official ban, alternative music genres such as rap and rock are never allowed on official radio and television and requests for permission to hold concerts are always denied. But they have been popularised in the past decade by foreign-based Persian language satellite television channels such as the Persian Music Channel (PMC).
A large number of bands and artists now record their work in secret studios and make video clips because recording and distribution any kind of music needs the approval of relevant authorities. Only certain traditional and classical music types are allowed.
Underground music recordings are distributed and sold illegally as CDs on street corners or are published on the internet for free download. Satellite television channels such as PMC also broadcast some of the productions.
The popularity of rap music has been on the rise despite the ban. Young rappers, dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and sporting hairstyles that the establishment considers highly offensive, are occasionally seen in parks around big cities performing their songs.
The lyrics are recited to music recorded on mobile phones and contain the signs of political dissent. The artists usually keep on the move to avoid being arrested. “We have things we need to say and find no place to perform our songs so we come here from all over the city once a week to practise and to share our songs. That’s our only option to get together,” a young rapper in a park in western Tehran said.
Yafteh, a former engineering student who turned to a music career in 2005, according to his official website, had not demonstrated any political inclinations in his art before lending his support to Mr Karrubi in last year’s disputed presidential elections.
Like other hip-hop and rock artists, Yafteh has never performed publicly in Iran, nor has he released any albums legally.
His work, which is influenced by Iranian pop music and which is mostly about love and relationships, is however, very popular among the country’s youth and often sets the scene for youth dance parties and wedding parties.
Since the elections Yafteh has kept away from politics again while the songs of some other underground rappers such as Hichkas (Nobody), who sings about injustice and the lives of the urban poor, have became more politically charged.
Before last year’s election, in a song written and performed in Mr Karrubi’s honour, Yafteh had called his preferred candidate “good, kind and popular” and had invited his fans to vote for him to overcome problems such as unemployment and inequality. The song also repeated Mr Karrubi’s promises of creating new jobs in industry and agriculture, solving young people’s housing problems and handing out agricultural loans.
Like all his other songs, the track was released on the artist’s website and distributed by his own fans and Mr Karrubi’s supporters on the internet and on CDs they handed out in campaign meetings.
Mr Karrubi, himself a cleric, was hugely criticised by hardliners and the clerical establishment for enlisting Yafteh in his campaign. They considered his music degenerate and corruptive to young people.
Even some of Mr Karrubi’s close aides had advised him against meeting the rapper-songwriter for fear it could alienate some of his religiously-minded supporters.
Mr Karrubi, who came fifth in the elections, claimed there had been widespread fraud and has refused to recognise the legitimacy of Mr Ahmadinejad’s government.
The colourful underground Iranian music scene was depicted in No One Knows about Persian Cats, a film that won a Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.