‘I Could Be Arrested at Any Moment’: Dissident Musician Mehdi Rajabian on Collaborating With Artists for His Risky New Album

Formerly imprisoned Turkish artist Zehra Doğan created a series of works inspired by the music.

Mehdi Rajabian. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Mehdi Rajabian. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Dissident composer Mehdi Rajabian’s music has already landed him to prison. But the Iranian musician is back with a new album of political songs that includes a collaboration with recently imprisoned Turkish artist Zehra Doğan.

Titled Middle Eastern, the album, produced with Sony Music Entertainment, features nearly 100 Middle Eastern musicians playing songs that defy many of their local regimes, such as one that was recorded during an air strike, capturing the sounds of falling bombs, and another written by a refugee on a ship as he fled his home country.

“This album was created by musicians who endured war, poverty, prison, and human rights violations,” Rajabian told artnet News. “We are an independent group working for peace, freedom, and human rights.”

For each of the album’s 11 tracks, Doğan created an original painting. The artist was released from prison in February after nearly three years behind bars for painting a work that depicted Turkey’s attack on a Kurdish district. While she was in prison, Doğan did not have access to art supplies, so she used spices in lieu of paint. Her works for Middle Eastern are done in the same style, using materials such as coffee, tea, and turmeric. The paintings, published here for the first time, will be featured in a brochure accompanying the album.

Zehra Doğan, Tajikistan. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Tajikistan. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The album’s cover art is by Reza Deghati, an award-winning Iranian photojournalist who has spent the last 40 years in exile in France after spending three years in jail for his activism. One side of the album depicts a hole in the ceiling of one of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

The project’s other collaborators hail from Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Egypt, Bahrain, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan. Remarkably, the project came together even though none of the musicians were able to be in the recording studio at the same time.

Rajabian, too, has paid a price for his art. Now 30 years old, he and his brother, filmmaker Hossein Rajabian, were first arrested in 2013, in connection with Barg Music, the underground label they founded in 2008. The record company campaigned for human rights, and worked with female musicians, who are often banned from performing in public.

Rajabian is currently serving a three-year suspended sentence, having spent two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he went on a month-long hunger strike. He was released on bail following outcries from humanitarian groups including Amnesty International.

Iranian photographer Reza Deghati designed the cover for Mehdi Rajabian's <em>Middle Eastern</em>. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Iranian photographer Reza Deghati designed the cover for Mehdi Rajabian’s Middle Eastern. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Along with Doğan, Rajabian and his brother were recognized by the Global Investigative Journalism Network with a Rebellion’s Artist in the World Global Choice Award in 2017.

“I struggled in Iran for music,” Rajabian said. “This can’t be called freedom. There’s no difference for me, in or out of prison, because I’m under almost the same amount of pressure.”

The new album is in direct violation of his parole, but Rajabian says he refuses to be silenced, or to give up the fight against censorship. Determined to remain a voice for freedom, he conceived of Middle Eastern during his time behind bars. “Music cannot be stopped,” he says.

Although the album offers a message of hope, calling for peace and justice amid unspeakable suffering, Rajabian is prepared for the worst. If necessary, he says he’ll continue making music in jail. “I’m forbidden to make music in Iran,” he says. “The Iranian regime is unpredictable. I could be arrested at any moment.”

See more of Doğan’s paintings for Middle Eastern, and listen to the songs that inspired them below.

Zehra Doğan, <em>Jordan</em>. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Jordan. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Iran. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Iran. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Iraq and Palestine. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Iraq and Palestine. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Syria and Turkey. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Syria and Turkey. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Yemen. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zehra Doğan, Yemen. Photo courtesy of the artist.


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