The best rock shows are often the ones where you feel like something dangerous could happen at any moment — whether it’s the singer plunging headlong into the crowd or a scuffle breaking out between security and overzealous moshers. The air of menace can help make a show that much more exciting.
But what if the very act of stepping to the mic means taking your life in your hands?
That’s how Iranian rockers Hypernova feel every time they plug in for a gig in their native country, where cultural repression is a daily reality and rock concerts are forbidden.
“It’s really dangerous to do what we do back home,” singer/guitarist “King” Raam, 25, told MTV News during the group’s first-ever trip to the U.S. “We’ve come really close to [having our shows raided by police] a couple times. Every show we play we’re putting our lives on the line. So it’s intense, but that sort of fear adds to the rush.”
The band — which also includes guitarist Kodi, 17, drummer Kami, 25 and bassist Jamshid, 26 — recently made their club debut in New York, after the group missed its scheduled appearance at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, last month. At the time, Raam explained via e-mail that the band was forced to cool their heels on a beach in Dubai because they couldn’t get visas to fly to the U.S. — an unfortunate byproduct of the political tensions between his homeland and the United States.
But inside Iran, where more than half the population is under the age of 30, bands like Hypernova are struggling to find a way to live the rock and roll dream in a country with no official rock clubs and a new ban on high-speed Internet connections (which makes posting music and surfing other bands’ sites difficult at best). It’s the kind of place where Western culture can be sampled on satellite TV — but a T.I. or Fall Out Boy fan has to go to an underground store or an illicit street vendor to get their hands on a Western CD, since most legitimate music stores don’t stock anything beyond bland pop offerings. And even if they do, it’s typically a bootlegged version.
Since December 2005, when ultraconservative Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad banned all Western music from state-run radio stations, playing a rock show in Tehran has become illegal, punishable by hefty fines, arrest or public flogging by police. But Raam said the adrenaline rush of performing and finding fellow music fanatics makes it all worthwhile.
“We play at, like, house parties or underground venues or places out of town,” explained Raam, who was born in Iran but spent time in his youth living in Oregon. “The young kids, they want to have fun. They don’t want to get political. They don’t want to step on anyone’s values or disrespect anyone’s beliefs.”
With a sound that owes a heavy debt to the downtown New York scene and the spiky rock of bands like the Strokes, it’s hard to tell that songs like the gritty, distorted “Consequence” or the bouncy new-wave anthem of defiance “No One” are from an Iranian band, let alone one whose members must use onstage pseudonyms to avoid being hassled by police.
On the band’s MySpace page, Hypernova defiantly proclaims, “Iran? Sand? Camels? Oil? Rock?!?!? Exactly!!”
Which is sort of the whole point, according to Raam. “The message that we’re bringing is that rock and roll has no boundaries,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from New York, from Europe, from Africa. It doesn’t matter where you’re from as long as you enjoy one common thing: music. For us, we’re just a bunch of crazy kids playing in the undergrounds of Iran, in cockroach-infested basements. We grew up listening to all this rock and roll.”
Among the musical influences he cited were everyone from the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys to Kings of Leon, the Ramones and NOFX. And, as harsh as his homeland sounds, Raam said things aren’t that bad. Given Iran’s other worries — from ongoing tension with the United States to its recent stand-off with Britain (see “Iran To Free British Sailors” ) — government officials probably have more pressing priorities than busting musicians, which is one reason why an underground music scene has flourished in the country, embracing everything from rock to hip-hip.
“Hip-hop is huge right now,” Raam said. “Progressive rock is still happening, there’s lots of metal. Almost anything you can hear in the States you could find as equally good in Iran.” Bands are putting out underground records and the Tehran Avenue Music Open competition has blossomed into a countrywide, Web-based demo derby where fans vote on their favorite groups.
The title of Hypernova’s new EP says it all: Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran?
Though he wouldn’t mind playing for 100,000 people some day, Raam knows that’s a distant dream if he continues living in the country he loves. For now, then, he’s content to have shown the world that the universal language of music trumps doom-laden headlines and presidential posturing.
“A lot of people think we have some ultimate goal of great success,” he said. “We’re just happy we made it this far. We already have a cool story to tell our kids one day: ‘Yeah, we went to New York, your dad’s a rock star!’ At least I wanna be one, you know? Whatever happens from here, it’s all good.”