“Another Face of Censorship” by Salome MC
Let me start by getting something out of the way: when an Iranian artist seeks to make use of the distribution channels controlled by the state, it is a fair assumption that they will be subjected to censorship. The government has a powerful grip on various segments of life of an Iranian citizen, which becomes tighter in larger cities like Tehran, and is felt even more intensely by those whose activities are in the fields of art or media.
There’s much to say on this topic, and fortunately there are a good number of Iranian activists working hard to pave the way for freedom of speech and other basic human rights. But this essay is not about the censorship that is imposed upon us by the Iranian government.
The truth is, as an underground musician who simply refrained from allowing the state apparatus to enjoy control over my art, I never felt particularly burdened by censorship in Iran. It’s true that I could not perform in live shows and such; but our generation born in ‘80s is somewhat a content people, maybe because we experienced the Iran-Iraq war as toddlers, and grew up in the aftermath.
My connection with music began in my little windowless room, while listening to copies of copies (of copies, and so on) of tapes. Perhaps that’s why when the studios in Tehran were banned from recording rap music, I turned to my bedroom again and built a minimal studio in the corner. It was so compatible with my personality – to make music nestled between the walls whose every crack and stain were known to me – that despite not living in Iran anymore, I am a bedroom producer still, and I always will be. Maybe I should even thank everyone involved in the Ministry of Culture for closing down some options, forcing me to find my own path to creativity and self-discovery.
Now here I have to point this out real quick: the censorship that I impose upon myself for the sake of my family, friends, acquaintances and audience, has always had a more important role in my artistic life than state-imposed censorship. I have been thinking about self-censorship a lot since becoming independent from my family; considering the fact that this type of censorship is an opt-in decision that I make, where does my authority end and the dominance of others begin?
Let’s assume that someone prioritizes their parents’ peace of mind over their creative satisfaction. Is it free will, refraining to express some concepts because of this specific value judgment? But then, what if this characteristic feature – putting the satisfaction of certain people ahead of one’s own – is the direct result of upbringing in a patriarchic society? Then what? The abundance of vicious cycles such as these makes it fairly clear to me that there is no complete objective freedom unhindered by social pressure. These are my favorite subjects to ponder when I am in a bus or waiting for a doctor’s appointment, but this essay is also not going to be about the censorship that is imposed upon us by ourselves.
I’d like to talk about a third type of censorship that I’ve been subjected to since the beginning of my creative journey.
It was 2001, when I started writing a blog about rap and Hip-Hop. This blog laid the foundation for my entrance into the Iranian Hip-Hop scene, which neither had a name nor definition at the time.
It was also in 2001 when I first started hearing the phrases “World Trade Center”, “Al-Qaidah”, “Bin Laden” and “War on Terror”. It was the year that the Western media turned their attention towards Middle East, whose representation until 9/11 had remained unchanged for two centuries: vast endless deserts, ornate tents, sultans, decorated camels, magic carpets, mysterious veiled women, One Thousand and One Nights…
Of course in the wake of 9/11, a climate of fear and Islamophobia erased the exotic aspects of this imagery. The aspects which could imply inferiority of Middle Eastern culture compared to progressive Western civilization were emphasized: cold and unforgiving deserts, turban wearing savage men, black-clad women with no rights or choices of their own, children who can’t go to school and are forced to marry… The Western view of the Middle East became changed very fast from the exotic stereotypes of Disney’s Aladdin only 10 years prior.
The international media perpetuated these new stereotypes with reductive or exaggerated reports. A neo-orientalist view was born in this atmosphere of fear and tension in which the mosaic of the Middle East was presented as one single wilderness. It was in this context of the dehumanization of the peoples of the Middle East that American politicians were able to gain support for two costly wars. And somehow this perception has managed to survive to this day – in the age of the internet and information technology – the casualties of one war after another, air strikes and unmanned drones all still justified on the same myopic view of the world.
Meanwhile, other new storytelling opportunities emerged: the carefully selected tales of those who rise heroically to challenge the repression of their leaders; those who fight for their human rights – rights that seemingly existed in the Western societies inherently. This narrative became a type of a supremacy-porno for the Western consumer and it wasn’t long before I became one of the many subjects of this trend, under the rather appealing title of “First Female Rapper of Iran”.
However, it eventually became obvious that only a fraction of my story, the part that parallels the media’s interests, is worth telling. Whatever I say or do that doesn’t fit into the pre-established story will be omitted and ignored. Much to my dismay, I realized that my media value closely correlates with my gender and nationality. Anything that could portray me as something more than an oppressed Iranian women, any attempt to represent how I perceive myself first and mainly – a human and a citizen of the world – would never make it to the final cut.
I’ve experienced this type of censorship so many times that it is as predictable as the Iranian government’s censorship. It has become habitual for me now to refuse interview requests that are aiming for the same old cliché portrayal: a repressed woman who stands against the medieval, savage, anti-women system so that she can elevate her living conditions to the progressive Western standards. Of course my refusal means little to nothing, since I am just one among thousands. Once they realize that I do no see myself as a victim, they lose interest quickly and direct their attention to someone else who doesn’t have a problem portraying a victim and feeding into their story.
For me, the most interesting part of it all is that while this kind of reporting claims to be aiming to “empower” their subjects, all they manage to accomplish is to reduce their subjects to one-dimensional objects – victims of the reporters’ pre-established villains. They opportunistically cut their subjects down to fit into the frame that was long set in stone.
But wait, aren’t the oppressive regimes that have “victimized” us trying to do something similar? As censorship goes, I don’t really see much of a difference, and to be honest, this type of censorship agitates me more than the state-sponsored censorship in today’s Iran.