Artists’ Rights Groups Urge Grammy Consideration for Dissident Iranian Composer

Three Norway-based artists’ rights groups have written Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. to request that the organization’s members consider the dangerous conditions under which dissident Iranian composer Mehdi Rajabian created his latest album, It Arrives, and the communications lockdown that has prevented him from promoting it in the lead-up to Grammy voting, which begins on Thursday (Oct. 13).

The letter to Mason, dated Oct. 10, was signed by Sverre Pedersen, the chair of Freemuse, a non-governmental organization that documents abuses of artistic freedom internationally and serves as a consultant to the United Nations; Han Ole Rian, president of CREO, Norway’s largest union for arts and culture; and Jan Lothe Eriksen, general manager of Safemuse, which provides safe havens and residencies for persecuted and endangered artists. The letter asks that as Grammy voters judge the merit of It Arrives, which Rajabian submitted for consideration in the new age, ambient and chant Grammy category, “We would like to underscore the very special situation this album was created under, with the producer and composer, Mehdi Rajabian, being isolated inside a totalitarian state, and musicians collaborating on the record over the Internet despite the very difficult working conditions.”

A number of Grammy-recognized musicians who appeared on the album, including singer Priya Darshini and violinist Curtis Stewart, conductor Amy Anderssen, who released It Arrives on her Higher Purpose Music label, and artistic freedom experts, such as Index on Censorship CEO Ruth Smeeth, added their signatures to letter as well. (See the letter in its entirety below.)

Pedersen, who says that Safemuse has been working with Rajabian since 2015 or 2016, explains that the composer is technically out on bail in Iran, and that “his parents house is covering for the bail.” If Rajabian were to leave Iran, he says, his parents would not only lose their home, “they would probably also be imprisoned.” As a result, Rajabian “is in limbo,” he adds. “He has to stay for the sake of his parents, and there is an active ban that he is not allowed to create or perform his music, even though he continues to do it.”

“There will need to be a change of regime for him to get out,” adds Safemuse’s Eriksen, who is also a musician. “That he actually managed to be creative and to work with people outside of Iran through the internet and come out with an album of that kind of quality – I am totally impressed.”

Mehdi Rajabian 'It Arrives' album cover
Mehdi Rajabian ‘It Arrives’

Rajabian, who was imprisoned twice in 2013 and 2015 for recording music and who suffered kidney damage due to torture and a 40-day hunger strike, according to Pedersen, released It Arrives, which was composed and recorded via the internet with an international group of Grammy-winning and nominated musicians, on Sept. 10. He gave an interview to Billboard earlier that month and created a “For Your Consideration” web page, but was unable to respond to interview requests and interest from other media outlets, including The New Yorker, NPR and The Washington Post as a result of the widespread protests in Iran that erupted after the country’s Islamic morality police, also known as the Guidance Patrol, killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing a hijab. In an attempt to quell the uprisings, Iran has blocked and filtered access to the internet and social media platforms. “Since advertising and important promotion-work have been obstructed during the period of voting and collecting votes for the album, we ask you to take these conditions into account in the assessment of Mehdi Rajabian’s album ‘It Arrives’ for the Grammy 2022,” the letter concludes.

While Grammy nominations won’t be announced until Nov. 15 and the awards won’t be handed out until Feb. 5, Pedersen says his cowriters and their organizations are hoping that Rajabian will be nominated and ultimately win the Grammy “because from our experience, when artist at risk in a totalitarian regime gets this kind of attention and awards, it’s, in a way, giving them better protection.” He adds that they also plan to reach out to record companies and musicians to spread the word about Rajabian and It Arrives: “We want to do what we can to improve his protection and reduce the risk of harassment and new imprisonment.” As the protests in Iran burn on, Pedersen says the morality police are targeting musicians and other artists because they are able to influence the masses. Based on his minimal communications with Rajabian, he says, “This is creating in him quite a lot of fear.”

In late September, Iranian songwriter Shervin Hajipour was arrested and later released on bail after his protest song about Amini, “Baraye,” went viral. According to a report in Variety, 95,000 fans of the song have submitted it for consideration for the “song for social change” special-merit award that will be introduced at the 2023 Grammys ceremony. (A “blue-ribbon committee” will choose the winner.)

In response to the letter sent by Pedersen, Rian and Eriksen, Recording Academy CEO Mason, who engineered and mastered Rajabian’s 2021 album, Coup of Gods, issued the following statement: “Our voters are instructed to evaluate music on its merits, period. No entry should be disadvantaged by an artist’s inability to draw attention to it.”

“Mehdi is a very strong and brave human rights defender,” says Pedersen. “He’s also quite an interesting musician in the way that he has been cooperating with musicians around the globe for years to come up with quite unique music pieces.”

Eriksen encourages artists who do enjoy artistic freedom to consider adding their voices in support of those who don’t. “In addition to Mehdi and other artists inside Iran, Afghanistan is a total disaster as well,” he says. “Still, people there are working as artists. It’s so important that artists who do have freedom of expression are aware that we have colleagues who are not in that position. This is a plea: be aware of this, and if you have any possibility to stand up or support, do so.”

Chris Eggertsen