Female Executives of Iranian Descent Making Impact in Music Industry
It has been three months since protests broke out in Iran against the country’s Islamic regime. This resistance movement was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the government’s morality police. While the movement is credited as women-led, men have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their Iranian sisters in this resistance, at the risk of their lives.
Even after 43 years of oppression, the pushback from the people of Iran continues, including from Iranian artists, both in Iran and abroad. Iranian musicians have been expressing their discontent with Iran’s regime for some time. Last year, “HOMANITY,” a compilation album featuring prominent Iranian musicians, was released to raise awareness about the censorship and persecution of artists in Iran.
At the time of Amini’s murder, Shervin Hajipour’s protest song made of tweets, which is a contender for the Grammys’ song for social change, resulted in his being imprisoned (Hajipour is currently awaiting trial). Similarly, rapper Toomaj Salehi, whose song “Meydoone Jang” — or “Battlefield” — made Variety‘s list of “15 Essential Iranian Protest Songs in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s Death,” was arrested and could face the death penalty for his statements against the government. They are just two of many Iranian artists who are being targeted by the Islamic government.
For the Iranian diaspora, the uprisings in Iran have generated a myriad of emotions from triggered trauma to heartbreak to despair to hope. The music industry has not been as vocal about the situation in Iran as it has been about racial and gender issues or even the war in Ukraine. There are a number of Iranians in powerful executive positions, many of them women, who are speaking out about what is happening in Iran.
Three of these leaders — Rebecca Sahim, head of publishing, film and television at SalXCo, Izabelle Pourreza Wilson, co-founder of ARTium Recordings, and Debra Delshad (pictured), senior director of licensing at Angry Mob — join Variety in a roundtable about Iran. They share their thoughts and experiences about the country and its people, as well as provide direction on how to support Iranian people during this pivotal moment in time.
Note: The words “Iran” and Persia,” “Iranian” and/or “Farsi” and “Persian” are used interchangeably.
Do you have memories of living in Iran? Were you exposed to Iranian culture and music?
Wilson: I was born in Iran. My family moved to Sweden when I was two-and-a-half years old. Without the revolution happening, my parents would never have moved to another country. I have some vague memories of singing Persian nursery rhymes with my mom and aunties, that is the only musical memory I have from my time in Iran. But I grew up with a lot of Persian music and going to Persian concerts in Sweden. My dad is also a gifted singer and would always sing Persian songs around the house. My entire childhood, my parents always spoke about Iran with such love and longing. They would always reminisce about their young days in Iran and painted it as this beautiful magical place that no longer exist. I have never been back to Iran. I never had the desire to visit. I always carried a lot of fear that somehow, I would make a simple mistake and get in trouble. A piece of hair showing is what killed Jina Mahsa Amini and that is so scary.
Delshad: I was not born in Iran, but my father, who was born in Shiraz [in the Southwest of Iran], often told me and my brother stories about growing up in Iran. Living as a Jew in Iran was difficult. He was often picked on for being Jewish and I remember him telling us he had received lashings from his teachers and forced to stand in a corner. He was very smart, so he often tutored the other students in school, which helped him. Mostly my dad taught us about the culture, the importance of family and how he and his brothers played music as “The Delshad Trio.” It was clear to me that the people of Iran had a rich culture, that family was the center of their lives, that there were different rules for men and women, that they loved their food, but that there was no escaping the government’s religious oppression.
Sahim: In the house, my mom played a lot of [Iranian musicians] Googoosh, Martik, Andy & Kourosh and Black Cats. She would also play her western favorites like ABBA, Boney M. and lots of Whitney Houston. Farsi was my first language and from a young age I’d try to unpack the poetry in Iranian music. The songs were so metaphorical and exaggerated, painting pictures in my mind. Juxtaposed against American pop music as a kid, the simpler records left me wanting more. It’s probably why I shifted towards bands like Queen at a young age.
I grew up in a family where music (Iranian and Western) was cherished. It was the centerpiece of our shabbats/dinners. My family would gather around the piano to hear my aunt’s rendition of [classic Iranian song] “Gole Sang” or a piano sonata from Mozart. If you were Iranian and didn’t have a piano in your home, it was borderline blasphemous. The piano got a lot of attention in the home. My dad and aunt were classically trained pianists at a young age. They both studied in London, experiencing the British Invasion in real time, like seeing the Beatles in 1963 at Royal Albert Hall. Definitely a music-rich family from both Iranian and Western sides.
My parents described Iran’s beauty in romantic detail, with a huge emphasis on nature, the outdoors and life’s simple pleasures. Tehran’s bustling metropolis against a majestic snowy mountain backdrop felt like a metaphor of Iran’s renaissance in the 1970s. Families gathering outside to enjoy meals or teatime together. Family dinner parties or “mehmoonies” were a weekly thing. The most delicious fruits and vegetables you’ve ever tasted. Growing businesses and modernization was everywhere. They recounted the country’s renaissance with the Shah was not short of its own flaws, but on the right path. The Westernization of the country almost felt like Iran’s return to glory days of Cyrus the Great.
After leaving Iran, my family clung tighter to their traditions and religious observations. My parents really tried to harmonize between their Iranian values and the Western culture that their daughters were embracing. Although we found happy mediums, it was definitely hard for all of us. I specifically noticed a lot of trauma in my father and the 25 years he spent mourning his old life in Iran. It made distrustful of government and lawmakers. My dad and I were always at odds politically but have finally found a common ground.
Did you ever feel that you had to separate your Iranian identity from your job in the music industry, to “whitewash” yourself, as it were?
Wilson: This question is so complicated, deep and really hard to give a proper answer to in short form. There are so many layers and dimensions to it. I always tell people I am Iranian who grew up in Sweden. If I say Iranian only, I don’t feel accurately represented. If I say Sweden alone, that also misrepresents who I am. My appearance has never passed as strictly “White” anywhere that I have been in the world. When it comes to getting jobs, I never had issues getting work due to my nationality specifically, but maybe had a small level of disadvantage in being an immigrant or non-White in Sweden.
Delshad: I have always been proud of my “mixed” Persian-Israeli background. It’s a big part of who and what I am. The only time I recall it being an issue was after 9/11, when anyone who looked remotely Middle Eastern was potentially a target. Otherwise, I’ve never had any issue with being Persian in Los Angeles, aka “Tehrangeles,” which has the largest Persian population outside of Iran.
What are your thoughts and feelings about the current situation in Iran, as well as the response from the Iranian diaspora? Did you ever think a pushback against the Islamic regime could be possible?
Delshad: Growing up I never thought that real change in Iran would happen in my lifetime. I remember that after the Berlin Wall fell, my dad saying “There’s only so much people can take.” Still, the regime in Iran seems immune to outside pressure and is willing to take whatever steps necessary to retain power. Every time there is a hint of civil resistance, and we get our hopes up a little, they squash it. I am extremely proud of the women and many others who are mounting this fight. I don’t think most Americans really can appreciate what it means to live under the Iranian regime and just how brave these people are to stand up to it. They are literally risking their lives to try to bring about change. It’s heartbreaking to read about those imprisoned, injured and even killed because they are fighting for a better life.
Wilson: I always knew it could be possible, just didn’t think it would ever happen in our lifetime. I feel hopeful and helpless all at the same time. Years ago, when in discussions about the Iranian regime, I used to reference China and say, “It’s as if the people of China would resist their government,” and I always saw that as the absolute impossible for a long time. Last week there was protests in China where they were calling out their government and some protesters were also declaring solidarity with Iran as well. The Iranian movement must have inspired some and that expanded the picture as revolution for one country might spark revolutions all over the world.
Sahim: The last few months I’ve been riddled with guilt for Iran. Feelings of sadness, helplessness and anger are common. I find comfort in amplifying the daily news out of Iran through my social platforms. Thankfully, this lion-hearted diaspora put enough pressure on their local government constituents to make it newsworthy. The people of Iran are desperate for a change, but the world powers don’t want Iran free. It doesn’t benefit them economically, nor have we seen stable resolutions from intervening in Iraq or Afghanistan. All the focus seems to be on Ukraine at the moment, although the Iranian cause would strike more chords with America.
What are your thoughts about the musical output of Iranian artists, not only at the present time, but over the last 10 years of so? Related to that, what are your thoughts about the way the Islamic regime is punishing outspoken Iranian music artists, in what seems like a warning to other Iranian artists?
Sahim: Music is the universal language of the world. With that said, if you didn’t understand the lyrics to Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye,” you could sense the pleading and desperation in his voice. His tone felt tired but hopeful, kind of how we all feel about Iran’s looming freedom from the current regime.
[Hajipour’s and Salehi’s] music is necessary. Their music personified the struggle of the people of Iran versus the Islamic regime. So much music has already been outlawed in Iran, but these songs turned embers into a wildfire and people connected to the cause worldwide. Music on social media is like bread for a sandwich. Their music framed so much footage coming out of Iran.
Humanizing Iranian struggle through music put a spotlight on the regime that they were not expecting. The regime didn’t like it and now they’re both in danger. Shervin’s been jailed, silenced and allegedly forced to post an apology video while the morality police sat in the back of the car during filming. No one has heard from him since. Toomaj is sadly facing the death penalty. This is the sad outcome of a country held hostage.
Wilson: The Islamic regime has always operated in a way of wanting to make examples of disobedient people. They are one of very few countries to have public executions, just like in the medieval days. The public executions are a way of scaring the people with the message: This will be you if you get out of line. [The regime] arresting impactful artist is a way of scaring other artists to keep quiet and even scaring people who support and admire the art. Their agenda is to keep everyone quiet and obedient. They are doing the same with protesters. Historically, music has always been incredibly impactful in bringing people together and spreading a message. The song “Baraye” is such a gift to us all and so important for the movement. I can only bow down to all artists who are brave enough to put their life on the line for their art and for their people. Iran has such incredible history of art and poetry, keeping that legacy alive is so important! We can’t let the regime get away with punishing innocent people.
Delshad: I am proud that some artists are helping to bring attention to the situation in Iran. Music and artists can play an important role in focusing attention on social change and even helping to achieve it, especially when it’s happening far across the globe. I am not surprised that the Iranian regime is punishing artists. The regime attacks everyone that threatens its power and artists are especially threatening because they often have a large and loyal audience.
What do you hope will be the outcome of the protests and how can people help the citizens of Iran in their quest for “Woman, Life, Freedom”?
Sahim: I hope these protests continue to alienate the Islamic republic of Iran. I hope Iran becomes a safe and stable place in the Middle East: for women, for business, for all religions and denominations while celebrating Iranian/Persian heritage. People need to keep making noise, giving Iran continued awareness through social media and most importantly, writing to their constituents in government and the United Nations.
Wilson: I hope and I pray that Iran can become a free country where each person can choose their way of life for themselves. Signing petitions, pressuring politicians internationally to come together and take action against Iran and holding the Iranian government accountable for the crimes they are committing every day against humanity, posting about this on socials, having conversations in our daily life with non-Iranians, coworkers and friends and spreading information about what is going on and encouraging people to keep the conversation alive are all ways that we all can participate. I am still in search for more ways to help and participate in what is a very important time in history. We are witnessing the revolution that we all have been wishing for inside Iran and all over the world.
Delshad: The protests have shed light on the situation in Iran and exposed it to a new generation. Every year it gets harder and harder for the regime to hide its brutality and I’m hopeful that this could be the spark that finally leads to real freedom in Iran.
Thank you for letting our voices be heard and for allowing us to share our experiences. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is making a difference.
My father use to sing and play on his Santur, a Persian folk song called “Zendegi,” which means life. I think about the song when I hear the protesters chant “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (woman, life, freedom) and I pray for a life of freedom for the women and all others in Iran.