I’m sure we’re all tired of hearing the old debate over whether or not “hip hop is dead.” Is hip hop still relevant? Something happened in one of my public relations courses recently that made me think about Saye Sky, femcee from Iran who is truly inspiring.
A guest speaker in one of my classes brought up that RIM, while struggling with redefining its brand image, has started to use hip hop in its campaigns as a way to reconnect with youth. The presenter asked our class in a sardonic tone, “I mean, is hip hop even “IN” anymore?” This comment made me mad. I had to hold onto my chair to stop myself from tweeting something reckless. True, popular music goes through trends, and lately even Britney Spears is hopping on the dubstep band wagon, and R&B artists like Chris Brown are singing mostly over house beats. But hip hop is more than just a “trend” that can go in and out of style. After some thought, the comment just made me sad. Anyone with their ear to underground music would disagree that hip hop music is dead. It’s clear to me that it’s very much alive. To quote my good friend and fellow Bad Perm girl Renee, “hip hop is transcendent, like country, like rock, like classical.”
Word. But too often the mainstream media and large corporate marketing strategists want to use and abuse hip hop for financial gain, and strip it of its artistic value to the point that it is on its last breath.
Hip hop started out as a method of communication, a tool of change, and a type of activism. That’s why I love it. For those that have lost sight of this, perhaps you are not looking deep enough below the surface of top 40 fluff. Or maybe you need to check your corporate, North American pop culture perspective.
Thanks to the amazing Yes Yes Y’all DJ Duo,Cozmic Cat and Denise Benson, I got the chance to interview Saye Sky at a Toronto hip hop event. Saye Sky is a female emcee born in Iran that raps entirely in Farci. She raps about LBGQT rights, and as a result, cannot return home to her country. She has been calling Toronto home for a year now. After hearing her life story, I’m pretty sure she can explain why hip hop is not dead better than I ever could. She was worried that her English would be hard to follow since she just learned it, but what she had to say was deeper than anything I’ve ever heard. Here’s what she had to say:
Shannon: Tell me about yourself.
Saye Sky: “I’m Saye Sky, 22. I started my career about two to three years ago. Actually I just uploaded a song about LGBQT rights in Iran, while I was in Iran, and after that the government started following me everywhere and I had to leave the country because I’m the first person who sang about LGBQT in all history of Iran. When Ahmadinejad [The President of Iran] goes to the UN “we don’t have any gays in Iran” and I was watching this on TV with my girlfriend and like, wait a second…so who are you? [Laughs] So I decided to make a change and I’ve seen a lot of bad things happen for my friends. There’s no LGBQT rights in Iran so I don’t exist as a person. After that I left the country and went to Turkey. I was there for a year as a refugee. Now I’m a permanent resident in Canada.
Shannon: Welcome to Toronto! I’ve seen your videos on YouTube. How have you gone about promoting yourself?
Saye Sky: Actually the story is so funny. That time that I was in Iran, I had a girlfriend based in Vancouver… and when I made my first song in Iran…Youtube is banned, Facebook is banned. Everything is filtered. I made my song, I put it on a CD, I gave it to her and I said go and upload this. On Facebook, on YouTube, everywhere. Transfer this voice from this country. This is all you can do. It was like a movie. She was like, “What if they catch me? What if they look in my bag?” And I was like just do it. If you love me, if you believe in anything. Just do it. Because I see a lot of people around me, and I can’t handle this anymore. People are suffering. And she was like, okay, fine. I didn’t have any YouTube channel or Facebook, and I didn’t know it was gonna happen like that.
After she uploaded it she called me said “Oh my God.” And I said, “What!?” I couldn’t check YouTube! And she was like, radio [station] in the Netherlands wants to interview with you, and a magazine in Canada wants to interview you. And I’m like, what? Are you serious? Are you for real? Let’s do it. And we did it.
I’m famous in Iran. I’m famous in Turkey. In Europe. I’m gonna be famous in Canada too. [Laughs] Because, you know, this is what I can do. I cannot cook. But I can rap.
Shannon: Would you consider yourself an activist?
Saye Sky: Definitely. All of my songs are about LGBQT rights, women’s rights, human rights, children’s rights. I participated in a campaign last year for Homophobia Day. I made a video and I uploaded it on YouTube. You can see it; It’s so simple: Saye Sky – Homosexual. They showed it at the United Nations….
This is all I want to do. I don’t want to use the microphone just for fun. Everyone can say that. I know that we need those people to talk about that. We appreciate it. No discrimination. But I want to talk about this stuff.
Shannon: Who influences you?
Saye Sky: All I can say that a tear on a Persian woman can inspire me; that’s all. When a person cries and I know that it’s not because of happiness, it’s something big inside, that’s my music. I’m working on my first album right now. It’s just about people. Humans.
When I wrote that song, we were driving in Tehran. There was this little girl that I mention in my song. She was behind this bus warming up her hands from the engine of the bus. I just saw that and got off and said, what are you doing here? She said “I’m cold.” I started to cry a lot and I said have you eaten yet? No? She said, “My father forced me to do that. And they beat me a lot.” I was like, I’m gonna write a song about you. You’re not alone. You kids you’re not alone anywhere in the world. I think like that, see? That’s why you feel that emotion in my voice.
Shannon: What’s the hip-hop scene like in Iran?
Saye Sky: Hip hop music is underground music. Especially government… they don’t want us to sing especially hip hop and rap because in Iran it means, “different”. It’s not like here. It means freedom. We use those methods…hip hop and R&B and rap…to talk about issues. Every day they close somebody’s studio. I recorded my songs in Iran and I’m so proud of that, because it was so freaking hard. But I did it. I went to different studios. They were like, “No. You’re a woman. And you want to talk about LGBQT rights? Are you crazy?! C’mon. Get out.” It was so hard to get to that point even, because studios are underground. It’s not like a supermarket where you can see the logo. It’s like a house, you open the door, and it’s a studio. I finally found someone. He was like, “I’m gonna do that for you.” He charged me a lot. He was like, “Come after midnight, because I don’t want anyone to see you come to my studio. That’s a shame for me that you talk about those issues.” But ya…we have good rappers. Every time we hear in the news someone gets arrested…actually I wrote a song about that. I’m talking about some sort of government guard looking for artists to arrest. A woman cannot sing in Iran. That’s forbidden. A woman cannot rap in Iran. That’s forbidden. A woman cannot sing about LGBQT rights. That’s REALLY forbidden! That’s why I got a lot of attention after I uploaded my song. After my interview I got 3,000 emails, just from Iran.
I can’t go back to my country anymore. They would arrest me. They would put me in jail. After that, they would execute me, maybe stone me. My biggest wish is to perform in Iran one day for LGBQT people. That means my country is in freedom.
Shannon: What advice do you have to people who have experienced prejudice and felt like giving up and that they don’t belong anywhere. What advice would you tell them that has helped you keep on going?
Saye Sky: A lot of lesbians, in Iran for example, because of the nature of society, family, government, to just give up and end up being with a man. I talk to them. One of them, I wrote [a song] for one of my friends, who married a guy after her family found out she’s gay, they locked her in her room for months; almost a year. They said, “You have to marry this guy.” She didn’t have a choice, she was upset, and she said to me, “Every time he touches me I feel that somebody is raping me.” She tried to get her divorce but, in Iran because the government…the Islamic government… it’s not Islam…I don’t know what it is…they just made something out of something… they don’t let you just get divorced…if he’s a “good” man. We tried so hard. We know many people like that. Many gays. Many transsexuals. It’s so frustrating: you have nowhere to go.
My second song…Executing Rights…it’s about transsexuals. I went to this park where these people [transsexuals] go. I was sitting there for six days ‘cause I wanted to talk to them. Police came and said, “Why you are sitting here. Why are you here always?” I started to talk to them [transsexuals]. They thought I was the police. I said, “No listen to my first song. I wanna talk about your right.” They started bawling, crying. They think they have to kill themselves ‘cause there’s nowhere they can go. There’s nothing to do. There’s not an organization that they can go to like here in Toronto. No, there’s nothing. I said ok, I’m going to write this down and make a song for you. When I went to turkey, there was this transsexual woman. She saw me and said, “Are you Saye Sky?” and I said yes. She started crying..She said, “When I heard your song about us [transsexuals] I started crying because, you said every single thing that happened to me.” I just got goosebumps. And I said, “I hear you. You’re not alone.”
And now that im in Canada, I wanna do my best. I’m in freedom. Nobody can touch me. I wanna do everything I can for people that are suffering. I don’t wanna say Islam is so strict…some people say the way that they use Islam, it’s bad. It’s not Islam…it’s because they want their own benefit. So im using my power, everything that I have, just to make a change. Even so little in this world.
When I got a message from a poor, poor village from a mother, it said, “I saw your interview. I cried. And I feel that you could be my daughter. I hear you. I don’t understand about gays and lesbians. But I know that everyone has a right to live good.” And when I received that email, I knew, you cannot stop.
I’ve had a lot of problems. Running away from countries, hiding with my back pack. Now that im here, I’m not gonna stop.”
Saying that hip hop is dead is equivalent to saying that feminism isn’t relevant anymore, because women get to vote now. It’s an over simpification of a complex subject that is far more than a trend. Hip hop may not be your preference or pop culture’s latest fad, but don’t dispel an entire genre and culture because you’re uneducated about it. Is RIM genuinely interested in forming a real relationship between their company values and hip hop culture? That remains to be seen. But be careful about how you use your words. Instead of saying, “Hip hop isn’t “IN”,” the presenter could have said, “Some large corporations negatively affect the genre of hip hop by using it in an inauthentic way to support their capitalist goals.” Some classmates suggested that I might have taken the presenter’s comment more personally than she had intended it to be. But I strongly feel that REAL hip hop is still marginalized. REAL hip hop is still something worth fighting for. And in the words of Audre Lorde, “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in this painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences and who are our genuine enemies.
Anger is loaded with information and energy.” Too often we take for granted our freedom of speech. We can all learn a lesson from Saye Sky. Words are a powerful thing. Use them wisely.