Dissident Iranian Composer Mehdi Rajabian Receives United Nations Award

Dissident Iranian composer Mehdi Rajabian became the first musician to win the United Nations’ second annual International Art Contest for Minority Artists on Thursday (Nov. 2). The honor, which went to three artists working with “themes relating to intersectionality and compounded forms of discrimination,” according the global organization’s website, was presented to him in absentia because Rajabian, who has been jailed three times for his music, is unable to leave Iran.

“This is an important award,” Rajabian says of the recognition, but he adds, “Happiness is a collective event, and unfortunately no one is happy here [in Iran]. The situation has become completely different after the recent protests. No award can be a criterion for determining the artistic value of an artist, but it can definitely be a platform for the voice of human rights and freedom of art.

Rajabian, who collaborated virtually with 20 musicians — many of them Grammy winners and nominees — to record and release his symphony It Arrives in September 2022, was among approximately 80 artists from all continents who applied for the prize. He was ultimately chosen by a panel of judges that consisted of three minority artists, the director of the Geneva Museum of Ethnography and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights. The other two primary award winners were multidisciplinary visual artist Babatunde “Tribe” Akande and painter Bianca Batlle Nguema.

Claude Cahn, a U.N. human rights officer who works in the Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section says the judges were moved by Rajabian’s bravery, resilience and commitment. “In the views of the judges panel, at the risk of his health and own life, he has used his spirit and music to be a human rights light in the darkness,” he says.

Sverre Pedersen, the executive committee chair of Freemuse, a non-governmental organization that documents abuses of artistic freedom internationally, serves as a consultant to the United Nations, and is a partner in the contest, says, “It is a great pleasure that the jury chose Mehdi as one of this year’s laureates. And I strongly believe that he is a worthy winner. Mehdi is under constant surveillance and is often subjected to harassment and threats. Nevertheless, he continues his artistic work and his courageous human rights work.”

Pedersen shared a quote from the jury elaborating on its the reasons for choosing Rajabian as one of the laureates: “Mehdi embodies what many of us feel in the Persian and Arab world. A deep love of our cultures and people while wishing and knowing that our societies can be better. Banned from producing music after imprisonment and risking arrest at any moment, Mehdi moves through this potential by not giving into this threat, but rather valuing communicating his thoughts and giving voice to people through his music. Protesting a system of authority that violates human rights, he does so with eloquent melancholy and hope for a better world.

Rajabian also shared the statement he sent to the U.N. in his absence, which reads in part:

“Silence in the face of any oppression is definitely cooperation with the oppressor, and perseverance, standing, and independence should be our duty against cruelty, oppression, and violation of human rights; against any dictatorial system. Today, peace cannot be expected from sound and music when we still hear a mother’s cry because her child is to be executed. Today, it is not possible to have images of wide fields [of] green [on a] canvas, when a bullet has split a child’s chest and her red blood has painted the painting of freedom on the street floor. Today, a dancer’s dance cannot be enjoyed when a person is on the gallows for the death sentence and performs the last dance of his life. Today, we cannot expect to imagine a fictional horror novel when there is a real horror story of human rights violations in prisons.”

Rajabian was arrested in 2013, put in solitary confinement for three months, released on bail and arrested again in 2015 for recording an album titled The History of Iran Narrated By Setar (a lute-like instrument used in traditional Persian music).

After his 2015 conviction, he says he was moved to Evin prison in Tehran — where, in 2016, he began a 40-day hunger strike that led to his release on parole in 2017. (He says that his three-year prison sentence, which was suspended, could be enforced at any time.) Rajabian was arrested again in 2020 but not imprisoned because of his album Middle Eastern, which was released but was part of a larger performance art project that involved dance, painting and a book that were not realized. The charges levied against him then were that he was “encouraging prostitution,” he says, because female vocalists, who are banned in Iran, sang on the album.

The long-term effects of Rajabian’s imprisonment and hunger strike took a toll on his health. “My body and soul have been damaged,” he told Billboard in 2021 after the release of another symphony, Coup of Gods, which was engineered by Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. “I lost 15 kilograms of weight [33 pounds] and 40% of my vision and my joints swelled because of the hunger strike,” he explains. “I couldn’t even play an instrument on my album. I could only compose and arrange. I did it just to say that no power can stop the freedom of music.”

Rajabian says his father, who died earlier this year, would be very happy to hear his son had won the U.N. award: “My father was always by my side and supported me, he worked for my freedom for months and always gave me hope that it is difficult to achieve freedom, but it is certain. His last sentence an hour before his death was, ‘I hope we will live and see the day of freedom.’”

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