"American Rap Has Lost Its Message"
Whether he means to dominate lightweight flyboys and grimacing pranksters or not, when YAS speaks, the current American hip hop landscape looks awfully shallow. How could it not? YAS, real name Yaser Bakhtiari, is a meticulously articulated social conscience in modern Iran. In country with a long history of erudite poetry, hip hop was seen as doggerel, a corrupting mongrel influence, and worse. YAS became a one-man force to liberate the country of its stringent censorship laws through sheer perseverance and to win people to the cause with lyrical skill.
A few years ago, in an unprecedented move, Iranian goverment granted YAS permission to release several of his songs to the general public. With songs about drugs, poverty, and war, YAS sings of social ills, but ends with a note of hope.
MTV Iggy couldn’t reach YAS after his landslide Artist of the Week victory, but we found him eventually. And here, in one of his first interviews outside Iran, he talks about his reciprocal bond with his fans, the cross-cultural potential of a collaboration with Eminem, and why music should be for more than just listening.
What do you think it is about your music that resonates with your fans?
First of all I would like to thank you for inviting me to this interview. To answer your question, the relationship that I have with my fans is a very close one. I have been very fortunate. I really feel that I am nothing without the support of my fans.
In a way I can’t call them fans. I say they are my co-sympathizers because many of our people have felt the pain and have fought with each and every challenge that I sing about.
It’s this association that they relate to, and could be the reason why they took the poll and voted for me the way they did. Their support is a real honor for me and I really hope that I continue to measure up to their expectations.
You cite Rumi and Tupac as major influences on your music. Who else influences and/or inspires you?
Of course Rumi’s words and poetry were a great inspiration to me, but also I should mention the work of Dr. Ellahi Ghomeyshi. Most of Iranians are familiar with him, and he got me even more interested in Rumi’s poetry. Dr. Ghomeyshi analyzes Molana Rumi’s poetry to reveal the true meaning behind the words – it was how I really understood the depth of Rumi’s work.
Another reason why I respect Rumi so much is that he never restricted himself within any border and saw himself as someone who belonged to the world. Now throughout the world he is known as a great Iranian poet.
Tupac was also another influence — his energy got me singing Persian rap. And of course throughout my life many people have influenced me and my work, and I try to take the best lessons from each and everyone one of them,
What kind of music do you listen to these days?
When I am alone I usually listen to calm and relaxing music. I sing loud and strong in my own music, so I get tired of listening to music that has too much noise and shouting. [laughs]
But these days I have been listening a lot to the voice of Homayoun Shajarian (the son of the musical master Mohammad Reza Shajarian). Of course, at other times I listen to rap music, both Persian and American, although I feel that recently American rap has lost its message a bit and doesn’t have the same strength as it once used to. I hope this changes again.
Who are your favorite hip hop artists?
There are great hip hop artists inside Iran right now and I have a lot of respect for them –friends like Reza Pishro and Bahram, and some great upcoming new talent. In American hip hop Tupac has his own place in my heart, but in today’s music I really like and respect the work of artists such as Eminem, Common, Immortal Technique, and Chuck D of Public Enemy, to name a few.
Of course we can’t forget the producers who give the energy and the sounds that helps elevate words to a new place.
How would you describe Persian hip hop and its scene in your country?
Well, you know that hip hop first emerged in New York in places like the Bronx and Brooklyn — and it became a way for the black community to express the inequities they faced in US society.
The sound of the oppressed in any part of the world has its own color and form. We in Iran have issues that may even be shared with other countries, but I try to deal with those issues relevant to us. Real rap music talks about our social pains and concerns…because we talk about the reality of our society, it has an audience.
Maybe Persian rap is new compared to the longevity of the genre in the US or other countries, but it has grown tremendously fast. Within the next few years rap and hip hop music will hold a permanent place as a music force in Iran.
We know that the hip hop you listened to growing up inspired you to become a rapper, but what did you want to be before then?
One of the most profound moments in my life was my father’s death about ten years ago. I lost my biggest supporter and it was one of the saddest and lowest points of my life.
Even before his death, I had a really difficult and challenging life. Really tough times. I can easily say that I have enough stories for over a hundred albums. At one time I began to work in my uncle’s import and export business. It’s likely that would have continued to stay in that business if I was not into music. I am really happy that I was able to grow and become a success in the industry doing the kind of work that I love.