Exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi's musical defiance

Persian hip hop artist and poet Shahin Najafi talks to CBC's Q from a hidden location, amid death threats over his satirical new song critical of Iran.

Artist faces death threats after release of controversial satirical song

Iranian rapper and poet Shahin Najafi, seen performing in Germany, has gone into hiding after receiving death threats since the release of a new satirical song critical of Iran. (Schahryar Ahadi/Najafi Management/Associated Press)

Already living in exile, Persian hip hop artist and poet Shahin Najafi is now also in hiding after receiving death threats over a satirical new song.

Based in Germany since 2005, the young Iranian rapper and poet released Naghi earlier this spring. The song, which he describes as a comic work, is written as a plea for a venerated historical imam to return and solve Iran's problems — which for Najafi range from "sanctions and the rising dollar" to nose jobs and prayer rugs made in China.

"When I look back to the previous year, the year 2011, I feel like it was a year filled with paradox and very funny, humorous contradictions," he told Q's Jian Ghomeshi in a recent telephone interview. "It morphed into Naghi to me."

Delivering pointed criticism of Iran in his provocative music, Najafi expects his work to inflame. Still, he was surprised that it was the satirical tune Naghi that sparked such strong reactions. After the song's release in May, Iranian clerics blasted him  as an apostate and declared a fatwa, or religious edict, against him for insulting Islam. A religious website put a $100,000 US bounty on his head and a video game in which players attempt to kill him began circulating online.

According to Najafi, who has alternately been dubbed the "Salman Rushdie of music" and the "Iranian Eminem," his intention with Naghi was not to insult, but to create discussion.

"Talking about something shouldn't be an insult," he said. And despite the danger he faces, he continues to feel that art, not politics, will inspire change in Iran.

"I truly believe that if there is ever a means for the world to change, it should happen through art and not through politics because I don’t really trust politics," he said.

"I do use art as a sledgehammer and sometimes, to me, art does have a destructive meaning. But I don't think this is in contrast with the definition of art at all. It's natural: when you have to make something, you have to break something else."