Exile is synonymous with silence, with voicelessness and isolation. Those who are forced from their homes are also forced from their communities and rituals, their agency over themselves. Despite its hollow promise of digital utopia—the democratisation of ideas, the celebration of otherness—exile and displacement remain ever-present phenomena in our dysphoric 21st century. The crude, uneven structures of geopolitics—of borders, barriers, binaries—remain a pertinent reality throughout the world despite globalisation. More people than ever are finding themselves forced into the voiceless in-betweens of statelessness, of cultural erasure.
Yet through music, artists can articulate this displacement on their own terms. Music provides an escape from the restrictive, black-and-white dichotomy of “otherness” versus “assimilation” so often forced upon marginalized communities. Making music from exile means mourning lost experiences, celebrating difference and alleging common unity, which allows access to the wider permutations of global culture and repairs fractured contours of collective memory. Music offers a utopian space to preserve identities, to push back against the forces of erasure and dislocation. This produces new perspectives that reconstitute electronic music culture in unexpected ways.
MC Tardast was active in Tehran’s hip-hop scene for many years despite the theocratic regime’s zero-tolerance policy against underground culture. “We obviously had a tough time since the 1979 revolution and in the following years during the Cultural Revolution in the 80s which changed the whole art and lecture scene. We have a powerful poetry background in Iran and it used to have big impacts on our socio-political movements, so as a result we know how authorities create limitations to re-shape the scenes purposefully,” explains Tardast. Internet access remains heavily restricted throughout the country, with sites like YouTube, Bandcamp and Soundcloud inaccessible without multiple VPNs. “As the government was banning rap music, live performances and gatherings since day one, we always had to stay lowkey with it whether in the streets or studios.”
He eventually fled Iran as a refugee in 2014. Despite progress towards easing economic sanctions and “normalising” relations with the West, freedom of expression remained severely curtailed under the current regime. That year, six Iranians had received suspended sentences of imprisonment with 91 lashes for appearing in a video dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
After a gruelling two months in Europe, Tardast was granted asylum in the UK: “We had to stay in south France motels with ten other immigrants in one room sometimes … Due to constant stories of arrest and failed attempts to pass the border with transit trucks, those two months seemed like two years for me. Every day was a different story. I arrived in the UK and I couldn’t even walk properly when I jumped off the zero-degree Tesco refrigerator truck that I was hiding inside for about eleven hours.” The displacement and statelessness that he experienced over this period left an impression on him: “I used to give funny names to police officers each time they were arresting us in Europe with no ID, as I wasn’t identifiable by a passport anymore! That’s where my famous nickname ‘Bikeshvar’ came from! It means someone with no country.”
Resettling in Birmingham was a daunting task. “I restarted from zero and it was like learning how to walk all over again!” Assimilating into UK culture quickly brought him into contact with grime. Owing to Western sanctions and the regime’s stranglehold on media consumption throughout the country, the UK and its cultural exports remain largely off limits for most Iranian citizens. Grime—perhaps the biggest success story of British underground music since the turn of the millennium—remains largely unknown in Iran. Tardast himself had never heard a grime tune until 2010: “Dizzee Rascal was the first grime MC I got to know, and that was only because he had a tune released with Shakira—’Loca’. What an embarrassing way to bump into this legend!” Despite the recent emergence of trap and drill in Iran, he is sure that most Iranians have yet to hear their first grime track: “Funny how our scene works contrariwise, and grime will probably get there after drill and trap.”
Tardast’s first two years in Birmingham introduced him to it before he even knew what the genre was called, listening to tunes at the back of the bus to college with other refugee kids. “My head was filling up with new sounds and I was slowly realizing the differences as I also was learning how to survive in Birmingham! I lived in 0121 for about three years and I was constantly listening to grime tunes but never knew many artists or what the genre was called. It was all like I was living inside my own world at that time, and language barriers didn’t allow me to learn or understand the bars either!”
He then made the style his own, spitting bars in his native Farsi: “Obviously grime assimilated me to its various styles and sounds which was shaping my character but I was also adding my own elements to it. Grime took me back to my original street culture and made me speak like how I used to speak in Jeyhoon, in the end I had been growing in South Tehran. I could see how 140bpm were changing my style at the time and it was quite exciting to see these two separate characters of me mixing.” After rapping over JME ft. Giggs’ “Man Don’t Care,” he remembers hearing this sentence for the first time: “Bro, I don’t understand what you’re talking about but it’s hard!”
In 2016, he released an EP. Drawing from his earlier hip-hop influences, which lyrically belonged “to the early time of my immigration, and thoughts and impressions on identity issues and the displacement we all had to face, from the migrant to the smuggler.” He named the EP Bikeshvar — “Stateless.”
Farsi grime became his trademark from that point onwards. “Just like when I was listening to English rap songs, there was no lyrical understanding but the flows were touching my ears.” Two years after arriving in the UK, he met fellow Iranian MC Gomnam (also known as Farhood) and moved to Liverpool, where the two founded a collective—Manteq, or ’Logic.’ Gomnam’s 2016 TikeTike EP was billed as the first Farsi Grime album, mapping an intricate Farsi flow onto some impressively innovative beat science from Liverpudlian PAN-affiliate Ling. The album represented an exciting cross-pollination of styles. With its undulating cadence, a Farsi flow perfectly complemented the bold, futuristic rhythms on the album. Reconstituting grime to fit a Farsi flow pushed it into exciting new places. This came naturally for a genre credited with fusing garage, dancehall, jungle and dub-influenced MCing into a successor to UK hip-hop, distinctly suited for inner city British accents rather than American ones. “I remember that I used to find it hard writing bars on 140 beats in early days. I’d say the whole UK Grime scene inspired me along the way! We never forced ourselves to write in certain ways, we just developed our technique and made our own structures.”
The collective grew into a community of like-minded artists, using Farsi grime to articulate their lived experiences. “This was our aim when we started, to build a more diverse, stronger community and a future platform full of people with contrary opinions speaking their mind to each other. Our Liverpool Manteq family helped us a lot to confront this displacement feeling—it introduced us to some great local artists and sparked many big projects in the first place! It wasn’t possible to grow this fast without them. We lived together and shared many big moments.”
Manteq took Farsi grime from Liverpool to the world, performing the TikeTike EP in Moscow and giving a number of performances at MIA Meltdown Festival 2017 in Southbank while supporting collectives and artists like 47Soul, Algiers and Godcolony, Dean Blunt and Lowkey on tour, in addition to playing multiple sets on NTS and the local radio Melodic Distraction. Tardast also began to look back to Iran again: “I was feeling a bit secluded in my first years as we were only working with UK based artists and it was a major thing to catch up around here but once I moved to Liverpool things started to change. I started to be virtually active on online rooms like Discord and made strong links with many Iranian artists in Iran and elsewhere—it was like I was born again in our music scene after spending a pretty long-time schooling myself in the UK scene.” Tardast hopes that Farsi grime will strengthen Iran’s links with the wider international scene. “From my experience, whoever’s got love for the genre would also love to see its growth; the UK scene is always supportive of new scenes, who are inventing their own style of grime. We have multiple examples such as Australian or Japanese grime and they have been doing well for years now; Farsi grime has been the same in the past five years and we got some impressive support from UK artists.”
A second EP— Marwa—was released last year on Circadian Rhythms, deepening the narrative potential of Farsi grime by taking its signature introspection in more complex directions. “Unlike Gomnam’s EP, Marwa contains more details and cohesive stories with a sense of nostalgia, where the narrator and main character meet each other in the past and realise that they are both one person in different time zones.” Forging a dialogue with a past self, Marwa reforges a severed connection with home: “I spent about a year analysing my past self and tried to remember as much as I could. It was literally like remaking important images of the past so I could have a new look at them and realise what things made me into who I am now. I was always into the idea that we can reflect on each other’s lives and see ourselves in one other’s mirror.” Physical copies of the EP came with a printed English translation of the lyrics, the first time that Tardast had translated his lyrics. “It was probably the first strong attempt to bridge the scenes to each other.”
Despite the success of both Manteq albums, Tardast’s career and personal life still suffered from the cruel strictures of geopolitics. The 2019-2020 protests in Iran as well as the Iranian security forces’ destruction of a civilian airliner, had him frantically scrolling through news sites, fearing a war between Iran and the United States or Israel. Around that time, after several rejected claims for asylum, his friend Milad—who had dreamt of becoming a DJ and a producer—tragically committed suicide. “I went into isolation and tried to avoid people for a while. Until Kepla mentioned me under Loraine James’s invitation tweet for her album NOTHING and once she sent me the beat I noticed what I wanted to do over her track. The beat atmosphere was as dark as those days and as a result I wrote “Marg” (death), offloading my hopelessness through my bars. I felt like I had Milad’s unattainable dreams on my shoulders and needed to dedicate a piece to him. He was always speaking to me about how much he wanted to be a DJ and electronic producer but the circumstances weren’t too kind to him. He might have never become a musician but I’m sure I’ve made him proud with that release.” The Loraine James collaboration brims with the paranoid urgency of an unjust, unsung experience. In the throes of systemic injustice, Tardast’s music became a means of pushing back: “I was feeling worthless as there was no one to remind me how precious my journey was. That release made my vision clear about how much the UK electronic scene appreciates my work and the fact that I had more stories to tell before the end.”
Being “Bikeshvar” led Tardast to come up with Farsi grime, empowering exiled voices, allowing artists to negotiate the ruptured, fluctuating contours of a displaced identity. Yet there are still more stories to tell. Just as the anti-colonialist thinker Franz Fanon railed against the mistaken worldview “that consists in believing that the world will open up as borders are broken down,” there are still considerable obstacles to overcome in our supposedly open, globalised world. Connecting Iran to the wider underground scene via Farsi grime will be a gradual, uncertain process. Years of economic sanctions and state repression have made it difficult for new styles to emerge. International bank transactions are frozen under current sanctions, and record stores are largely unable to open, leaving little room for the emergence of diverse nightlife.
Nonetheless, Tardast still has hope for the future of Iranian underground music. Expanding internet access and greater cooperation between the government and international promoters has brought change, and Iranian artists are increasingly looking outwards for inspiration: “I see a big, big potential in the Middle East rap scene—we have thousands of untold stories and truths to mark. Youths are suffering mandatory censorship and have been held silent over the years, but not anymore! The modern world won’t ignore us and I want to see the day that we all can return from exile and be able to do shows around our countries and build the industry with our own hands.”
The next Manteq project draws on this faith in the future of the middle eastern underground: “We are currently working on Leave to Remain LP and Bikeshvar Vol. 2 with a wide range of MCs and producers from different parts of Iran, Liverpool, Manchester, Toronto, LA and London. This might be the most diverse project we’ve done so far but it is only the start! We are aiming to make this circle bigger and involve more regions and cultures into our work; we deserve to be heard on global stages in future. Honestly, that’s one of my biggest hopes; Iran has a respectable underground music scene which deserves more liberty after almost twenty years of forbiddance. We are also aiming to launch our Manteq online radio for 2022 which will open new possibilities for a wider range of artists and audiences, and will help diverse platforms stream rap music, reviews, interviews, and podcasts in multiple languages.”
The global stage awaits despite some lingering reservations from the Iranian scene. “I used to receive messages from audiences who were claiming that I am doing it wrong, that I don’t have flow or they want me to be like 2016 again. Well I used to waste my time and explain to each of them that I was doing something new at the time which will become big in a couple years, and it’s a new genre! But as Skepta said once, ‘you don’t want them to know how the fuck you’re doing it, until they spot the greatness’.”