Oh night, oh darkness
Don’t try to scare me
I can see your end.
Gola did not mean to predict the eruption of her native country into protests, violence and death when she sang Haghameh (“It’s my right”) a few months before the brutal killing of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police in Tehran on Sept. 19. Today, this Iranian artist focuses on raising awareness about the ongoing deadly protests.
It’s my right to let my hair down in the wind
to go about my day without threats and abuse
Golazin, known by her stage name Gola, has been singing about the realities of life under a dictatorship—“poverty, gender inequality, government corruption and executions,” she told Ms.—for over a decade, and often under various stage names, so as not to jeopardize her chance of returning to Iran. (The regime does not tolerate criticism.)
Growing up in Isfahan, a conservative town where the beauty of thousands of years of art and history has not yet won over the rigidity of tradition and religion, Gola had to learn fast that being a woman, especially a woman musician, meant having fewer rights and opportunities than a man.
She began learning to play the piano at age 4, but she had to be careful about what she dreamed of becoming. Having open-minded parents, she could do whatever she liked, as long as it stayed at home—a lesson many Iranians learn as soon as they comprehend the line between private and public life. Even getting to the most prestigious music college in the country, Sooreh University, wasn’t much help for a young woman with talent and a good voice. An Iranian-interpreted law of Islam prohibits women’s voices from being heard publicly for fear of sexually arousing men—so her only option was to be a man’s backup or a choir singer.
At 22, she left Iran for London. There, she studied music psychology and continued to perform, still cautious, under a stage name.
“It was very tough,” Gola told me over the phone from her home on the West Coast. “Anything that I wanted to do, I had to think about the safety of my family first, their reputation, the message that I want to put in my music based on what I love, how I want to create the change. … For some videos that I worked with other singers, I had a mask on my face. I was in a free country, but I wasn’t free.”
Though the internalized censorship and fear run deep into the psyche of any artist growing up under theocracy, at some point, it reaches its limits. “Eventually, you get tired of being two people.”
Abandoning aliases and standing in front of the camera mask-less meant going into a self-imposed exile, but she did it. Being behind the shadow of someone else was exactly what she “was pushed to do in Iran.” She released “The Line” in 2018—her first track in English.
The events that sparked the recent unrest did not surprise her. “It wasn’t sudden, okay?”
I asked what it’s like for her to witness the deadly protests spearheaded by women in Iran. “We could easily predict it—not predict as they’re going to kill a woman and there will be an uprising, but the savage way the morality police is arresting girls and women and how the Islamic Republic is dealing with hijab” is nothing new for Iran, she said.
“At first, I was shocked because it was brutal. … It shouldn’t happen to any woman, not only in Iran but around the world.
“At the same time, unfortunately, her death sparked and woke up people who have been for a long time silenced. It was a George Floyd moment. It was an enough-is-enough moment. She was a normal girl. She could be anyone. She could be me. She could be you. She could be our sister. She could be our daughter or our mom. She was not doing anything wrong. Because I think she was a normal girl just living her life, it was very effective because even men realized this could be my sister. It could be someone from my family, and so, the movement that started first by women and girls was followed and supported by men … Anyone from any religion, anyone from any minority, Turks, people from the south.
“Now it didn’t matter because the government, for 40 years, tried to divide people so that they could run the country they wanted to, but now people were united. They only have one enemy, and that is the dictatorship, the supreme leader, the Islamic Regime that has been suppressing women, girls and men for years.”
Gola is in awe of this generation. They differ from hers, she said. Gola grew up hearing her parents talk about the good days of life with basic freedoms. But today’s protesters “don’t have anything to lose.”
“They know how it is to go to prison,” she continued. “They know how it is to be lashed for drinking alcohol. They know how it is to be hanged because of nothing because the government just sentences you to be executed without even being allowed to have a lawyer. They know sooner or later, it’s going to happen to them. So, they stand up and fight for change.”
At the same time, she knows there is no going back now. “At least 47 children have been killed—an average of one a day, okay? There is no way their families, their loved ones, and their friends are going back and sitting around … but my hope for Iran is to see a very liberated and secular country. I can see this movement going towards a very different secular country where we don’t lose our lives to religion anymore. I really believe in the Iran that we built together; this generation built together. Love really wins over religion or any other thing, and I really want to hope that Iran will be a country that will be respected and loved again.”
Gola’s hopes for her music are no longer personal. Her goal: to be the first Iranian who made it to “the international scene and sing in English,” so Iranian youth “can see that nothing is impossible. They can sing solo. They can shine, and their light to be seen, heard and respected.”
The Iranian resistance continues today—despite public executions, looming threats against protesters and hundreds of daily arrests, including raiding the homes of celebrities and intellectuals who publicly oppose the government. Gola wants to bring awareness to the plight of the protesters “because they really need solidarity and need their message to be heard correctly. They want to make sure that their voice is heard correctly. What Iranian people want is freedom and to get rid of dictatorship.”
She urges artists and brands, Iranian or not, to use their medium and platforms to let the world know what’s happening in Iran. “Please talk about it. Please stand by our side, and please be our voice because after this, after Iran is free, you will have millions more people who use your products.”
Gola’s music is primarily in Persian, but both her message and audience are global. “The primary job of music is to create emotion, right? Music can humanize the message. … Sadness is sadness, whether you’re African, Iranian, Afghan or American. Hope and happiness are international emotions, especially for those who don’t know Iranians, their poetry, music, we can get a glimpse of, you know, heart-to-heart communication through emotions.”
The growing movement in Iran has stunned everyone, from academics and political pundits to ordinary people—especially Iranian youth, who keep coming back to the streets despite the brutal suppression. Gola’s song, Betars az man (“Be afraid of me”), then, becomes a prophecy.
You boast about death and punishment
You boast about chains and bars
But your fear is to see the butterfly leaving the cocoon
Be afraid of me; I am that butterfly
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