How Good Is Arash’s Persian? The Politics of Language & Identity in Diaspora Iranian Pop Music

A guest post by Kamyar Jarahzadeh, a student at UC Berkeley focusing on migration and forced migration in Turkey and the Middle East.

Like the modern music of most cultures, a survey of the modern Iranian pop scene would produce a pretty standard variety of artists and genres. The Iranian music video (“Clip”) shows that broadcast on international satellite networks feature artists performing different styles of music that are found all over the globe: pop, electronic, hip-hop, and rock among others. What makes Iranian pop music different, however, are two main factors: the international nature of the Iranian diaspora, and the Iranian government’s complex relationship with pop music.

The result of these conditions creates a world of Iranian music where just as the styles differ, so do the origins of production of different musics. A music video show could broadcast videos from state-approved artists in Iran, alongside underground artists in Iran, and then follow those clips with music from Iranians producing music in America or Europe.

What results is a diverse world of Iranian music found both online and on satellite television that forces Iranians from all over to face each other and the musical products of their different environments. Although the language of the music is Persian, the styles, subject matter, and even fashion of Persian used can vary across these landscapes.

One of the most internationally known stars of Iranian pop music is Arash Labaf, or as he is known to his fans: Arash. Arash moved to Sweden at a young age and began his pop career in 2005; since then his music has found fans all over the world. This statement is not hyperbole—Arash’s songs do not just resonate with Iranians, but have also brought him to fame in Azerbaijan, India, and across Europe, among other regions of the world.

In 2009, Arash represented Azerbaijan in the Eurovision contest alongside Azerbaijani singer AySel, placing 3rd with the English-language duet “Always“.

In June of 2012, Arash was brought onto the Los Angeles-based Tapesh satellite TV channel. Tapesh, in some form or another, has been broadcasting from Los Angeles since 1989, offering a variety of programs created by Iranians in diaspora, yet seen by Americans all over the world. Arash and channel co-founder Alireza Amirghassemi sat down for an interview to discuss the singer’s body of work, his upcoming tour, and a few personal anecdotes. Arguably the most interesting moment of this mostly kitschy interview was Amirghassemi’s very forward statement regarding the improvements in the quality of Arash’s Persian language ability.

At one point, the interviewer essentially tells Arash that he’s delighted with how much Arash’s Persian has improved over the course of his career—a sentiment that seems somewhat pleasant, patronizing, and embarrassingly accurate all at the same time. This moment (not available on the internet, unfortunately) and the moments that follow are not just self-deprecating and candid—on another level, this short exchange serves as a fascinating example of the self-awareness that different but overlapping Iranian cultural spheres have developed.

To understand Amirghassemi’s comment, a quick comparison of Arash’s work is in order. Above, in one of his early songs (Tike Tike Kardi) Persian speakers can recognize an overall strangeness in the language. Arash lore circulating among fans claims that in his early years, he would stop his shows to remind the crowd that despite his style of music and accent, he is not “Hendi” (Indian), and to request that they please stop spreading that rumor. As his music shows, his accent is atypical of a native Persian speaker to say the least (he was raised in Sweden, after all), and some of his word and pronoun choice, although not egregiously wrong, is a bit unorthodox.

While Arash’s accent is not laughable or flagrantly foreign, his language is rife with subtle indications of limited exposure to the language. For example, the way he pronounces the Persian word for “mine” (mano) is pronounced as a long ah for the first syllable when really an open, fronted a is more appropriate. Compare that song with the more recent single “Broken Angel,” which, despite its English-language chorus, features a much more natural sounding command of the Persian language on Arash’s part and a more native accent. All the vowels are not only more correct, but, as proof, sound quite different from the previous song. (Warning for viewers, the video is a bit racy).

The differences, though subtle, are exceptionally important for an entertainer whose body of work is being produced primarily in his second language. This is not a performer who is adopting the pop formula of selectively recording foreign language material, or an American hip-hop artist appropriating some Spanish slang—Arash’s entire body of work and musical identity is mainly geared towards Persian speakers. The improvements Arash has made linguistically both in his music and personally is therefore fair game for Alireza Amirghassemi’s compliment in the interview, to which Arash responds with gratitude and an interesting anecdote.

Before explaining the following anecdote, it is important to stop here and understand just what is happening when a TV personality compliments a diaspora Persian singer on his respective command of the language. As social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has asserted, it is often more accurate to envision globalization as a trend that doesn’t homogenize the world, but instead heterogenizes it and creates new cultural spheres. What this asks analysts of world culture to do is to avoid the commonly held belief that as the world “shrinks” from globalization, all of its cultures will slowly come together and become more similar. Instead, we should keep our eyes open to ways in which new cultures develop and new mixes of people come together and interact.

In this framework, Arash represents a prominent symbol in the dynamics of a new cultural sphere. Namely, an ideoscape that links diaspora and native Iranians, while also facing the differences these populations face. Although Arash is a product of the diaspora—a cultural sphere significantly different from that of Iran itself—he creates music that appeals to the Iranian community inside and outside of Iran. Yet as the interview notes, his “otherness” to the Iranian community in Iran is inescapable—he, as his language clearly indicates, belongs to the diaspora.

Arash sang in support of  the Iranian National Team in the 2006 World Cup with lyrics like, “The origins of my ancestors are Aryan/ Cyrus the Great is the King” and inexplicably likening himself to an archer.

This otherness is a common theme in many diaspora experiences, where no matter what the immigrant does, they cannot assimilate into the home culture. Yet in this encounter there is also a reconciliation and synthesis between the two spheres. Arash’s improvement in Persian and Amirghassemi’s approval represents an interesting give and take between two different worlds of Iranian culture in which the otherness is verified, but not impetus for cultural ostracism. Arash, representing the new “international” Iranianness, is brought into the cultural fold alongside Amirghassemi, a TV personality who is quite literally the face of post-revolution Iranian-American immigrants.

Arash closes this part of the interview with an anecdote: when he was at the airport in Los Angeles after having entered America for a performance, he claims he ran into a young Iranian fan who expressed his excitement for the upcoming concert. Arash mimics the fan’s accent, which is a caricaturized version of “Los-Angeles Persian,” rife with mispronunciations and code-switching into English. This particular anglicized Persian accent is a point of mockery for Iranians, yet has also slowly crept into a place of prestige because it represents the cosmopolitan (and typically wealthy) Iranian-American who has the luxury of living abroad. Ultimately the punch line of the whole exchange comes when Arash asks the boy when he came to America. The young boy responds he was born in Iran, and had only been in America for one year.

This interview is by no means a watershed moment for the Iranian community in terms of reconciling ethnic and linguistic identity. In fact, most Iranians born outside of Iran probably still sound more like Arash in 2005 than Arash in 2012, and only infrequently face their differences with native-born Iranians head on. As time has gone on since the initial wave of Iranian immigration in the 1970s, concepts of Iranianness and diaspora have matured drastically. As little as twenty years ago, it would be easy to characterize Iranian culture and society as two nodes interacting with each other: Iran and the Iranian-American community, in which goings on in Iran were the core and the Iranian-American community was more of a periphery. As incorrect as that characterization was then, it has become even more outdated in recent times.

Arash’s exchange in this interview makes it clear, if only for a moment, that a cultural space does exist where Iranians inside and outside of Iran have the capacity to face the differences that define them without creating immutable boundaries to contribute and interact with each other. As Iranians have found themselves living in more locales than ever, and also connected in more ways than ever before, more voices are finding a place to express their distinct yet still Iranian experiences.

For European Iranians, these changes potentially mean the reception of a long-awaited place in the Iranian cultural sphere, and for American Iranians, this new era presents a shift in seeing the Iranian-American experience as a distinct cultural entity, not just as watered-down version of the “true” Iranian homeland experience. Yet ultimately, for all Iranian groups, no longer is one community expected to speak while others listen—rather, a place is slowly growing for everyone’s voice, and accent, to be heard.



  1. Reblogged this on TheSaffronLife and commented:
    A nice post from “Ajam Media Collective” on language and the arts, when looking at various groups of Iranians (and other cultures!) and how they connect through art & music. Love this quote “Arash’s exchange in this interview makes it clear, if only for a moment, that a cultural space does exist where Iranians inside and outside of Iran have the capacity to face the differences that define them without creating immutable boundaries to contribute and interact with each other.”

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