Without a doubt, Iranian Hip-Hop Artist YAS is a musical maverick. He is blazing a trail of beats and rhymes in a country where Hip-Hop remains a relatively new form of music and is not as readily accepted as it is in other parts of the world. Though YAS raps in his native Farsi, adding a unique, compelling flow to his rhymes, he admits that his native language can often be a hindrance when trying to place it within the familiar staccato rhythms that are the foundation of Hip-Hop. Still, one can readily sense that his words simmer and float with ease as they burst out of one’s speakers.
Unlike many other Hip-Hop artists who focus on an array of superficial subject matter, much of YAS’ music is imbued with a strong sense of empathy and compassion. As an artist, he is well-aware of the suffering that exists around him, both as an Iranian and, more importantly, as a human being. In this sense, his music transcends geography.
This keen awareness of the suffering of those around him is, in many ways, the direct result of his own personal trials and tribulations. After the passing of his beloved father at a young age, the responsibility of providing for his family fell on his shoulders; no easy task in a country where jobs remain at a premium. Such profound experiences weigh their influence upon his music. In the true spirit of Hip Hop, YAS has embraced his hardships, allowing them to sharpen his voice and cut through the musical landscape. And, as he continues to grow as an artist, one can sense a deepening of his craft as he draws from this wellspring of personal and social experiences.
In my recent interview with YAS, he discussed some of his many hardships as well as giving details about his musical process, his influences, and his aspirations.
KG: What are your early musical influences? Do they still play a factor in your creative process?
YAS: I have been musically active for about 8 or 9 years now…I always tried to find a way to lighten some of the weight off my bitter and painful past and be able to deal with the hardships in my personal life; a way to be able to speak of the various pains and realities that exist in life and through this find a way to lift my own spirit. Before this, I listened to rap music starting at the age of 17 and it was something that gave me a lot of energy. But there was one singer in particular that really grabbed my attention, from his style to the way he sang with a feeling of urgency and anger, that took me to another world with his music and this was only done by Tupac.
It was a strange feeling listening to some of his music. And when I sat around with friends and translated his lyrics I saw that he was talking about social problems and pains within his society; social issues about growing up black in America or just issues in general within his society. I saw this as a great path, a way where one can shout out and tell their life story. This is how I started to write and sing. After all this time has passed throughout the years, I still try to find my energy through my society. I look at either my own personal pains and struggles or others, and in the end steer the direction of my song to show how in the end everything can be worked out. I feel there are many out there who can relate directly to my songs, and of course this gives me even more motivation to keep writing, and this energy adds more power and feelings to my lyrics.
KG: Who influenced you the most creatively?
YAS: As I mentioned above, the first one who really influenced me the most to move forward towards rap music was Tupac. But of course there were other great musicians that truly energized me in the beginning such as Public Enemy, NAS and more. But I didn’t want to copy or cover anyone’s style in particular, that never interested me. Yes it’s true that they had influenced me and had an impact on me, but I also saw that as much as some of our problems were similar in some ways, when it came to our different societies, the issues inside Iran and [the] USA were completely different, like night and day, and had no relation to each other. Therefore, dealing with each problem would also be different especially for those listeners who spoke my language. As you may know, in Iran, this genre is still new and it has only been around for a few years; and it is still growing so it was very hard to take an American style music and introduce rap in Iran, especially when you consider that in American rap, using profanity may be considered normal to the listener, where in Iran cursing or using profanity doesn’t hold a place in art. Not in music, not in film or any other form. Maybe for young people this is something normal to speak like that among themselves, but in my opinion, music gets its life (becomes alive) when it can be heard by the entire family. So to introduce this type of music and give it credibility was very difficult. But thank God we were able to do this and introduce our own version of socially conscious rap (topics that relate to our Iranian society) which has gotten great acceptance.
KG: Who are you currently listening to?
YAS: I listen to all kinds of music so I stay updated with the latest music. Right now both in Iran and the rest of the world we have some incredible artists, who are brilliant. But unfortunately, one thing that have noticed coming out of the U.S. lately is that there hasn’t been so much emphasis on the lyrics or a particular message, it seems like most of the emphasis has been on the music and to make sure it just rhymes. Unfortunately, the music seems to be about money and business mostly and those who bring in the money stay on top and so there isn’t as much importance put on talent. A place that is known by the world as “The Land Of Opportunity” I would imagine that it would open more doors for more people with new thoughts and give life to whole new musical identity. But the music I have heard recently doesn’t seem to have staying power. They are released quickly in a short span, make some noise but fade out. I remember years ago that there would be music that to this day I still carry the tune in my head. In my opinion songs that are released relying all on technology won’t have staying power. There is plenty of good music out there that is made with heart and soul that don’t rely solely on the market.
KG: Do you find it easy to freestyle in Farsi? How does the nature of the language play a part in creating your music?
YAS: I agree that the sound and rhythms of our language is natural and soft but I don’t think I agree that they lend themselves easily or naturally on the Farsi language when it comes to matching it to a beat. One can argue that the English language uses many short words and less syllables and they sit great on a beat even if the meaning doesn’t quite match. But in Farsi it’s different, we have to really search hard for a word that both sits on the beat as well as sounds good and makes sense- and this makes the process a bit harder. Iran is the land of great poets and poetry is in our blood. But writing text is different. In writing poetry we have several different styles like Robayi, Ghazal, Ghasideh, Masnavi etc.; but writing text/lyrics is different. We have to change the style and the balance of the music every few beats so that the levels have ups and downs and so the listener can move with the flow of the song and play with its words in their mind so their heart and mind gets closer to the music which isn’t easy to do.
In regards to freestyle, I have to say that’s it’s not something that I am really into because it’s all about coming up with something on the go without putting any real thought into it beforehand. Yes, that is a talent in itself but for me, I prefer to spend even up to six months on a song and not release it till I am fully satisfied and put all my energy on the text and the feeling which is the most important to me, then I go to the style, sound and the beat and so on.
KG: As you said, Iran has a rich, poetic tradition. Are there any Persian poets in particular that you draw inspiration from?
YAS: Yes, 100%. I am very proud to say Ferdowsi Toosi, for instance, who is recognized in the world as one of the greatest contributors to the four pillars of civilization with his work. This really energizes me and I try to follow his path in my writing style so that I give my very best to the listener. Who knows maybe one day, I too in some far away future can be someone like Ferdowsi, who is recognized through his words. I don’t say this with an ego, rather maybe one day we too become so powerful in our work that history will take note of it and gives it recognition. Why not? We have to think big to reach big. We have great poets who are world renown and a major reason is that they thought big and far and didn’t put a limit to their work. I get enormous inspirations by those notable Iranians before me who helped pave the way but I try to say my own words in my own way and spread the message internationally. The same way where we may listen to a song in English and not fully understand all its words and meaning but we can relate to it through its feeling and vibe, it’s great to know when a foreigner listens to my music and is interested enough to read the English translations to see what I am trying to say. …like Rumi, whose poetry is written in Farsi but has been translated in various languages.
KG: What’s your creative process? Do you begin with a beat, a rhyme, or do you freestyle around an idea? Do you record ideas immediately or write them down in a notebook?
YAS: There is really several scenarios. Sometimes I may see something that really excites me or gets me worked up and upset and I begin writing. I may not have a specific rhythm at that moment so I pick a tempo in my mind and start writing. Then I will go and set a beat to it. Or sometimes I may hear a beat that really energizes me and its style goes in my head and I begin to write and create a subject to match it. But most of my work that I really feel for or are very special to me usually begin with my writing the lyrics and then go and create a beat for it.
KG: Do you prefer writing and recording songs or performing before an audience?
YAS: Performing live in front of an audience is much better and has a greater impact. To be able to stand in front of someone, look in their eyes and speak from your heart is fulfilling beyond words. In my opinion, if an audience member sees you in that moment and sees you pouring your heart out and singing for them with all your energy -- in that moment they can become your fan, even if till that moment they had never heard of your voice or your music.
KG: Does faith play an important role in your music? Do you believe that music has, potentially, a divine spark in it?
YAS: There was a time when I saw music only as an outlet for fun and I really couldn’t dedicate my full time to it because I carried, and still do, carry the responsibility of being the main caretaker of my family of six; and in these times where a father can barely support himself and his family, never mind me, who at the age of 19 was thrown in that position after the sudden death of my father. But it was also then that I started to take my music more seriously. I loved music but I couldn’t see at it as a career (although I should say that I still can’t see it as a career since we are still considered as underground musicians and we have no real way of making money through music. This in itself is a big and separate discussion). But after releasing a few songs and seeing how well received they were by the public and gaining their tremendous support, that gave me the energy to continue.
It may be hard to believe but I remember getting several thousand emails, calls or people telling me in person how my music had an impact on them gave them energy because they could relate and see themselves in it. I am not saying this out of ego but I felt that my music was different than what was out there and something told me that if I continued, I could provide a service or make a difference for people… Maybe some will say, “we already see all our problems and struggles, why are reopening some of our wounds?” But this in itself is part of the problem that those people are not willing to look at themselves or [come] face to face to some of their realities. We must also believe and face some of our realities as well and look for new ways…to build a solid future for ourselves. So in some way I see this now also as a duty for myself to continue and hope that I can provide a source of positive energy and influence in my community.
KG: What are your goals and aspirations for your music? Where do you see yourself as an artist in five years?
YAS: My main goal is to become an international singer. We have Iranian singers that are active in that direction, to get their music out worldwide, but they are mostly pop and dance music…I am very proud of them for getting the people’s attention and proudly planting Iran on the map. And I want to in my own style (Persian Rap) be the first in the world to be listened to and have a global audience. As one of my American friends, Brian tells me “Hip Hop means achieving your dreams, be it name recognition and power or money and success.” His words and this message really stuck with me and I know that I will reach all of that soon because I know in my gut that I am doing all I can and working hard to better myself towards progress and success. They say if you don’t stand up and shout out loud that ‘I am here’, then no one will see that you are and so I am shouting -- And I will keep singing my music till the day comes where my voice will reach the rest of the world. In hopes of that day ...
By Kashif Ghazanfar, Aslan Media Music Editor
*English translation of YAS's responses provided courtesy of NSB