Iranian rockers find their voice

BOSTON — When he arrived on American soil two years ago, "King Raam" admitted to being afraid.

The young Iranian rocker, fresh from Tehran's music underground, was not scared of failure, though the odds of U.S. music industry success were long for even the most well connected of rock wanna-be's.

Nor was he overly worried about JFK passport control: after all, he had a properly issued visa — though it had been delayed in Dubai because of a stand-off over the boatload of British sailors being held by Iran's Revolutionary Guards not far from the coastal southern Iranian town of Bushehr, where he was born.

Raam's biggest fear in those heady days of March 2007, sleeping on friends' floors and playing gigs in late-opening bars on Manhattan's Lower East Side, was being seen publicly criticizing Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the fearsome band of mullahs pulling the strings in the Islamic Republic.

But now, spurred by the tumultuous events in Iran, Raam and his band, Hypernova, have seemingly found their voice in opposing the Iranian government.

"Because of the internet, the people of the world are being exposed to the horrific reality of the streets," Raam said Wednesday. "The oppressive government is continuously trying to clean up after itself through misinformation and propaganda.

"There have been many other fascists like Hitler, Stalin and Franco who have suppressed the people and the truth far too long before they were defeated, but thanks to the amazing flow of information there is only so much that this fascist government can do."

While Raam admits that Hypernova has a way to go before realizing the rock stardom they crave, they can claim a measure of success.

The band is at the forefront of the Iranian rock movement, having achieved celebrity in the "underground" scene at home before coming to the U.S., “with a guitar, $400 and no expectations.”

In Iran, bands compete to have their music played in online "festivals" as a way of getting around a 2005 ban on Western music that was part of Ahmadinejad's efforts to roll back the reforms of his more liberal predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. Defiance of the ban can lead to arrest, large fines and even a public flogging.

Once in the U.S., Hypernova quickly found traction and have since toured nationally, supporting such major international acts as Sisters of Mercy, and have headlined at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Raam writes songs in English as opposed to Farsi, which he considers a "poetic and harmonious language" but not one well suited to the harsh, energetic rock sound. The themes of his songs mostly stay off the topic of politics, but touch on world events.

Raam and his Iranian band mates Kodi, Jam, Kami and Poya, ranging in age from 19 to 28, go by derivations of their first names but avoid using their last names to ensure their families do not receive undue attention at home.

Hypernova recently recorded their first album and have a major following — not only among the huge Iranian diaspora in the U.S. but among mainstream indie music fans.

With their growing success, Raam now feels confident in using the band's profile to promote the causes of democracy and freedom in his home country.

"I've actively been helping other kids in the underground, trying to get their visas, trying to get them into festivals," he said. "I got a CNN interview for one (band) on Inside the Middle East. I try to help as many kids as I can because I feel like we owe it to them. We even gave our CD away in Iran for free — because I know there's no way for them to find it online or buy it.”

Raam attended schools in the U.S. — thanks to a relatively privileged upbringing — but spent many of his formative years in Iran. Like so many of his compatriots, he derives inspiration from Iran’s rich history and culture and hopes one day to return, but sees a need to achieve overseas success in order to bring much-needed change at home.

"We've so far avoided the Iranian press because we don't want to be politicized in the Iranian context,” Raam said. “What we represent is a much more universal and global thing. Our music has had this ability to transcend all these barriers.

"I still want to go back home, but I think it's very important for us to become so established and so important and so successful so that when I do go back home ... I'll be literally untouchable. I'll be so famous that, they can do their worst — throw me in jail or whatever — I'll be on the cover of Time magazine.

"I want to be the first band from the underground who actually made it ... big time. The more success we achieve the more hope it gives all the kids back home that they too, against all odds, can do the same thing."

Raam, whose parents and many friends still live in Tehran, said he kept in touch with family via Skype and friends on Facebook, but had rarely felt further away from them than during this week's tumult.

"The people in Iran have been robbed of this election," he said. "Historically speaking whenever there is more voter turnout, it almost always goes in favor the reformer. There are so many flaws in this election one doesn't even know where to begin.

"Thanks to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, the people of Iran now have a voice. Every single person I have talked to is willing to risk their lives in the name of freedom and justice."

It is, he says, a stark contrast to the opportunities America has presented him thus far.

"I've never been poorer than I am, but I've never been happier," he said. "We've traveled through 43 states or something. I mean, I've seen more of America than most Americans have. They're just such beautiful people. Of course, you go to middle America and they're very conservative and traditional but they're still the nicest people. We have still to come across any negative interactions. It's all been supportive, positive. We've had random people take us into their homes.

"The reason that we have evolved is because we have been able to get better equipment and practice and rehearse in a much freer state of mind. There's not so much of that fear. Now we're focused and committed 24/7 to the music, and the music is taking a whole life of its own. Every show we keep getting better. People who saw us two years ago [compared] to now are just 'wow.' It's affirmation that what we're doing is right."  

Read more about Iran's election:

'Don't the Basij have parents?'

Protester vs. protester in Iran

Iran: Revolution, Tiananmen, or something else?

Iran election: Obama's dilemma