It was a surprise. After 25 years of criminalizing and banning Western music, persecuting and punishing those caught listening to it, some of those songs deemed ‘depraved’ received the official seal of approval from the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was in October 2004, when Queen went down in history and became the first rock band that could play freely without the “moral police” applying their well-known repressive methods. And it caused even more astonishment that the band that received the “approval” of the authorities was led by Freddie Mercury, declared homosexual, when homosexuality, like so many other things, is still considered a crime. This was just a tiny gesture in a country where, as is known, women continue to be subjected to abusive and discriminatory laws.
Western music fell silent
There was a time when Iranians could enjoy Western music and listen to their favorite bands. Until 1979, when the Islamic Revolution imposed its authoritarian and anti-Western laws. Anything ‘foreign’ bands put out was criminalized, their songs were banned, record stores disappeared and concert venues fell silent. Anyone caught with music deemed ‘un-Islamic’ could be fined, flogged or imprisoned for ‘committing corrupt acts’ under Iranian law.
However, many people continued to listen to ‘non-Islamic’ records. A smuggling market was born secretly distributing cassettes and LP’s. Neighboring countries, such as Turkey or Iraq, favored this illegal trade. High-quality original tapes were hard to come by, and usually only copies of copies were available. But the quality was the least of it.
“Ribbons, Ribbons, Ribbons”
The Islamic government tightened its control over society. In addition to the difficulties in obtaining music from abroad, its cost rose so much that it doubled, tripled and even quadrupled the original price. Over time, a huge black market developed, and by 1986, the latest Western hits could be had on Iranian streets just a week after publication. “In some areas of the city,” Hossini told Euronews, “when we were walking around, some random guy would whisper ‘tapes, tapes, tapes’.”
Diligent ‘moral police’ persecuted distributors, jailed them or imposed heavy fines. According to the testimony given to AFP by a young Iranian man, when he was only 17 years old he was arrested and put in a cell along with 30 other men, “murderers, drug traffickers and rapists”, because was discovered in a coffee shop with his girlfriend and a couple of cassettes of The Doors and Queen. “The police took it really seriously. I was punished and insulted. They said it was devilish music and that it would turn me into a pervert“.
Pirated records had made Queen one of the most popular bands in Iran and it was a great surprise that they received the official approval of the Islamic authorities. On October 24, 2004, an album with 11 of her greatest hits and Queen became the first rock band allowed in Iran when, for the fundamentalists, rock was a depraved genre.
Among the songs on the album, included Bohemian Rhapsody, The miracle or I want to break free. However, apparently some love themes were omitted. “The authorities approved the themes that had a social theme, leaving out the love songs“, a company executive told AFP. The cassette cost less than one euro and an explanatory brochure was put up for sale with the lyrics translated into persay. The brochure said, for example, that the song Bohemian Rhapsody was about a young man who had accidentally murdered someone and, like Faust, had sold his soul to the devil. The night before his execution he called out to God in Arabic, “Bismillah”, and retrieved his soul.
Akbar Safari, a salesman at a record and book store in Tehran, revealed to the BBC that the album was selling very well: “It’s the first rock album to hit the market legally and people are surprised and appreciative when they see that it contains the lyrics, not just the music.“.
homosexuality a crime
If it was surprising to be able to listen to The miracle without fear of being jailed, it was even more surprising that the first rock band allowed in Iran was Queen. Because its leader, Freddie Mercury, was openly homosexual. And in the West Asian country, homosexuality is considered a crime. Since the Islamic Revolution began, It is estimated that thousands of people have been executed for their sexual condition.
Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara), who died of AIDS in 1991, he was always proud of his Iranian ancestry and his supposed Zoroastrian origins (religion based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra). Farrokh is a popular Persian name meaning “fortune and happiness”. According to his sister, faith in Zoroastrianism inspired her to follow his dream.
While Freddie Mercury sings ‘I want to break free’…
While some of Queen’s ‘greatest hits’ play on Iranian radio, the Ayatollahs’ abusive and brutal laws continue to run rampant. While Bohemian Rhapsody plays, Revolutionary Guard patrols stop any woman and check her clothing. While Freddie Mercury sings I want to break free, Nika Shakarami is arrested for wearing the wrong veil. She was protesting in the streets of Tehran… and she was brutally murdered. 16 years.
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Queen’s revolution in Iran: It was the first band to break 25 years of rock censorship