Persian Punk in Exile: An Interview With King Raam of Hypernova

What seemed like a huge disappointment skyrocketed Hypernova into music superstardom -- and got Raam banned from ever again visiting the country where he was born.
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Raam, who looks like the Iranian Buddy Holly because of his glasses and cropped hair, is the lead singer of the punk band, Hypernova. His look may be influenced by Brooklyn, where he now lives. It's a far cry from his hometown of Tehran, Iran.

Raam skipped back and forth between Tehran and Eugene, Ore., growing up. In Iran, his parents are a professor and a homemaker. They support his work, despite the inherent dangers of making punk music in Iran.

Raam never thought he'd be a musician. He was chosen as the band's singer purely because they wanted to do cover songs and he spoke the most English. He taught himself guitar after Hypernova formed in 2000. Iran was 10 years behind on music then; grunge was just happening. Raam grew up listening to Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth on bootleg cassettes. The first one he owned was by Queen.

Before all that: Hypernova's big break came in 2007 when the South by Southwest Music Festival accepted them. Because of trouble with their visas, the band members didn't make it to the United States in time.

What seemed like a huge disappointment skyrocketed Hypernova into music superstardom -- and got Raam banned from ever again visiting the country where he was born. What happened when Hypernova left Iran?

Raam: ...We never even said goodbye to anyone, because we didn't even think we'd stay here for this long. It's almost been four-and-a-half years or something. We've been in the States. We just left with a guitar, a suitcase and a couple hundred dollars each.

You had some trouble with getting visas though, right?

The funniest thing in that story and that twist of fate is that The New York Times and MTV wanted to do a small story about us, including like the international acts in "South by Southwest." When they finally heard that we finally made it to New York, they called us up. And instead of having just a small story written about us, they both did like a full feature story on us. And when those stories came out in The New York Times and MTV, that's when everything changed for us. All of a sudden, that day when I got up and the story was out, all we had was the website that had an email on it. Nothing else. And there were like thousands of emails.

I felt quite undeserving of all this attention. I was really overwhelmed. I knew how bad we were. I'm like, "Jesus Christ, these people don't care about the music, obviously!" It's just a human-interest story for them. And I felt really bad secretly, that there was so much attention to us. And yet we had no talent whatsoever. That's the thing about America. It is the land of opportunities. As a band from Iran we were like the first to break all of the records that have ever been set. We've done everything that no other band from Iran has ever done. In a way we're like pioneers. And we're very proud of that.

But in comparison, we're way behind in terms of where we want to be compared to all the artists that we look up to. We feel that we're equally as good if not better than many of these acts, but because we're such hard workers. We rehearse five, six hours every day.

What happened once people in Iran realized through the press that you were playing punk music?

In the beginning, I have to tell you that I was very diplomatic. Although I was speaking my mind, and speaking out even against the government, I wasn't doing it in such a rash and forward way. I've become a little bit more even outspoken than before, since the 2009 election. First, at the end of the day, any opinions that I have, because I get asked questions a lot about the nuclear issue. I'm like, "What do you want me to say?" [They say,] "About your situation! Stand up to Iran."

...Iran is a very complex society with complex people. It's not as black and white as, "Do all Iranians hate Americans? Or do all Americans this or that?" I think the most interesting thing for me always has been just touring across America, especially in the Midwest. And we hear stereotypes about people over there. They hear stereotypes about us.

We do American press. We never do Iranian press. They suck and they tend to over-politicize everything. It's like, "Who's side are you on? Which party do you follow?" We didn't really want to get into that. I've just always been of the school of thought of I respect whatever the people demand and respect their most fundamental basic human rights. Allow them to vote. Allow them to enjoy the same fundamental freedoms that everyone else can enjoy around the world. I may not like many of the religious point of views, but they should have their voice also. Everyone should have a voice in government...

I just felt really powerless, seeing all my brothers and sisters back home, being in the streets. There was just this feeling of I have to sit here and watch them getting beat up on YouTube. I just wanted to show that we are standing in solidarity with them. And it's like the least that I could do [to write a political protest song and to speak up in the press]. And it's a very small contribution compared to what everyone else is.

I never want to come across as a preachy person. It's just something that has to happen organically. That definitely was a setback that we realized that, "OK, maybe we can never actually go back home after this."

When did you know for sure you were never going back to Iran?

As the situation got worse in Iran, I just kept doing more interviews. And I was just more involved with the people's movement. And whether it was online, sharing information, sending out emails and signing petitions. I became quite active. And then I went and did an interview on [Voice of America]. There's a show called "Parazit." "Parazit" is like the Iranian Jon Stewart. They have 500,000 fans on Facebook and they're watched by 40 million people a month. If you go on that show in Iran, and they're like basically an anti-governmental show, speaking out against the government's brutality. Basically if you go on that show, you are automatically on the blacklist for never going back home.

I finally decided to do it. Almost every single Iranian on the planet watches that show. If I go on this show, this is the end of me going back to Iran. Because my friends with much less records than mine, they went back and their passports were taken away at the airport.

What did you say?

I just talked about, on a very personal basis, how I believe that people who use religion as a context to oppress or enforce their own belief. And enforce their own way of living upon others. I'm not a religious person myself at all.

I'm a complete atheist. I have respect for religious people. I just don't like the way that the religion is abused in a country like Iran to enforce or to oppress the people. It's just absolutely wrong. I remember I got beat up in school in Iran, because I brought a Walkman to school. And my teacher said that it's forbidden in Islam, or by the Quran. I'm like, "Sir, I'm pretty sure there were no Walkmans around when this book was written." And I got my ass beat up for making that remark.

...There's this group of vigilante police in Iran, who are not even approved by the government, only by the Supreme Leader. They have no proper authority, but yet they have this almost divine authority from the Supreme Leader. And these people, the Basij, this vigilante militia, they have this right to right the wrongs that they see as unfit to their way of living or their way of life. They spend so much time beating up kids who dress in a certain way, or wear makeup instead of actually cracking down on criminals.

It's ridiculous. The number of kids who get beat up for just looking different or dressing different or listening to music, things that are not even a crime anywhere else in the world. They're not even anything of any importance to anyone. They're not even harming anybody.

I always tell my friends, "You guys are so privileged. You have it so well. Sometimes you forget, and you take your freedoms for granted."

Gaby Dunn is a writer, journalist and comedian in New York City. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine and on Salon, Thought Catalog, and Her web project, 100 Interviews, was named the Best Blog on Tumblr by the Village Voice in 2010. 100 Interviews, from which this article is adapted, chronicles a year she is spending interviewing 100 people unlike anyone she's ever met.

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