Woman, Life, Freedom: Nesa Azadikhah and AIDA on their new compilation, protest and raising awareness through music
September 2022. The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested by the morality police in Tehran sparks outrage across Iran, and the rest of the world quickly follows suit.
Supposedly detained for wearing her hijab “improperly”, Amini’s death on 16 September quickly became the catalyst behind a wave of large-scale anti-government protests and demonstrations led largely by women.
As demonstrators burned their headscarves, cut their hair and took to the streets at great personal risk in the face of arrest or police violence, the movement swelled from a direct response to Amini’s death into something larger – and targeted more broadly at an authoritarian regime and its repressive treatment of women. A slogan for this new uprising was soon brought into fold: ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’.
It’s this movement – and slogan – that inspired a January-released non-profit compilation by and featuring Iranian artists AIDA and Nesa Azadikhah. Introduced by a mutual friend in 2016, the pair came together in 2022 with a simple goal: to showcase the breadth of electronic music being produced by women from Iran, and in doing so, continue to raise awareness of the uprising and the daily struggles faced by women living under this most oppressive regime.
Here, we speak to the pair about the project and their new label and their hopes for the future. They also share a new cross-genre mix to coincide with International Women’s Day (8 March), with a focus on Iranian talent.
AIDA, Nesa. Where are from and currently based, and what were you working on prior to coming together for this project?
Hello and thank you for having us! AIDA was born in Tehran, Iran, and immigrated to Canada during childhood. Currently AIDA is based between San Francisco and Vancouver. Nesa was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. Currently she is based between Tehran and Tbilisi.
Before this project, both of us were busy with our own personal projects as DJs and producers: AIDA has been DJing in various cities across Canada, the US and Europe; Nesa has been working as a sound artist, DJ and producer.
Nesa is also the founder of Deep House Tehran, an electronic music platform that broadcasts weekly podcasts, live performances, videos, news, as well as organising events and showcases all around the world.
What drew you both to dance music initially?
Both of us were drawn to dance music in our early years. Nesa was introduced to music and played traditional Persian instruments as a child. Eventually, during her teenage years, she was introduced to electronic music which opened up her world to production and DJing. AIDA’s journey into dance music started in early teens after exposure to the trance and progressive house sounds that were popular in Europe at the time. From there, she started DJing for friend’s house parties, collecting digital and CD releases and curating playlists.
How did you first meet?
We met online in 2016 after an introduction through a mutual friend. At the time, Nesa requested a mix from AIDA for Deep House Tehran. After that we stayed in touch, occasionally worked on different projects and shared music and tracks with each other. We finally met in real life in the summer of 2022 in Paris.
What inspired the compilation?
Our compilation – named Woman, Life, Freedom after the official slogan of the current uprisings in Iran – started as a response to the uprisings. After the killing of Mahsa Amini in the hands of the Islamic regime’s morality police, thousands of people took to the streets to start what has been the largest uprising in 44 years, and only women-led uprising of its kind in history. As Iranian women artists, we had a deep desire to contribute to the uprisings by using our platform to raise awareness within the music industry. That is what sparked the initial idea for the compilation; to gather and release the music of fellow Iranian women artists.
Could you speak more on what it is you are hoping to raise awareness about?
We wanted to raise awareness within a music industry that had otherwise remained silent around these issues. Seeing how the industry had responded to other political movements in the past, we took it within our hands to be the driving force behind sharing the news of this women-led movement. We want as many people as possible to know about what is going on in Iran, to know about the Mahsa Amini movement and to globally stand behind the Iranian people’s fight to overthrow a theocratic dictatorship that is stripping people of their rights and stealing resources from the people. We want the world to know that the Islamic regime does not – and has never in its 44 years – represented the people of Iran.
Throughout Iranian history and dating back thousands of years, women have been at the forefront of society as business owners, artists, performers and thinkers. In pre-revolution Iran, also, women were very active in the arts and culture. However after the revolution, a complete U-turn on the part of the new Islamic leadership meant women were overnight forced under veils and into homes. It became illegal for women to perform, practice arts, sing, dance and wear their choice of clothing outside.
Over the years, this has created a very male-dominated society that has pushed women into the margins. In recent years, you may have seen women as backline performers in live music performances or having secondary roles in theatre – however even that has usually been met with scrutiny from government officials or parts of the society. Regardless, this limitation has always added fuel to the fight of women in Iran who practice, despite grave risks to their careers, families, and even exile, in order to be in the arts, perform or have prominent roles within society.
Tell us more about the curation process behind the release. How did you decide who to reach out to, and what brief did you set?
We narrowed down to a list of artists that we had within our network and reached out to them one by one. Given that the topic and purpose of this project was important to each artist, and each [artist] wanted to do something for the movement, we received an instant yes from everyone involved. The brief was to provide us with a track that represents the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement.
Did you have an idea of how you wanted the compilation to sound in advance?
Given the shared pain and understanding around the uprising, the focus on ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ alone was enough to create a sense of consistency with the theme that we had in mind. Overall, the characteristic of Apranik Records – our record label that started as a result of this project – is that of power, defiance, ferocity and inspiration of women. All of the artists involved represent just that. They are strong, powerful and talented women. Therefore the vibe of the compilation naturally came together through a shared trauma.
"These tracks are meant to be fuel to the fire. They are meant to augment the fight and show the people in Iran that, in this way, the world outside is standing with them in support"
Why was that important to launch a label alongside the album, and what might be next for the imprint?
We decided that this is greater than just a one-off project and so we started a label to be able to continue releasing music, highlighting Iranian talent and continuing the fight.
You’ve previously said that you envision the compilation and its music being listened to right now in Iran. In what sort of settings do you think this would be played, and what do you hope that it may offer listeners?
We hope that when the release is listened to back in Iran, that it sparks a sense of power and defiance for people to keep going. These tracks are meant to be fuel to the fire. They are meant to augment the fight and show the people in Iran that, in this way, the world outside is standing with them in support and spreading the news of their fight as far as possible.
What are your hopes for the future?
We hope for a free Iran. We hope for an Iran in which the people, culture and environment can thrive. We hope for an Iran in which women can live as they choose, can wear and do as they choose, and where they are no longer suppressed as means of oppression and control. We hope to see women within the art be able to perform, grow and show their immense talent on a global stage without risk to their lives, careers and families.
Can you talk us through the mix you have made for us?
This mix for International Women’s Day consists of some of our favourite music with a focus on Iranian female artists who are currently active and pushing boundaries. It also includes one track from each of us. We chose to create this set as a multi-genre mix ranging from ambient and experimental to jazz, rock and electronic in order to showcase the range of talent that exists within this community of artists. Although it ranges multiple genres, we find in it a cohesion that comes from the years of determined rebellion from Iranian women against the otherwise patriarchal government and the society they have created in the last 44 years.
Woman, Life, Freedom is out now via Apranik Records