2Pac and Afro-Iranians: Persians in the Fight for Black Lives

2Pac and Afro-Iranians: Persians in the Fight for Black Lives

“Cops give a damn about a negro
Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares
One less hungry mouth on the welfare”
-2Pac, Changes

The first time I listened to 2Pac, my world imploded. I must have been eight, sitting in my older cousin’s BMW decked out with neon bumper lights, dashboard television screens, and a six CD changer filled with Hip Hop — the absurd tokens of a young Persian man with too much money. The subwoofers reverberated life in my ribs. As 2Pac’s acute flow called for police reform and social justice, I sat on the oil-slicked leather seats speeding through suburbia, soaking it all in: The blurred sequoias. The relentless rap cadence. Dr. Dre’s bombastic bass and slimy synths. The burgeoning colloquialisms of 90’s West Coast rap still new to the mainstream. It was all so foreign and dangerous, these stories of ghetto life and gangster mentality. I needed to absorb all of these narratives like my mother’s ghormeh sabzi.

The volume decreased as we decelerated towards the gated driveway in time for dinner. We turned off the car, and entered a mansion to walk upon ornate Persian rugs before piling our plates with tahdig and zereshk polo. We listened to Googoosh while eating in polite conversation, the yells of “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” still ringing in my head.

I was surrounded by Persian pop melodies, but I was raised by 2Pac, NWA, Snoop Dogg, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. These voices, seething with anger and cursing, was never heard within sanctified ornate walls that blossomed with Persian decorum. Barely ten, I’d dance to Moein at Persian gatherings, and on the way home I’d turn on my iPod in the backseat and silently chant “Fuck The Police.” The audio I banned myself from audible speakers for years. We listened to gangster rap largely in secrecy, ready to switch CDs depending on who’s in the passenger seat. Hale Shoma, Chetore?

Now, in the wake of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and numerous murders of Black individuals, those same relatives who embraced Black culture — with it’s pleas for racial justice — are painfully loud with their silence.

Firstborn Persians learn to code switch at an early age. We tucked away silver chains and slapped on cologne. We frowned silently at our parents’ racist comments, and made excuses to our Black friends as to why they couldn’t come over for dinner. We played the doumbek and freestyle rapped on the side, appropriating Black culture like a passport that could take us away from the heritage we were born into without all the sticky grievances.

Fearing disownment, romantic relationships with Black boyfriends and girlfriends were covertly hidden, the way activist women hid from Khomeini in the 80’s. If our partner was indeed Persian, the cacophony of marriage chatter was deafening. And like automated fireworks, hundreds of enraptured Persians would pour alongside the aisle to applaud our cultural endurance. Mobaarak baashe!

Perhaps it was the escape from the Iranian revolution that makes many Persian elders blind to the plight of Black Americans. We’ve lived through war and civil unrest, we’ve barely made it to the glorious states alive; please, let us drink our tea in peace and enjoy our freedom. Perhaps it’s culturally-ingrained racism stained from decades of Persian ethnocentrism and the mythology of Aryan civilization. Beeta Baghoolizadeh (PhD, History, University of Pennsylvania) explains how 10–15% of Iran is Afro-Iranian following a concealed legacy of slavery in the Middle East.

Persia (modern day Iran) participated in the trade of African slaves spanning several centuries, resulting in the emergence of an Afro-Iranian population, who are now disenfranchised, culturally and economically, and primarily marginalized in the country’s poorest provinces. Due to taboos about slavery and Aryan dominance, this history is forgotten. Afro-Iranians are erased from textbooks leading many Iranians to believe that true Persians are light-skinned, and that the African slave trade never occurred in Iran. The cultural production of an Aryan Iranian and Afro-Iranians are seen today, each year during the Nowruz New Year festival.

I adored these festivals as a child. I leaped over fire that seemed to barely inflame my feet for a split-second. I relished in the seven alliterations of Haft-Sin on gorgeous tables. I stared bewilderingly at the soot-faced joker in bright crimson clothes, as he clashed a tambourine and wished us a happy new year.

Haji Firooz is a jovial minstrel derived from the history of African slaves in Iran, a Black-faced cultural symbol that entertains Persian children internationally up to this day with lyrics that comically reference slavery. The call to end this abhorrent tradition has barely begun, with Iranians finally recognizing that as a marginalized group, we understand what it’s like to be discriminated against, thus it even more important to be thoughtful of the racism we may perpetuate today.

As a child it was strange to see this cultural artifact being a source of so much joy and laughter. Though I didn’t yet understand how people of color who also face discrimination could be racist. How refreshing it was when Persians simply saw Black people as humans, more than entertainers in Hip Hop and racist Iranian tradition. I recall how brazenly proud some of my family members were that they voted for Obama. How progressive we thought they were compared to our white friends’ conservative parents.

Too often do non-Black people of color shuffle identity politics cards when discussing race. We gaslight our own injustices and share horrors of airport discrimination. Yes, to be Middle Eastern in post 9–11 America was a breeding ground for prejudice. We were painted the terrorist, and within my family, we brandished Kippahs like riot helmets as we soldiered through this racist, tumultuous landscape protecting our own.

But it’s time we stand up in solidarity and fight to end police brutality and the murders of Black lives. It’s time we recognize the War on Terror and War on Black people are part of the same nefarious white supremacist, capitalist machine–which at once disenfranchises poor and brown communities through rapacious resource-extraction, Muslim and racial profiling, government surveillance, education injustice, the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, etc.

Non-Black people of color: Your experiences of discrimination does not obfuscate your privilege. My light-brown privilege has saved me from countless police interactions, like I walked out the sun just early enough from being murdered.

We need to blur the colors of privilege more clearly with our ancestral paintbrushes. Privilege is a byzantine pallet of enmeshed skin tones that start to bleed together as soon as we walk outside. When we bifurcate Black and White, too many of us in the middle can comfortably hide within our blended hues of prejudice. I’m imploring us to not.

Our own experiences with bigotry does not give us a permit to stay silent. Don’t vacuously rejoice in Black entertainment and art without fighting for the lives of Black people. Call out your racist Persian dad and talk about our embedded racism. Donate to Black activist movements and community groups. Show up in solidarity for the protection of Black lives. Propose to your Black partner and don’t invite any dissenters to the wedding. Better yet, invite the racists and publicly ridicule them for their archaic, culturally-distorted prejudices and take the wedding to the streets with a picket sign that screams “PERSIANS FOR BLACK LIVES.”

Visit counterpulse.org/resources-solidarity-black-lives-matter/ for resources and ways to donate.

Justin Ebrahemi is the Communications Director at CounterPulse.

One Comment

  • Amanda

    Very well written. I could not agree more.

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