In a new, particularly intimate entry of The Cultural Reset's Artist Interview Series, TCR's Creator/EIC Nick Lee, and Assistant Director, Shannon (Shay) Ervin, sat down with Iranian-Swedish rapper and songwriter, Nadia Tehran. Known for the personal and political themes that govern her work, Nadia joins TCR to deconstruct her most-recent album 'Dozakh: All Lovers Hell' as well as discuss her artistic inspiration, her creative paths, and her experience as a woman of color navigating the injustices of the music industry.
Photo: "Nadia Tehran"
Click here to listen to Nadia Tehran's FULL INTERVIEW
Nick Lee: Could you talk to us a bit about your artistry? What would you say is your mission with your art if you have one?
Nadia Tehran: I think my words are very…it’s very self-reflective. I search a lot in my own history and constantly portray myself in different ways and try to understand where I come from, and why I'm here and why I feel the things that I feel. But I've been very interested in exploring themes of separation—the concept of separation in many different dimensions. [It’s] also connected to escape and longing. These are three themes that I've been researching a lot, and that I've been experimenting and exploring with, to grasp what that is about and what it does to me as a person. But also in a broader sense, when you are a diaspora child, these are concepts that you are constantly facing.
Shay Ervin: I'm sure that that's something that is very deeply rooted in you and can only come out in your music really. This isn't really one of our questions, but I wanted to ask you: a lot of creatives have told us that they use their music and their creative energy as a form of therapy, to give themselves a sense of release from the past, and maybe some trauma that they've experienced. Do you feel like you've used music as a sense of therapy for yourself?
NT: Yes, I mean, 100%! I think art in general has a healing power and I've also used my art, as almost a shield that protects me from traumas, or from society or from whatever history that I'm carrying it. It's sort of a way to constantly reinvent yourself into these alternate versions of yourself and turn all pain and the traumatic experiences into something that you can own and that you can admire, and that other people can relate to—and you connect to other people through that. And that, I think, maybe is the most appealing part—when you can share something with someone else and then you don't have to carry it alone anymore.
S: That sense of togetherness, yeah. So how do you feel like your music crosses over with your activism and what emotion fuels that?
NT: My perception is that art in itself is a sort of activism. It's sort of like…it's an action. You create something, you put it out and it says something to someone else. And for my art to be political, I feel like it's political because I'm saying the things that I'm saying; it’s because my body is politicized and because I'm positioned naturally in opposition to the system where I'm born and where I'm raised. So everything that I do is a political act. Even for us to exist here is a political act—as being brown and being women, queer, all these things. So of course it crosses over. But I do also make intentional, politically motivated art, where I talk about the issues that I experienced or that I see my friends experiencing or bigger issues of the world that I process or reflect upon in my music. But it's hard to say where the boundary or where the crossover actually is when it comes to art and politics, because I think that art, all art, is political—whether you choose to talk about something or you choose to ignore that, it's still a political statement.
N: I wanted to talk to you about your recent album, Dozakh: All Lovers Hell. We got a chance to listen to it and it seemed to me…a kind of reflection of what you were talking about. It seems like a self-reflection—like a meditation on the self. But there also are those political moments. So it makes sense that you feel that politics and being political is intertwined within the self and intertwine with artistic expression. So I completely agree with that. What was your process for developing this album in particular?
NT: It's been a very organic process, I would say. The record kind of appeared before I realized it was a record in the sense that I've been making music for so many years and in many different constellations and also being on different labels and trying to figure out the whole structure around how to make a record. And these songs, I've been carrying them around with me from different periods of my life. There's songs on the record that I wrote when I was 12 that have just been with me, you know? And then, I think early in my artistic career, I had this character that I created who was very tough and hard. And the music that I was making was also really hard and explosive—and that sort of became my persona. But then I was writing all these private songs that were just for me—like cute love songs that didn't really fit the persona.
So after the years went by and I got out of all these fucked up contracts, I realized that the album was with me all along. So it was more like collecting the songs and then just reworking them a little bit and trying to understand the red thread between them. It's kind of like a diary of the past 15 years of my life. So it's been very organic in that way, it took many, many, many years to make it. So I think it was a process that I wasn't even aware was happening in a way.
S: So in a sense, it's been going on since you were 12, when you initially started writing these songs. And that's amazing, because when I was listening to it, you could tell that there were several different versions of you in that album. I mean, there are some that are very hard hitting, there's others that are emotional. And I also want to ask you, there's some that start off with audio recordings. Where did those come from? And what meaning do those have for you?
NT: It's actually the voices of my family members. The first song that opens the record is my father speaking. And he doesn't know that I'm recording, which I do sometimes. But he was telling me—because I grew up listening to his war stories…he was a soldier in the front line, the war with Iran and Iraq—and he's telling me about this moment. When I look at my personal family history and I research why I'm here, I always come back this moment. This moment when this bomb drops and hits my Father's face—that’s the moment that the whole map of my life is redrawn. I wouldn't even be born unless that bomb would [have] hit there, right?
He's just telling me this story where it's his last day in the front line, and he’s supposed to leave and he's left his firearms and everything and then there's an attack and he gets this final order that he needs to get his man to drive the car with all the ammunition to the front line. So the song starts with him trying to give them a motivational speech to get them to do it. And he's telling them that death will come with it. And if I'm supposed to die, I'm gonna die even in my home, and if I'm supposed to live, I'm going to live through this moment.
But nobody gets in the car. So he has to do it on its own. And then the car blows up and my father basically loses his leg. After that…his life is completely redrawn and he ends up going to Sweden, where I was later born. But I wanted to open the record with this recording, because it's sort of his starting point in a way…
S: …for this story that's been going on since you were born and since you started writing music at the age of 12…
NT: Yeah; and also the story of this separation. There's so many concepts of separation in this, like, even his leg being separated from his body and him being separated from his country and his family and this thin line between life and death. I just felt like that really captured what the record is about.
N: How do you feel his legacy molds you or has molded you?
NT: I think it molds you in the deepest possible way. I think that goes for everyone. We are born by our parents, and our relationships to them and their relationships to each other. I'm very much a Freud enthusiast. So I think of course that affects you—it lays the foundation for who you are. And my dad is also a big, entertainer. He just loves telling stories and stuff. So I think that has also been a big inspiration for me as I grew up—just listening to all his little fairy tales.
S: Has he heard the album?
NT: Yes, of course.
N: What did he think about it?
NT: I think that they're really proud of it. I think they're really proud of me and what I'm doing. It wasn't always like that. Like, when I was younger, and I was a 12 year old Iranian girl in Sweden and I wanted to play in a punk band, my dad hated it and he would sit outside and wait for me until my practice was over so he could drive me home It's been a journey for sure with us. But I think now he’s finally accepted it after 30 years.
N: Wow, that's really beautiful actually. I also want to circle back to what you talke about with interweaving political messages and your own personal experience. One, I want to say that you're known for doing that in your art, so a lot of people know you for being able to balance that perfectly. But how do you balance that in this album particularly? Are there any songs where you found that balancing act to be difficult?
NT: If I would pick one song where I've found a new balance to writing politically, but doing it from a different perspective, I would say its the song called ‘Nazi Killer’.
Photo Cred: Christoffer Sundqvist—"Nadia Tehran"
"...I'm trying to let go of thinking that we're going to build the industry back up. Let's not build anything back up; let's just destroy that shit..."
N: That’s what I was going to ask you about next too!
NT: A few years back, I would probably write that song in a very aggressive way. But it happened after this moment, when I was actually attacked by Nazis in the street. It was more like, I interrupted them and they took it as an attack. But I went home and I was just really sad. It's like, you have this hard shell that you show people which is that cool persona that's on stage and she's just fire. But then when you go home, you’re just fucking messed up. You just feel so hopeless and really vulnerable. And so I think that's the song where I kind of went to that vulnerable place of the sadness that lies behind wanting to kill a Nazi. That comes from a very vulnerable place. It doesn't come from rage or it doesn't come from hate. It comes from this heart that is burning. And this heart that's really sad for the world.
I think that's definitely some area that I would like to explore more—how you can talk about political issues from a more emotional point of view. I think when you're a minority, you have to endure so much oppression constantly, which also puts this expectation that you have to be so tough, and you have to be able to take anything, and you have to be strong woman, and you have to be this “force” constantly, but that dehumanizes us. So I want to humanize these political issues, so we can talk about them from emotional point of view, instead of anger or frustration, you know?
S: That must take a lot out of you. I mean, I can only imagine, because it is when you're alone. And you're talking about this—this loneliness, this separation, this time that you spend with yourself—you can put on this hard front, and I know a lot of people do when there's other people around. But when you don't have to have that front up, and you're back home by yourself and it comes down, that's when you actually have to confront yourself.
NT: Yeah, and it's also problematic that we have to have that when we’re around other people in the first place. It does something to you, when you grow up with that layer always.
S: Is this something that you've faced in the music industry specifically?
NT: I mean, of course, the music industry is society as well—it reflects anywhere you go. We were born and raised in a white supremacist system, so it goes through it all. But of course, the music industry is also problematic, because it is also very patriarchal. And also very appropriating—appropriating culture, appropriating artists and their work. So I really hope that we can reinvented the music industry. Since it's kind of falling apart right now with Corona, it could also be a good moment to regain some power here. But yeah, even the algorithms, they work against you. To release a song called Nazi Killer, of course it's not gonna get that much views or whatever.
S: Well, that is our mission. The Cultural Reset is something that has been formed through this time of COVID. And has seen this opportunity in the music industry kind of stumbling. We want to make sure when it stands back up, we're standing up on the right two feet. Can you give us some advice from the perspective of an artist? What is it that we should be doing to push forward this reset? To actually make some actionable changes in the music industry?
NT: Wow. I think you're doing it like these platforms, these communities. I believe in communities. I believe that we need to get organized and find each other and talk about these issues and support each other and lift each other up. But also communicate to the people in power.
What's interesting now is that the rich people in the music industry are losing a lot of money which is gonna hurt them and also, of course, the artists. But the artists? We didn't make any money in the first place, really. It hasn’t really changed that much, so I feel like now it's kind of leveling out a little bit. We have the power, because we make the art. That's the power. So hopefully we can find each other in communities. Instead of finding it in this industry. And in that way—releasing music more independently and touring more independently and not being so dependent on this huge machinery.
N: Yeah! We were having a discussion with another artist—a duo called The Black Creatures—and one thing that they brought up was the fact that they felt like this industry wasn't really designed for people of color, that it wasn't designed for artists in general. Rather it was designed to exploit the creation of artists to make a select few money. And I think you really just hit the nail on the head about how this is the time to really find a way to make sure that, like Shay was saying, this industry is built back up with the right voices, with the right stories, with the right artistry positioned front and center instead of it like being a means to an end for other people, who aren't even artists, to make money. So I feel like your sentiments are definitely felt by a lot of specifically POC people in the music industry.
NT: Yeah! The industry is not even designed for us. It's designed to exploit us. That's what it's supposed to do and that's what it does. But I think that it's a more interesting thought to…I'm trying to let go of thinking that we're going to build the industry back up. Let's not build anything back up; let's just destroy that shit. Let's demolish it and then something new will come naturally. Because art is natural. Like that's a part of humanity…it's a strong part of our being in this world. So I think it would be good for us to just really let go of the concept of a music industry, you know?
Photo Cred: Dan McMahon—"Nadia Tehran"
"...it's a trap to think that you need to do certain things to be popular, or trying to be attached to a certain outcome...there are a million other opportunities out there for you that you’re missing because you're so closed on this one result..."
N: Mhm! What would you say to creatives that are aspiring to get popular in this industry and get their voices heard? What advice would you give to other artists that are emerging that are young, that are trying to “get big” or just feel seen?
S: Specifically our viewers, for example, are young creatives that are looking for advice and motivation and people to look up to.
NT: I mean, I'm struggling myself. I've been "up and coming" for 10 years, and I'm still really struggling with this—like getting views and followers and all that shit. But since I came to my 30s, I've been just slowly realizing that, I don't really care about that anymore. I think, for me, letting go of me to have a certain outcome from the work that I do is liberating. So I do the work because I want to do it. And then it's not even about anyone else, or anyone seeing it, or sharing it or being popular or being big or anything, I think the main focus for me is just going to be to create, and to create things that I think are good, and that I think are important. And create a space for myself to say what it is that I need to say.
Then, as I said: Community. Stay close to good people, stay close to the community that you want to be a part of. Reach out to people who share your interests. And that's also a thing when you make things and you put them out, you connect people that like it to you. And just as long as you stay true to the core of why you're doing this, I think you're gonna be fine. But I think it's a trap to think that you need to do certain things to be popular, or trying to be attached to a certain outcome. Because then you close yourself to this one thing that you think that you need, but maybe there are a million other opportunities out there for you that you’re missing because you're so closed on this one result that you want. So I think that's a great thing as an artist to not think about those things.
N: Yeah, I agree with that completely. I also wanted to ask you…this album, your debut album, released in 2019? Do you have any upcoming projects that you're working on?
NT: Well, I just got accepted to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts!
NT: Yeah! it's pretty insane. I just did my first month. I'm really in a very explorative state where I'm just really letting go of any concept of what I should do and I'm just trying out everything from carving metal to, you know, anything. So I of course I will just keep on working, and I'm going to keep on exploring sound, I'm going to explore text and performance, of course, for what I'm doing. But for me, it's going to be like six years of experimenting with stuff.
S: I love that! I love that you're able to take your medium of art, and do it in other mediums, not only in music, but also in physical form. And I think that that's something—I don't actually make music. I'm not a musician, but I am an artist. and I have found that as you grow in any form of the art community, you should allow yourself the opportunities to switch mediums, because you never know what you're capable of if you don't try something completely out there. So I love that you're doing this for yourself.
NT: Yeah, I'm really excited. And I'm really, really happy about this. And as I said, when you open yourself up to more possibilities of “anything can happen” and “I could do anything”, then suddenly, they're new things that appear in your life. I never knew that I was an artist in that sense. I'm a musician, but I applied with my record and I got in and suddenly, this record is an art piece. And I'm like “oh, okay!”
It’s just this new philosophy that I'm trying out: to let go of the need to arrange my life and let go of the need to have a certain result and go for it. I'm just planting my intention out in the universe and then I just trust the universe, bring it to me.
N: Yeah, manifesting! I think, in our generation, specifically—2020 specifically, I think we have a lot of people who are just really stressed out, who are really worried trying to plan, plan, plan, plan and construct their lives to, accommodate the future, whatever that might hold. And you're inspiring me right now, I don't know if you know that--you're inspiring me right now, because things are going to be alright. And I think that a lot of people need to hear that message. And I think that this album, in particular, really portrays that message as well.
NT: Thank you for the kind words. That's so beautiful.
S: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us, because it really has been inspirational. And this is the kind of content that we want to put out into the world. This positivity. It might take a lot of work and you might get knocked down. But this is the community and we really do thank you for your time. And you know, you're welcome to come back whenever you want!
NT: It's been so nice talking to you. I feel really blessed to be also part of this and to connect to people around the world. Seems so nice. And I would love to speak for an update.
S: Yes. Well, we'll keep you updated on what we're up to. And then maybe we can check back in a year and see how it's going with you in whatever new art form you're in!
NT: For sure!
N: Alright! Have a good one Nadia and thanks so much for hopping on! And to everybody who's listening, Thank you for tuning in to The Cultural Reset!
Connect with Nadia Tehran:
Stream 'Dozakh: All Lovers Hell':