When Iranian-born rapper FARHOOD first arrived in the UK, he had no money and could barely speak a word of English. Having fled his home country, he intended to fly to America where he could start a new life on his own terms. Farhood, then aged 18, was no longer welcome in the Islamic Republic, where his political activities had gotten him into trouble. Besides, he had family – an uncle and cousins on his mother’s side – in the US, so his parents were supportive of the move. In April 2011 his family paid for his flight via the UK, where he was supposed to meet “someone who could help me enter the US”. That help, however, would never arrive, leaving Farhood stranded at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. His family had trusted the wrong person; they had been duped. With no British passport or right to citizenship, he had no other option but to turn himself into the police. Ahead of him was a long battle for asylum with the Home Office, and an even longer emotional and psychological journey.
More than five years since his botched attempt to reach the States, we speak to Farhood from his flat in Liverpool, a city which he is now proud to call home. “Most of my friends call me Fred here,” he says, “it sounds more English.” A well-spoken 23-year-old, his immaculate English is delivered in a languorous Middle Eastern drawl. A gentle Liverpudlian lilt and the trailing off of consonants hint at the influence of his adopted home. These days, though, he is not afraid to express himself in his mother tongue either. To hear him bark lyrics in Farsi, the most widely spoken language in Iran, on his explosive debut EP Tike Tike, is to hear the impotent voice of a generation completely disillusioned with the Iranian status quo. In a staccato, throaty baritone, he spits out lines at speed and with intense ferocity and purpose.
For those not well versed in Persian, Farhood draws his subject matter from what he considers to be the failings of his native land; namely, the repressive political, social and cultural policies of the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The regime swept to power following a revolution in 1979. Since then, the country has “gone in the wrong direction,” Farhood chides – the first of many.
“Most people are not happy with the mistakes happening within our government. Rap, rock and metal are pretty much illegal in Iran,” he says. “We can’t really put on a gig, let alone buy or sell music. The authorities just curtail these genres before they can grow up.” However, despite the government’s efforts to diminish culture, Farhood says rap and hip hop have gained massive popularity in Iran during the past 15 years. Hichkas (“He’s the godfather of Persian rap”) and Shahin Najafi (“a very brave political artist”) are just two of the names he says have helped to sear the genre into the national consciousness. Recalling his own musical awakening as a teenager, he cites Eminem as a particular favourite of his during his formative years. He didn’t understand his lyrics, he admits, but his “confrontational style just resonated with me”. It’s this attack-dog style that seems to bleed through every one of Farhood’s productions, albeit through the lens of a very British phenomenon: grime.
Only in Liverpool, under the wing of experimental artists Kepla and Ling, has he been exposed to the genre. Having met the pair by chance at a gig at the late MelloMello, he was invited to freestyle over beats at one of Kepla’s gigs. When the EP was mooted, he knew they were the right producers to cultivate his sound. “The greatest thing that’s happened to me in the UK was meeting them [Kepla and Ling]. They create a completely unique atmosphere; they’re like sounds from different planets,” he says of their productions. Why grime though, I ask? “I think they just realised grime would suit my style. I think it goes well with the aggression and flow of the Iranian language. Most of my poems are dark, so it suits the feel of it.”
Listen to Farhood on record, and you hear echoes of the genre everywhere. On Gomnam, the monotone flows of Flow Dan and Killa P are called to mind. But Farhood frames that aesthetic in a context that’s unique to him. Where Skepta might rap about Rolexes and badmen, Farhood’s lyrical content is much more politically charged. In parts, Tike Tike is practically a polemic of the political climate in his country interweaved with subplots of his personal experiences. Odd then, that he admits he never had much to write about back in Iran. He didn’t even harbour aspirations to become a musician, he says. But the last five years, however, have changed his world view. And it’s not difficult to see why.
When Farhood turned himself into the cops at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, he was taken straight to Lancaster Farms prison in Lancashire. There, he was locked up for four months under the same roof as murderers, rapists and paedophiles. He describes his stint there as some of the most difficult days of his life. “I was the only Middle Eastern man there, which is pretty hard when you don’t know English and you’re not used to prison,” he says. “I never really knew what the charges were, presumably it was something to do with not having the correct travel documents.”
He was eventually released from prison and sent to live at a hostel while his asylum claim was processed. But when his first claim was rejected after less than a year, he found himself living on the streets. With no right to work, he was destitute. He lived hand to mouth for the next couple of years, scraping by with the support of friends and working illegally. After four years, he made a fresh claim. But this time, the claim was very different.
“When I became homeless, I was desperate to turn my life around. So I heard that if you went to church, they could help your asylum claim. And by that I mean trying to convert you to Christianity.” Farhood, who is a staunch atheist, was baptised by an ordained minister. His family are Shia Muslims who don’t practise the faith strictly. Wasn’t adopting the faith, at best, disingenuous, and, at worst, a complete compromise of his principles?
“Most people embrace it, because once you’ve been baptised, they give you a letter, and with that letter, you can make a fresh claim in the Home Office,” he explains. “To stay in the UK, that’s how I got my visa. It’s the system trying to convert you. Personally, I had to do it, because nearly four years of my life had been wasted.”
I ask was he explicitly told by anyone that converting to Christianity would help his claim. “Oh yeah, if you’re a migrant, you know that. There are thousands of migrants who do it because that’s their only choice.”
Farhood’s plight mirrors that of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who are trying to seek a better life in Europe. Although his journey is by no means unique, it’s no less poignant. Nevertheless, his lyrics evoke the language of hope and aspiration. He has always been an advocate of women’s rights and the burgeoning LGBT movement in his country. But he is no longer cowed, no longer disenchanted, no longer unable to express himself. Farhood has found his voice where he least expected it: in grime, in Liverpool, in politics. Tike Tike is the sound of someone taking a leap of faith.
“I never dreamed of making a career from music until I came to the UK. I’ve got loads of things to say now,” he says. “I’m just tired of being a victim, tired of complaining about the mistakes our parents’ generation made. Nothing is impossible to fix. My music is the music of hope.”