'Rootless And Ruthless': Nadia Tehran Invokes Life In The Diaspora

Jul 5, 2019
Originally published on July 5, 2019 8:38 am

Nadia Tehran's debut album, Dozakh: All Lovers Hell, opens with a haunting excerpt from an interview with her father. Tehran's father recounts his last day fighting in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when he drove an ammunition-filled car that exploded after it was attacked. "Death comes when it comes," Tehran's father recalls saying to rally his troops for that ill-fated expedition. "One should not be afraid of death."

With her family in mind, Tehran named her album Dozakh after a Persian word for a kind of emotional hell a person finds themselves in when separated from a loved one. That sentiment of separation pervades Tehran's experimental music.

Tehran's parents immigrated from Iran to Sweden after the war. She says that her life in the Iranian diaspora is one of the influences behind her album. "It plays into a separation between, you know, life and death, and who am I and why am I here," Tehran explains. "But also, it kind of translates into my separation of growing up in Sweden and feeling rootless."

Nadia Tehran's Dozakh: All Lovers Hell
Courtesy of YEAR0001

Tehran's verses underscore this sense of rootlessness. On the song "Jet," she rhymes, "Luxury refugee / Apology? Not from me / Dior head to toe / Yeah, I came in on a boat / Rootless and ruthless / Smiling, I'm toothless / Catch me at the airport / Fly like a jet."

"That's my dad. That's my sister. That's my friend. This is the diaspora life," she says of "Jet."

It took years, Tehran says, for her to start openly embracing her Persian heritage. As a child, she would speak Persian, eat Persian food, watch Persian movies and listen to Persian music at home. "But then in school, that would be something that I would try and strip away," Tehran says. "So it was way later in my life when I started to embrace my Persian-ness, I guess."

Tehran attributes much of that personal trajectory to her parents, who insisted that she and her sister speak Farsi in the house and attend after-school Persian classes when they were young. Years later, Tehran's father even assisted with the making of Dozakh by accompanying his daughter to help shoot the music video for "Refugee" in Tehran, Iran's capital city. They undertook the risky project in the heavily policed streets of Tehran together.

YouTube

"Me and my dad were being really punk and just going for it," Tehran describes the process. "I was wearing my headphones underneath my burqa, just rapping to the camera and then, like, pretending like nothing happened."

While some songs on the album are love letters to her family and heritage, others are about love lost. The song "Dreamers" was inspired by Tehran losing her grandmother. Tehran says it invokes "the feeling of 'I want to call you. I want to be with you but I can't be with you so I'm going to be with you in my fantasy.' "

Listen to the full aired interview at the audio link.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A few years ago, a Swedish Iranian musician named Nadia Tehran put a microphone in front of her father and asked him to talk about his life. There was one story she really wanted to hear - the story of how he, a young Iranian man, ended up raising his family in Sweden.

NADIA TEHRAN: The moment that changed everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOZAKH")

ALI KARDAR: (Foreign language spoken).

KING: He's telling her, death comes when it comes. One should not be afraid of death. Her dad was an Iranian soldier fighting in Iran's war with Iraq in the '80s. He was about 20 years old when he'd finished up his service.

TEHRAN: It was his last day, and he had packed his stuff, and he had returned his firearms and everything. And he got this final order to send this car full with ammunition to the front line. And he was trying to inspire his men to find the courage to drive it. But nobody would do it, so it ended up with him having to drive the car. And it got attacked, and it exploded. And my father went into this state in between life and death. And he wakes up, and he falls asleep. His body's moving from one location to the next, and he doesn't know where he is or what happened. And that explosion, in that blink of an eye, really changed his whole life story.

KING: He then fled to Sweden. And Nadia says it took him years to recuperate. He raised his family there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AND GO")

TEHRAN: (Singing) Fingers on triggers, hounds on my beat. Players sending prayers, yeah, their love is still fleeting...

KING: Her father's story begins Nadia Tehran's debut album and inspired some of the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AND GO")

TEHRAN: (Singing) Near death is near life. Near death is near life.

KING: With her family in mind, Nadia named the record "Dozakh," after a Persian word for a kind of emotional hell where you find yourself separated from a lover.

TEHRAN: It plays into a separation between, you know, life and death and who am I and why am I here. But also, it kind of translates into my separation of, you know, growing up in Sweden and feeling rootless.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JET")

TEHRAN: (Singing) Catch me running on your ground, underground, on your ground. Luxury refugee. Apology? - not from me. Dior head to toe. Yeah, I came in on a boat. Rootless and ruthless - smiling, I'm toothless. Catch me at the airport - fly like a jet. Fly like a jet - I be fly like a jet...

KING: I loved the song "Jet". Let me read these lyrics. (Reading) Luxury refugee. Apology? - not from me. Dior head to toe. Yeah, I came here on a boat. Rootless and ruthless - is that you?

TEHRAN: Yeah, that's me. That's my dad. That's my sister. This is the diaspora life.

KING: What was it like being a Persian kid in Sweden - or did you not feel like a Persian kid in Sweden? Did you feel like a Swedish kid in Sweden?

TEHRAN: I mean, I guess that's the question that I'm still asking myself. I think as a kid, I really wanted to fit in, so it was way later in my life when I started to embrace my Persian-ness, I guess.

KING: I'm curious about luxury refugee. I imagine your dad didn't arrive in Sweden with much.

TEHRAN: No.

KING: So is he self-made?

TEHRAN: Yeah. We're all super self-made. Like, he came with nothing.

KING: What do your parents do?

TEHRAN: My dad has, like, a corner store.

KING: No kidding. A bodega, we call it in New York.

TEHRAN: Yeah, exactly. So there's, like, some gaming and, you know, cigarettes and candy and - yeah, stuff like that. And I worked in that store, as well.

KING: You weren't getting away with anything.

TEHRAN: (Laughter).

KING: What do you call that kind of store in Swedish - in the Swedish language?

TEHRAN: (Speaking Swedish).

KING: (Speaking Swedish).

TEHRAN: Yeah.

KING: And what do you call it in Persian?

TEHRAN: (Speaking Persian).

KING: (Speaking Persian). And in English, we'll go with bodega...

TEHRAN: Yeah.

KING: ...Even though that's a Spanish word.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: How is it that you ended up - and I'm really curious - speaking three languages fluently? That's pretty impressive.

TEHRAN: It's also thanks to my dad and my mom 'cause, you know, as a kid going to Swedish school, we just wanted to speak Swedish. Me and my sister always spoke Swedish with each other. But my dad would be really persistent and be like - sometimes he wouldn't answer me if I didn't speak in Farsi. And it would annoy me so much, so I would, like, silent-treat him.

(LAUGHTER)

TEHRAN: Every Friday afternoon, when everyone else went home from school, I had, like, Persian class.

KING: Oh. Your parents weren't playing.

TEHRAN: No. No, girl.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: And you've traveled to Iran over the years. You shot one of your music videos in Tehran. And it's really impressive because you are just walking through the streets doing your thing, standing on buildings. I mean, how did that turn out? I kept worrying, like, are the police going to get her, or...

TEHRAN: I mean, we definitely had eyes on us...

KING: Yeah.

TEHRAN: ...And we had to keep moving a lot. Me and my dad were being really punk and just going for it. The video is also - it's - you know, it has a really fast pace, and it's because - two seconds, three seconds and then just go...

KING: Yeah.

TEHRAN: ...And, like, hide the camera. And I was wearing my headphones underneath my burka and just rapping to the camera and then, like, pretending like nothing happened (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REFUGEE")

TEHRAN: (Singing) I'm a beauty and a beast, a disease from Middle East. I'm your Judas. I'm your priest. Live my life like a feast. Space is my nationality. You trying to build up walls - I'm going to climb them like a tree.

KING: The song was "Refugee"...

TEHRAN: Yeah.

KING: ...And your dad was with you.

TEHRAN: Yes (laughter). I was planning on, first, to go by myself and do it. And I told him about it, and he just laughed at me, like...

(LAUGHTER)

TEHRAN: ...What do you think that you are going to do (laughter) all by yourself? He was like, no, I'm coming with you. And a couple of times when we got caught, he was the one who saved the day.

KING: Did he just, like, talk your way out of it?

TEHRAN: Yeah. Yeah. He's a great talker.

KING: He sounds like a cool guy. Yeah.

TEHRAN: Yeah. He's amazing. I love him so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REFUGEE")

TEHRAN: (Singing) I'm a refugee. You can watch me please your lady.

KING: That was Nadia Tehran. Her debut album is called "Dozakh: All Lovers Hell." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.