A woman's profile with her hair flowing behind her
Gola. Courtesy of the artist.

Arrested because her hair was peeking out from under her hajib, Mahsa Amini met her death at the hands of Iran’s dreaded morality police last September. In the weeks afterwards, Golazin, a singer/songwriter who fled Iran in 2012, provided the soundtrack for the rising tide of outrage that’s come to be known as the Woman/Life/Freedom movement. 

Affectionately referred to as “Gola” by fans in Iran and throughout the far-flung Iranian diaspora, she had fled her homeland a decade earlier to pursue her musical calling. She’d been detained many times due to her hair escaping her hajib (the head covering that Iranian law requires women to wear in public). As thousands of young people took to the streets of cities around Iran to protest Amini’s death, Gola’s anti-hijab song “Haghame” (It’s My Right) went viral, turning into an anthem for a generation increasingly disillusioned with the governing theocracy. 

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Golazin makes her Bay Area debut as a headliner Saturday at Brava Theater Center, performing the music from her 2022 album of protest songs, “Change.” Long based in London but now living in San Antonio, Texas, she started working on the material about four years ago, presciently giving voice to the post-revolutionary generation’s mounting anger and frustration over sex segregation, censorship, corruption and Iran’s general lack of opportunities. 

She makes it clear from the opening track, “Khodam Boodam Oonja” (I Was There), that she experienced the repression herself. “I’m talking about what I have seen,” she said. “It gives a message of hope at the end, but I wanted people to know that I was there.”

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Saturday’s concert is presented by Nazy Kaviani’s Diaspora Arts Connection, the San Francisco organization dedicated to championing musicians with roots in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Golazin made her first Bay Area appearance last September at the Blue Shield of California Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of DAC’s annual flagship “Let Her Sing” production, which featured an expansive array of artists, including platinum-selling Nashville songwriter Meghan Kabir; Paris-based, Tehran-born multi-instrumentalist Niaz Mawab; and Italy’s Faraualla Vocal Quartet. 

“Change” features Golazin’s trenchant observations and critiques, set to inviting pop-rock arrangements inflected with Persian modes. “The whole point was to unite everyone in Iran, and raise awareness outside of Iran,” she said. But in presenting several pieces at “Let Her Sing,” she reimagined the music working with DAC’s house band, a fascinating ensemble with Tehran-born drummer Yahya Alkhansa, veteran bass explorer Safa Shokra, Israeli-born wind player Asaf Ophir, and Iranian guitarist Mohammad Talani. 

  • A woman's profile on the cover of an album with the words, GOLA and change
  • A woman's face with her head arched to the side and a sheer veil covering her.
  • A woman in hijab with only her face showing.
  • A woman's face with a sheer veil in front of her.
  • A woman in hijab, completely covered in black.
  • A woman's face with her lips stitched together.

She’s performing with the same cast of players at Brava, with projected artwork by Navid Ghaem Maghami and English supertitles of her Farsi lyrics. Deeply inspired by hearing her music interpreted by such a diverse group of players, she was delighted when “somehow we all really connected,” Golazin said. “I loved what each of them did, and decided to go on stage with them again. I feel they get the core of my music and what the songs convey.”

The Brava concert compounds Golazin’s transgressions in the eyes of Iran’s Islamic theocrats. She’s not only performing unveiled before a mixed audience — in Iran women vocalists are only permitted to sing in all-female settings­ — but she’s delivering a scathing critique of the Islamic Revolution.

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She’s collaborating with an Israeli-born musician, and not for the first time. Back in 2018, she heard “Sabe Deus” by Israeli pop star Idan Raichel and Portuguese diva Ana Moura and was smitten by the blend fado and Middle Eastern cadences. Golazin reached out to Raichel about creating her own version of the song, and after he gave her the green light, she recorded the song in Farsi, “Khoda Danad.” Duly impressed with her take on the song, Raichel invited her to tour with him. Visa problems prevented her for going on the road, but she joined him on stage in London and Paris, encounters that transformed her sense of Iran’s place in the world. 

“Working with Idan was one of the best moves of my musical career,” she said, noting that censorship around all things Israeli is so intense in Iran that she had no idea what to expect before collaborating with him. “I realized how similar Iranians and Israelis are, and how similar our music is. Culturally, we’re very close. It was a great, eye-opening experience. Music truly brings people together.”

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There was a cost, however. Golazin received numerous threats after working with Raichel, and she realized that visiting Iran wasn’t safe under the current regime. Iranian journalists, artists and political dissidents who speak out against the Islamic government have been targeted for harassment and even assassination, particularly women like Masih Alinejad, “but you don’t give in and get scared,” Golazin said. “That’s what they want you to feel.”

While the Iranian regime is applying intense pressure to crush the protest movement, including several public executions of protestors after brief proceedings denounced by human rights groups as show trials, Woman/Life/Freedom supporters around the world are trying maintain pressure on the government. On March 8, International Women’s Day, San Francisco State presents the latest event in its “Woman.Life.Freedom” series, featuring the great Iranian singer Marjan Vahdat, whose veil-less performance on a Tehran rooftop with her sister, Berkeley-based Mahsa Vahdat, helped lay the groundwork for the movement. 

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She’s joining with poet Tonya M. Foster in a new collaboration, followed by an assembly of SF State student poets and musicians presenting improvised readings with live Persian music accompaniment led by Iranian-American saxophonist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh, a longtime SF State music professor.

“Marjan is one of my favorite singers,” Golazin said. “Her voice is wonderful and she’s a master of the traditional techniques I adore. I haven’t met her yet, but I’m sure one of these days we’ll cross path and hopefully we’ll collaborate.”

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