Mehdi Rajabian was sent to prison for making music – but he says that won't stop him

Mehdi Rajabian could be arrested at any moment.

The 30-year-old has already been imprisoned twice for making music the Iranian authorities considered unacceptable.

The first time, he was kept in solitary confinement for three months – but the second saw him jailed for six years and forbidden from engaging in musical activities forever.

Currently on probation, he’s continued to make music in defiance of the regime’s ban. The result is an album, Middle Eastern, that was released by Sony Music last year.

Recorded in secrecy, it features contributions from almost 100 artists in 12 countries, including Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Many of the musicians faced similar persecution to Rajabian. One of the songs was recorded during an air strike, another by a fleeing refugee in a boat.

Each track is accompanied by a painting from Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan, who was herself imprisoned for nearly three years for making art that offended the Turkish government.

And yet, the message is one of peace and unity. Working together in isolation, these disparate artists have crafted an enthralling and moving portrait of the region’s music.

“I feel like, in this period of time and history, Middle Eastern countries needed a project like this,” Rajabian tells the BBC via a secure messaging app from his home in Sari, in the north of Iran.

“Middle Eastern inhabitants are all tormented by the same pain… but music is a common language we can use to convey our sufferings.

“This project is a ‘no’ to war, meaning any kind of war and human rights oppression.”

Inspiration for the album arrived during Rajabian’s second prison term, when he was forced to share a cell with Somalian pirates.

“They would sing me their folk music,” recalls the musician, who still has some handwritten poetry from their leader, “one of the 10 most violent men in the world”.

The experience taught him that music can’t be suppressed, even when you lock up the musicians.

“That’s why I wrote a project for freedom and peace in prison,” he says.

Rajabian’s ordeal began in 2013, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard raided his office, shut down his recording studio and confiscated all his hard drives.

Back then, he was running a record label that championed female musicians, and was working on an album, The History of Iran Narrated By Setar, which he described as being about the “absurdity” of the Iran-Iraq war.

Accused of distributing “underground music, including many whose lyrics and messages were deemed offensive to the Iranian authorities or the country’s religion,” he was sent to prison. Rajabian says he spent 90 days in solitary confinement, blindfolded and unaware of his surroundings.

He was eventually released on bail but, in 2015, was arrested again – this time with his film-maker brother, Hossein Rajabian – and sentenced to six years in prison, after a three-minute trial.

In protest, the brothers went on hunger strike for 40 days. Rajabian says he lost 15kg and vomited blood. His cellmate, a human rights activist called Vahid Sayadi Nasiri, also took part in the hunger strike and tragically died.

Organisations such as Amnesty International and Freemuse fought for his release, supported by celebrities including Johnny Depp, Peter Gabriel and Ai Weiwei; and his sentence was eventually cut to three years in jail with a further three years on suspended sentence.

Yet he is still dealing with the repercussions of those experiences. At one point, the musician was thought to have developed muscular dystrophy as a result of the interrogations he endured. Starvation has also damaged his ability to play the setar.

Despite everything, he continues to pursue music and his next project could be his riskiest yet. Once again, Rajabian has plans to record female singers – who are still banned from singing in front of male audiences (except relatives) in Iran.

“Right now, I’m working on its instrumentals and then [I will] connect with female singers,” says Rajabian. “A number of female singers from various Middle Eastern countries, who will tell a story, piece by piece, until they all unite in the end.”

He concedes that, in Iran, “it is a crime to contact me and many [people] are afraid to follow up” his requests. But he plans to orchestrate the album online, patching together a network of like-minded artists and breaking down musical borders.

“I’m going to work on this project, even if I go back to prison,” he insists.

Iran’s underground music scene – Behzad Bolour, BBC Persian

After the 1979’s Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini banned the broadcast of music on TV or radio, arguing that it made the human brain “inactive and frivolous”. Only revolutionary music and religious songs were considered permissible, and almost all Iran’s pop singers left for the USA.

Gradually, classical Persian music, under the banner of Sufi music began to resurface. But in the 1990s, a parallel Iran was developing under the skin of the major cities, with young people crafting their own instruments and making their own unofficial songs (which were only broadcast on the BBC Persian request programme).

In early 2000, after a relaxation on the laws around music, the pop market opened up in Iran and, through the internet, underground music which was percolating behind closed doors began to spread out. Bands were playing rock, fusion, rap and alternative folk. And they all talked about a different Iran, an Iran that wants to be modern and level with the rest of the world.

Mehdi Rajabian is from the later generation of these Children Of The Revolution – and an important underground voice in Iran’s music scene.

The musician is motivated by hope and a determination to use his music as a “flashlight” in the darkness.

“In the Middle East, an instrument can be as powerful as a gun, and as forbidden as carrying one,” Rajabian explains.

“In a society where inhuman incidents are happening everywhere, art can record and echo [them] in history. Art exposes truth – and doing so always comes with consequences [in] totalitarian regimes and dictatorships.

“In the first step, the artist loses their normal living situation due to the pressure the regime applies to them, then they get them destroyed – but the outcome is people being aware. This brings light to society, so they would stand in front of the system as well.”

Rajabian is putting his life on the line in pursuit of that goal – but he truly believes his efforts will make a difference.

“No power can stop independent art,” he concludes.

“Art is my weapon and I stand before any power.”

Jean-Paul Gaultier: Stars turn out for designer's final show

Celebrities have descended on the final fashion show of French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier in Paris, as he bows out after a 50-year career.

Former French first lady Carla Bruni was among the guests photographed at the Paris Fashion Week event.

Gaultier shocked fans when he announced it would be his last haute couture runway last week.

He said the event, at the city’s Théâtre du Châtelet, would be a “party” to celebrate his decades in fashion.

Gaultier, 67, has dressed stars from Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett to Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

He designed Madonna’s “cone bra” corset, which she wore for her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour.

Other stars at the Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2020 show included American actress and model Larsen Thompson and Czech-Italian supermodel Eva Herzigova.

French designer Christian Louboutin – known for his signature red-soled stiletto shoes – was pictured with Lebanese-born British pop singer Mika.

The show comes less than a week after Gaultier tweeted a video announcing that this runway would be his last.

“It’s going to be quite a party with many of my friends, and we’re going to have fun until very, very late,” he said.

Gaultier posted videos of models getting ready backstage on Twitter earlier in the evening.

‘Emotional night’

Ahead of the show, Burlesque model Dita Von Teese posted on Instagram that some of his “legendary muses” would be taking part.

She predicted it would be an “emotional night” and, in an earlier post, wrote: “I’m so grateful to have been part of the story.”

Last year Gaultier criticised what he called “ridiculous” fashion waste, saying big fashion brands are harming the planet by producing “far too many collections with far too many clothes”.

At the opening of the event in Paris, he called the outfits on the runway his “first upcycling haute couture collection” and urged the audience to recycle their clothes.

“In my first show and this, my last, there are creations made with the jeans I’ve worn,” he said.

“It’s the most beautiful of materials. Like a lot of humans, it becomes even more beautiful as it gets older.”

He added: “Goodbye to the spanking new, hello to the spanking old!”


Canadian model Coco Rocha tweeted that it was “surreal” that this would be Gaultier’s last show.

American actress and model Kat Graham described him as her “fashion idol”.

“JPG was the first big design house to dress me, to believe in me,” she wrote.

James Bond Spectre filming accident damages claim settled

A man who suffered “career ending injuries” during filming for the James Bond movie Spectre has settled a high court damages claim.

Terry Madden, of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, said his legs were crushed when a car spun out of control during filming in Austria in 2015.

He sued B24 and Eon Productions, companies behind the Bond franchise.

The confidential settlement was agreed prior to a hearing at London’s High Court.

News of litigation emerged nearly two years ago on behalf of Mr Madden who was working as second unit, assistant director on the film.

‘Horrendous accident’

Giving details of the damages claim, his lawyers said that on 17 February 2015 the unit was filming action sequences of an aeroplane flying through a valley in the Austrian Alps using a remotely-operated camera rig-mounted on a Range Rover.

At the end of the shot the vehicle “skidded out of control” and hit Mr Madden, pinning him against a camera rostrum and crushing his legs.

The spokeswoman said Mr Madden was “highly regarded” for his work on Bond films and other movies.

His lawyers said the injuries Mr Madden suffered had ended a “successful and celebrated” career.

Mr Madden previously said: “I felt privileged and proud to work and be part of an active, exciting, but hard working industry, at times sacrificing family life.

Victoria Derbyshire Show to come off air as part of BBC cuts

The BBC’s award-winning Victoria Derbyshire Show is coming off air, the BBC media editor has learned.

Amol Rajan said the cost of running the show on a linear channel “when savings are needed” had been “deemed too high”.

On Wednesday the Times reported that BBC News would need to find £80m of cuts over the next four years.

The broadcaster is due to make an announcement about its news operation next week.

The news comes two days after Tony Hall announced his resignation as the BBC’s director general.

The BBC has declined to comment.

Rajan added that the show has won awards at the RTS and from Bafta.

Derbyshire herself, who presents the show, was nominated for best presenter four years in a row and won once.

When Victoria Derbyshire proposed a TV version of her Radio 5 Live Show to former BBC News boss James Harding, he gave her the green light within days.

BBC News has a big problem in connecting with some licence fee payers away from big cities and from poorer backgrounds – or, in the jargon, “underserved audiences”.

For Harding and BBC News, Derbyshire – and the show’s first editor, Louisa Compton (now at Channel 4) – were the solution to a big problem.

It worked – online.

Derbyshire’s programme was highly effective in reaching those people, through original journalism, investigations and scoops of a kind that the BBC generally struggles to do. But on linear TV channels it failed to garner a sufficiently big audience to justify its cost.

First it was chopped from two hours to one. Now it is gone.

BBC News is looking to make big savings and re-organise its structure so that digital journalism is prioritised.

Harvey Weinstein trial: Ex-movie mogul 'a titan and a rapist'

Opening arguments have begun in the trial in New York of ex-movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, who could face life behind bars if convicted.

The 67-year-old denies five charges, including rape and sexual assault, relating to two accusers.

Prosecutor Meghan Hast said: “The man seated right there was not just a titan in Hollywood, he was a rapist.”

The defence will argue the encounters with the two accusers were consensual and Mr Weinstein committed no crimes.

The trial is expected to conclude in early March.

Mr Weinstein arrived at the Manhattan court flanked by several members of his team. When asked by a reporter if he could get a fair trial, he replied: “Of course.”

Once one of Hollywood’s most decorated and lauded producers, Mr Weinstein has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 80 women – allegations which helped drive the #MeToo movement.

But few of the complaints have led to criminal charges.

Last week, a judge told potential jurors that they must decide Mr Weinstein’s case based on the evidence and not make it “a referendum on the #MeToo movement”.

What were the prosecution’s opening arguments?

Ms Hast, the Manhattan assistant district attorney, said that the evidence would show Mr Weinstein was a “sexual predator and a rapist”.

She said the defendant had used “his power and prestige in the entertainment industry to ensure [accusers’] silence… Although they’re strangers to one another, they’ll each describe to you their shame and humiliation following their violent encounters with the defendant.”

Ms Hast gave explicit details of allegations by three women, only two of whom are on the charge sheet. The third is actress Annabella Sciorra. Her alleged incident occurred too long ago to be prosecuted under New York state law, but prosecutors filed the indictment because it would allow them to call her as a witness during the trial.

Mimi (Miriam) Haleyi. A former production assistant who accuses Mr Weinstein of performing a forcible sex act on her in 2006. Ms Hast said Mr Weinstein had tempted Ms Haleyi with job opportunities and after having had her brought to his apartment, lunged at her, pushed her on to a bed and forced her into the sex act.

Jessica Mann. An actress named for the first time. Ms Hast said Ms Mann had had encounters with Mr Weinstein over a number of years, and would testify that Mr Weinstein had raped her multiple times.

Annabella Sciorra. Ms Hast said the actress would testify that she had been “violently raped” by the defendant in the winter of 1993-94.

Ms Hast said the defendant had kept his alleged victims close so they would not report his actions.

What will the defence say?

The 67-year-old has admitted that he has “caused a lot of pain”, but maintains he is innocent of any crimes.

“Mr Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual,” his spokeswoman said soon after the first allegations emerged.

Before the opening of the trial, Weinstein lawyer Damon Cheronis said that his opening argument would tell jurors that the accusers had sent “loving emails” and “bragged” about their sexual relationships with him.

Lead lawyer Donna Rotunno said her client had a “slew of witnesses ready to go”.

She has said the evidence will exonerate the movie mogul of any criminal wrongdoing. “I’m not here to say he was not guilty of committing sins,” she said. “But there’s a difference between sins and crimes, and I don’t think he’s a rapist.”

The defence is also expected to question the recollections of the accusers.

It will also present its opening arguments on Wednesday.

Mr Weinstein himself is unlikely to testify.

How did the criminal charges come about?

They stem back to May 2018, when Mr Weinstein turned himself in to New York police after some of the allegations received wide publicity. He was then charged with rape and several other counts of sexual abuse against two women.

He was released on $1m (£760,000) bail the following month and pleaded not guilty to rape and sexual assault in the New York Supreme Court.

There were originally six charges, but in October that year a New York judge dismissed one of them after prosecutors said one of his accusers had given a witness a different account of the alleged sex assault from the version she had given them.

In August 2019, Mr Weinstein pleaded not guilty to two additional charges of predatory sexual assault relating to Annabella Sciorra.