When American musicians and celebrities express opinions that ruffle conservative feathers, they’re often told to “shut up and sing” or “stick to acting.” But in the case of Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, the response to his bold lyrics by hardline religious clerics in his native country was a $100,000 reward for his murder.
“When God Sleeps,” a new documentary about Najafi by German-American director Till Schauder, will play the Winder Cultural Arts center on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. to kick off the annual South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers. The screening is free, and Schauder will be in attendance for an audience Q&A discussion following the movie.
Schauder became aware of Najafi’s desperate situation after an attempt to invite the musician to the premiere of his 2012 basketball documentary “The Iran Job,” which featured two of Najafi’s songs on the soundtrack.
“When that film opened, I couldn’t reach him,” said Schauder. “Not by phone, not by e-mail or social media, not even through mutual acquaintances. He had disappeared.”
An activist and performer on the underground scene from an early age, Najafi moved to Germany in 2005 when his music’s strong messages condemning the oppression of women, homophobia and human rights abuses in Iranian society drew threats of persecution from local authorities. After the release of his song, “Ay Naghi,” a Shi’ite cleric issued a fatwa death sentence against Najafi, sending him into hiding. This lead the New York Times to label him the “Rushdie of Rap” in reference to novelist Salman Rushdie, who was put under police protection by the British government when his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” lead Ayatollah Khomeini to call for his assassination.
“Rushdie could sit at home and write,” said Najafi, who was finally reached by Schauder exhausted and fearing for his life. “I’m a musician. I have to perform.”
Najafi’s situation was all too familiar for Schauder, whose own father-in-law, Nicky Nodjoumi, is a painter whose satirical work caused him to flee Iran in 1980, the same year Najafi was born. Days before Nodjoumi’s escape, religious extremists burned down an exhibit of his paintings at Tehran’s Museum of Modern Art, and he has lived in exile ever since.
With “When God Sleeps,” Schauder hopes to understand the journey of a controversial artist, to raise questions about free speech and religious and political extremism, and to tell a very personal story that lies beneath these global issues. The title of the film was inspired by a quote from an interview with Najafi, who once considered pursuing the path of a devout cleric before choosing music instead.
“(When I) asked (Najafi) if God exists, (he) says, ‘If he exists he is sleeping,’” said Schauder. “In light of the worldwide conflicts over religion, political oppression, refugees and integration, this seems to be the right time to tell (Najafi’s) story.”
Please visit www.winderculturalarts.com for additional information.