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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Advocacy and Social Movements

Resistance and Counter-Memories in Persian Black Metal

Sina Winter, a pioneer of Iranian black metal, was forced to leave Iran because of his music. As the leader of the band From the Vastland, Sina has produced music celebrating the pre-Islamic heritage and Zoroastrian tales. After performing at the Inferno Music Festival in Oslo in 2013 and appearing in the documentary Blackhearts (2017), he was forced to relocate. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), targeted him as a result of his media exposure. In Iran, several artists are persecuted due to their music.

In the West, black metal bands tend to be influenced by ancient legends and traditions, whereas in religious authoritarian countries, such practices are often harshly punished. In Iran, black metal is generally considered to be blasphemous. In addition, the lyrical content featured in Sina’s work is controversial, as he celebrates a heritage that the Islamic Republic wishes to eradicate from the collective consciousness. 

This paper presents some results of my most recent studies looking at how black metal artists in Iran use their art to preserve their ancient heritage and defy social norms.

Silence on the Surface: a Ban on Music and Reliance on Technology

In the years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian art scene was flourishing, this was promoted by the monarchical regime that sought to modernize and westernize the country.[i]  The music scene at the time was thriving, mainly featuring domestic pop stars who composed tunes based on western models.[ii] In the wake of the revolution, the first supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini condemned all institutions that were ad odds with the Islamic values and beliefs. Not only was music associated with colonial cultural practices, but it was also understood as a manifestation of evil.[iii] To Khomeini, music was “no different from opium,” a drug that induced incoherence .[iv] Several restrictions were imposed after the revolution, including prohibiting public concerts, censoring lyrics, and requesting musicians to undergo administrative processes to release albums. Women were prohibited from singing, and music schools were closed.[v] Music stores were vandalized, and instruments were destroyed. Only in 1989, Khomeini released a fatwā permitting the purchase and sale of musical instruments. In the past few decades, depending on who was in power, some music and concerts have been permitted as long as they did not feature sensual rhythms or women’s voices. This extreme ban on entertainment resulted in a rift between the ruling class and those who remained attached to their pre-Islamic culture.[vi] However, Iranians have always been one step ahead of the authorities, despite efforts to keep citizens isolated from international popular culture. Nevertheless, music was  smuggled from abroad and sold illegally. Teens exchanged cassettes first and CDs later in schools. In the 1990s, illegal satellites became increasingly popular in Iran. This technology posed an existential threat to the government, which it was unprepared to confront. Only after satellite dishes appeared on most rooftops in Tehran did conservatives begin to discuss this new technology, branding it as a cultural invasion.[vii] Satellites helped not only western pop music to reenter Iranian households but rock and heavy metal as well, as what was a song, became a music video. Behind the music, which their authorities called devilish,[viii] teenagers could clearly see musicians simply enjoying their instruments. Next, the internet provided assistance to the metal community.

 Considering the current situation, it is difficult to envision Iran’s government promoting the use of the Internet as an alternative form of scientific and technological advancement following the Iran-Iraq War. However, it was not until 2003 that the Iranian government began to develop a systematic method for blocking websites or filtering content on the Internet[ix] to prevent the corruption of its people and restrict a tool through which the west could invade Iran.[x] Nevertheless, Since Iranians’ lives are restricted, they learn at an early age to use proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs). In Iran, overcoming the internet restrictions signifies a political act, as Wulf suggest “it prepares and enables counter-appropriation moves when political conflicts are fought out in the internet and elsewhere”, this can be seen in the ongoing protest.[xi] As a result, social media pages and websites are now considered spaces of liberation, and if one is shut down, a new one is immediately created in its place.[xii] On the web, musicians, such as metal artists, and fans have found a space to create communities, learn from each other, spread original music, and collect fans.

Basement Screams: Grassroot Resistance

In Iran, heavy metal bands began playing cover songs as early as the 1980s. Only at the end of the 1990s metal bands began writing their own music, Persian scale, ethnic instrumentation, and incorporating Persian history into their music. As previously explained, musicians need to ask an official permission to perform or publish their music, yet, in the conversations with heavy metal artists from Iran I’ve collected over the past three years, the majority have stated they prefer to perform illegally as it constitutes a political act in and of itself. Practically speaking, this means performances are small private gatherings outside of the city center, which typically takes place in basements or houses. They are open to everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. It is not only metalheads who host parties in basements (Nooshin 2005). Far from being a phenomenon limited to the metal underground world, each subculture organizes these illegal gatherings as a collective ritual that foster a sense of belonging and belongingness.[xiii] In a country without clubs, young Iranians would meet in secret to dance, drink and socialize. Having started immediately after the revolution, it has proven impossible to stop these underground events, as metalheads are resilient and rather risk arrest than giving in to censorship.

Heavy metal is very popular among young Iranians, especially the extreme kind, such as black metal.[xiv] My participants state that the most aggressive genre of metal is popular because their life is extreme.[xv] Approximately 130 bands are known to be active, however, based on my experience, I would be willing to say that there are many more, but due to their danger, many of them are not active. [xvi]  Ideologically, the vast majority of these bands promote anti-organized religious sentiment and ethnic paganism. As I will explain in the following pages, this is a crucial point since the Islamic republic systematically tried to eliminate everything that would oppose Islam.

Forbidden Heritage

Iranian history has been thoroughly rewritten by the Islamic government since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in 1979.  Khomeini referred to pre-Islamic Iran as “under the rule of tyranny, without any trace of law or popular government” until God saved the Country through the Prophet (Barry 2018; 44). To him, the epic tales were insulting and as such, they were initially banned. It is reported that some Persian mythology has been incorporated into the school curriculum over the years, but not with sufficient emphasis. The hatred Khomeini felt for Persian epic tales was also a reaction against the Pahlavi kings who ruled Iran from 1925 until 1979 and emphasized Iran’s pre-Islamic past as the ultimate source of Persian culture.[xvii]

The main attack has been aimed at The Shahnameh or The Book of Kings, a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the early 11th Century. The Shahnameh is regarded as a masterpiece and is at the very foundation of Iranian nationalism; the regime besides initially banning it from schools, and the State-owned media portrayed its heroes as corrupt.[xviii] It is also important to the contemporary adherents of Zoroastrianism, who traditionally have considered it a work of history.[xix] The epic tale has become the ultimate expression of cultural identity for a young generation who cannot define itself with the Islamic Regime, especially those belonging to Zoroastrianism or who are now embracing it as a form of resistance.[xx] Many reports show The Islamic Republic is worried about the growing fascination with Zoroastrianism.[xxi] According to the constitution, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies (U.S. Department Of state 2020). However, Zoroastrians have faced increased restrictions. They have suffered mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences. Since 2016, the authorities have blocked the unofficial annual holiday that honors the tomb of Cyrus the Great (ca. 600–530 B.C.E.), the founder of the first Persian Empire and devout Zoroastrian. Thousands of people gathered chanting “Iran is our country; Cyrus is our father.” (Boroumand 2020). Far from equality of rights, its followers have no right to organize events or to share their religion through radio or television (Tait 2006). Historically, artists have been in tune with society. In response to the Islamic country’s efforts to erase their traditions, artists have used their talent to advocate for their heritage; it is important to remember that resistance in Iran is not a contemporary phenomenon. The media has finally acknowledged the ongoing protests, but Persia has resisted Islam since 633 AD when Muslims conquered the country.

Black Metal as Counter Memories

Black metal music originated in the west in the 1980s and has traditionally been associated with blasphemy and anti-Christianity.[xxii] Black metal bands in Iran, echoing their western counterpart, often engage with ancient themes. As the authorities consider these topics controversial and blasphemous, black metal is one of the most dangerous music genres to play in Iran. Yet, musicians note that ancient tales like Zoroastrian are not just religious stories. To them, it’s history and evidence of roots the government wants Iranians to forget.

Sina, leader of the band from the Vastland is one of the Iranian black metal artists who uses his music as a counter-memory and has paid the price for it. He had to relocate after performing in 2013 at Inferno Music Festival in Oslo and participating in the documentary Blackhearts (2017). The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targeted Sina because he gained attention from the media. The purpose of Sina’s music is to spread the ancient legends contained in the Shahnameh and to educate young people about the rich Persian culture. His discography features concept albums that are meant to celebrate not only the Persians’ rich heritage but also Zoroastrian traditions. For instance, his album, The Haft Khan, as Sina explains tells the story of Rostam, the most beloved Persian hero. He sets off to free King Kay Kavus from the demons. On the way, he undergoes seven tests. These are known as the seven heroic trials. To Sina, these stories are valuable to inspire self-determination as “In Islam, there is one way. While our ancient gods are gray, very human. They are good or bad depending on the situation. Our stories have a lot of humanity. It is about your inner struggle and how to be a good person.” Sina’s ideology does not only translate into epic tales but also into his love for Zoroastrian traditions. As an example, he described the song called “The Cadavers Tower” from the album Daevayasna, released by Satanath Records in 2018:

“As the concept of the band is Persian Mythology and the history of the land before Islam, all my lyrics are also about that era and this song is a very good example of how I use the history from that time. this song is about the burial ritual of the dead body in ancient Iran, specifically in Zoroastrianism, and the beliefs behind it which are completely different than how it is in Islam and almost all the other modern religions. There you could see how easily and strongly Iranians were connected to nature, not only when it comes to their gods and demons which are all about the natural elements, but also about the way they were living their everyday life, and even the beliefs about life after death and the so-called other side, which of course is not accepted in Islam or better to say it’s completely against the beliefs in Islam. So, you would imagine why the conservative regime of Iran is against the pre-Islamic era and do whatever to remove that part from the country’s history.[sic]”

Sina’s ideology is overt not only in his lyrics but his aesthetic. He wears the Faravahar, one of the best-known ancient symbols of Zoroastrianism. While one could presume this is only a necklace, Sina explains:

“Almost everyone in Iran today sees this symbol as a way to express opposition to the government. It’s against the religion somehow. While they try to promote Islam and everything related to it, we use this symbol to say it’s not our religion.”

There is a parallel between this and the Mjolnir, which is worn by many musicians in the west belonging to various subgenres such as black metal, folk metal, and Viking metal, who similarly use their music and pre-Christian symbols to narrate the pagan tradition.

Yet, these bands do not face ersecution. Their resistance is mostly symbolic, while in Iran as Sina explains “In a country like Iran, everything is automatically political. I write about ancient Persia before Islam and Zoroastrian tales. It is seen as oppositional to Islam. That is my intention, of course, but regardless of my intentions, that is how the authorities perceive it”. As previously explained, Zoroastrians today are at risk with their platforms reduced these tales might risk being forgotten. Sina believes that the government acts like heritage does not exist; “you cannot cancel our identity! Even if they have tried to limit the books, young people can learn about them on the internet. Since people don’t want this regime, this is a symbol to show your anger and you know, that you are not supporting this regime.”

Sina is not alone, not in his use of Zoroastrian tales as a tool of resistance, or sadly in being persecuted. This was the case with the death metal band Arsames who was sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 2020 for “playing satanic music” and writing lyrics inspired by Persian history and mythology (Pasbani 2020). After being sentenced they posted on their YouTube page:

“Is it a crime that we are playing metal music!?” they begin. “Is it [a] crime that we are talking about Persian history?! Is it a crime that you think we are into Satanism when we have songs about Cyrus the Great and monotheism!? And is it a crime that we love music and our country?!”

Although they do not consider this to be a crime, bands such as From the Vastland and Arsames are aware that their music represents overt resistance to the regime, and as such can lead to persecution. 


Following the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic began systematically banning traditions related to the pre-Islamic heritage. As Zoroastrianism is closely associated with these traditions, also this religion was affected, despite being protected on paper. In reality, the protections offered by the Islamic Republic’s constitution have been effectively insincere.[xxiii] Thus, it comes without a surprise that artists use the pre-Islamic era as a political tool, including Zoroastrianism which while being a religion represents to artist  history and is a powerful anti-Islamic instrument. In this sense, art serves as a counter-memory.  For Foucault, counter-memories are memories that are not allowed into history because they are capable of destabilizing official narratives.[xxiv]  Resistance through counter-memories has been often implemented by using various strategies, such as music, dance, and cinema.[xxv] Iranian black metal acts as a double attack on the Islamic Republic and its limitations on freedom of expression and religion; one, it is illegal and considered blasphemous, and two, it passes on an ancient heritage that the regime wishes to lock into oblivion.

[i] Breyley, Gay. 2010. ‘Hope, Fear and Dance Dance Dance: Popular Music in 1960s Iran’. Musicology Australia 32 (2): 203–26. Hemmasi, Farzaneh. 2013. ‘Intimating Dissent: Popular Song, Poetry, and Politics in Pre-Revolutionary Iran’. Ethnomusicology 57 (1): 57–87.

[ii] Youssefzadeh, Ameneh. 2000. ‘The Situation of Music in Iran since the Revolution: The Role of Official Organizations’. British Journal of Ethnomusicology 9 (2): 35–61.

[iii] Leone, Massimo. 2012. ‘My Schoolmate: Protest Music in Present-Day Iran’. Critical Discourse Studies 9 (4): 347–62. .

[iv] Kifner, John. 1979. ‘Khomeini Bans Broadcast Music, Saying It Corrupts Iranian Youth’. The New York Times, 24 July 1979, sec. Archives.

[v] Eckerström, Pasqualina. 2022. ‘Extreme Heavy Metal and Blasphemy in Iran: The Case of Confess’. Contemporary Islam 16 (2–3): 115–33.

[vi] Wulf, Volker, Dave Randall, Konstantin Aal, and Markus Rohde. 2022. ‘The Personal Is the Political: Internet Filtering and Counter Appropriation in the Islamic Republic of Iran’. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 31 (2): 373–409. Youssefzadeh, Ameneh. 2000. ‘The Situation of Music in Iran since the Revolution: The Role of Official Organizations’. British Journal of Ethnomusicology 9 (2): 35–61.

[vii] Semati, Mehdi. 2007. ‘Media, the State, and the Prodemocracy Movement in Iran’. In , 143–60.

Taheri, Amir. 1983. ‘The Islamic Attack on Iranian Culture’. Index on Censorship 12 (3): 24–27.

[viii] LeVine, Mark. (2022) Heavy metal Islam: Rock, resistance, and the struggle for the soul of Islam. Univ of California Press.


[x] Brooking, Emerson T., and Suzanne Kianpour. 2020. ‘Iran and the Internet’. IRANIAN DIGITAL INFLUENCE EFFORTS: Atlantic Council.

[xi] Wulf, Volker, Dave Randall, Konstantin Aal, and Markus Rohde. 2022. ‘The Personal Is the Political: Internet Filtering and Counter Appropriation in the Islamic Republic of Iran’. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 31 (2): 373–409.

[xii] Eckerström, Pasqualina. 2022. ‘Extreme Heavy Metal and Blasphemy in Iran: The Case of Confess’. Contemporary Islam 16 (2–3): 115–33.

[xiii] Henry, Paul, and Marylouise Caldwell. 2007. ‘Headbanging as Resistance or Refuge: A Cathartic Account’. Consumption Markets & Culture 10 (2): 159–74.

[xiv] BBC News. 2018. ‘“I Risked Everything to Dance in Iran”’, 10 July 2018, sec. Middle East.

[xv] Eckerström, Pasqualina. 2022. ‘Extreme Heavy Metal and Blasphemy in Iran: The Case of Confess’. Contemporary Islam 16 (2–3): 115–33.

[xvi] ‘Browse Bands by Country – Iran – Encyclopaedia Metallum: The Metal Archives’. n.d. Accessed 11 February 2023.

[xvii] Firdawsī, and Dick Davis. 2016. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Expanded edition. Penguin Classics. New York, New York: Penguin Books.

[xviii] Taheri, Amir. 1983. ‘The Islamic Attack on Iranian Culture’. Index on Censorship 12 (3): 24–27.

[xix] Amanat, A., and F. Vejdani. 2012. Iran Facing Others: Identity Boundaries in a Historical Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan US.

[xx] Aslan, Reza. 2006. ‘The Epic of Iran’. The New York Times, 30 April 2006, sec. Books.

[xxi] ‘Disenchanted Iranians Are Turning to Other Faiths | The Economist’. 2021. 2021.

[xxii] Otterbeck, Jonas, Douglas Mattsson, and Orlando Pastene. 2018. ‘“I Am Satan!” Black Metal, Islam and Blasphemy in Turkey and Saudi Arabia’. Contemporary Islam 12 (3): 267–86.

[xxiii] CNN, Jamsheed K. Choksy, Special to. 2011. ‘How Iran Persecutes Its Oldest Religion’. CNN. 14 November 2011.

[xxiv] Foucault, Michael. 1971 Nietzsche, genealogy, history. Republished in: Faubion, JD (ed.) Aesthetics, Method, Epistemology (vol. 2). London: Penguin, 1998, pp. 369–391.

[xxv] Allison, Christine, and Philip G. Kreyenbroek, eds. 2013. Remembering the Past in Iranian Societies. Göttinger Orientforschungen. III. Reihe, Iranica, neue Folge, 9. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.