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How an Iranian-American teen’s bootleg mixtape ‘made us mainstream Western entertainment again’

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Lily Moayeri in the 1980s, wearing her beloved Culture Club sweatshirt.  (Photo courtesy of Lily Moyeri)

Lily Moayeri in the 1980s, wearing her beloved Culture Club sweatshirt. (Photo courtesy of Lily Moyeri)

Veteran music journalist and educator Lily Moayeri grew up at the cultural intersection of her birthplace, Washington, D.C., and her parents’ native Iran. The daughter of a diplomat, she spent her childhood in various cities around the world, where she fell in love with Western pop music. But within two years of her father’s return to Iran during a business trip, the Islamic Revolution broke out in 1979. This led to a ban across Iran of all music deemed Western or un-Islamic, making it impossible for budding musical obsessions. Let her get her favorite band’s album. Most music stores, including the cassette store across from Moyeri’s home in Tehran, are closed.

Although the young Lily may no longer have access to brick-and-mortar record stores, she soon finds another way to keep her musical passion alive: through an underground smuggling network that illegally smuggles audio and video tapes. She even started a small secret bootleg ring of her own, bravely distributing her carefully crafted homemade mixtapes to school friends despite the looming threat of incarceration. The secret line “put us back in the mainstream of Western entertainment . . . the tape shop of my childhood was replaced by door-to-door service,” Moyeri writes in a new anthology, The Life, Death, and Afterlife of Record Stores: A Global History.

The life, death and afterlife of record stores: A global history (Photo: Bloomsbury Academy)

The life, death and afterlife of record stores: A global history (Photo: Bloomsbury Academy)

The Life, Death, and Afterlife of Record StoresA comprehensive look at what individual record stores mean to individuals, and what they mean to communities, music genres, and society at large, July 13. The following exclusive excerpts of Moyeri’s essay appear in the “Cultural Geography of Record Stores” section of the book, proving that the spirit of camaraderie, community, and connection these stores foster simply cannot be contained within four walls.

“The Revolution Won’t Be Televised, It Will Be Taped: Popular Music Acquisition in Tehran Before and After the Revolution” by Lily Moayeri

In the years following the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, a strict travel ban was imposed. The gradual lifting of restrictions throughout the 80s did not mean barrier-free travel, but that Iranians were not prisoners of their own country, and Iranians abroad were not deported. But it also meant that pirated audio and video tapes began to circulate through the underground, through Iran Air flight pilots, who smuggled back tape albums bought in Europe, as well as videos of programs recorded on European television.

Most notable among these is the UK’s long-running music charts project, top of pop. These items are then copied onto blank tape, packed into unmarked briefcases, and delivered by a genial man who only comes to your home on the recommendation of a trusted client. My aunt Sussan was introduced by a close music lover friend of hers and she connected our family to this underground network that allowed us to mainstream Western entertainment again. So the tape shop of my childhood was replaced by door-to-door service. top of pop Episodes dictate my selection of albums to buy from my briefcase: Culture Club, Duran Duran, Wham!, Howard Jones, Tears for Fears, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins, Simple Minds, A-ha, the Style Council, Human League , Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Bananarama. The list is long.

I begged my parents to buy an amp with a dual cassette player so I could make mixtapes out of the albums. They agreed, in exchange for a good transcript and the stipulation that I would have to charge my friend for the mixtapes I made to offset the wear and tear on the speakers and the cost of the blank tapes.

Lily Moayeri in Tehran in the 1980s.  (Photo courtesy of Lily Moyeri)

Lily Moayeri in Tehran in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Lily Moyeri)

Now, instead of doing homework, I painstakingly create record/play/pause mixtapes. My mixtape was for a party my high school friends threw. Their voices were kept low enough so as not to be heard outside, inadvertently reminding the Revolutionary Guards (aka Pasdars) that under Islamic law they have the power to raid the party and confiscate our “contraband” and any other Appropriate” items, send us all to jail.

Perhaps one of the reasons I was willing to risk myself in this low-level tape trafficking business is that sharing music and talking about songs and dances with friends is not only a natural human instinct but, as mentioned earlier, an important part of Iranian culture.We’re working on choreographed videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and music-driven movies like flash dance and free. We performed for each other at parties and reveled in the camaraderie and connection that resulted.

Of course, Iranian music, whether traditional or modern, is always popular and easier to spread, which makes it easy to find people interested in Iranian music. top of pop– Inspired music is both difficult and important to me. That was in the mid-1980s, when the Islamic Republic was still gaining ground in Iran, building its structures and punitively enforcing its extreme laws. Khomeini quotes 15 (1979) in his speech on the Kurda uprising: “But for those who want to divert our movement from its course, whose idea is a betrayal of Islam and the state, they think Islam is incapable of governing affairs, despite our country’s 1,400-year record, they have nothing to do with our people and this must be clarified.”

Lily Moayeri lives in Los Angeles today.  (Photo courtesy of Lily Moyeri)

Lily Moayeri lives in Los Angeles today. (Photo courtesy of Lily Moyeri)

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