Soosan Firooz is being touted as Afghanistan’s first female rapper, a voice for women’s rights and political consciousness in a country that has been torn up by war, extremism and political transition for decades. She has emerged in a nascent hip-hop scene in Afghanistan, where so far only a handful of (male) rappers have begun to garner a following. Hip-hop is often a potent voice of the marginalised, and a form that offers the chance for forceful voices to lend a public narrative to suffering. Firooz’s gender makes waves in itself, drawing attention from the international press as the first woman to be seen in the hip-hop scene in her country and butting heads with the fundamentalist and traditionalist elements within her own country.
The act of making music is a radical one in itself. Afghanistan and its people have spent decades with their politics dominated by militancy and by foreign invasion, and censorship of music, along with other forms of expression, has been an intrinsic part of that long experience. The gradual evolution of music censorship can be traced back to the beginning of communist rule under Nur Muhammad Taraki in 1978. According to a 2001 article by John Baily, the Taliban’s suppression of music is rooted in the beginning of the censorship of this period, when refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan enforced a total ban on music in order to preserve a constant state of mourning.
Firooz herself is no stranger to camps like these. The 23-year-old grew up in one in Iran in the 1990s and spent time as a refugee with her family in Pakistan as well. They returned to their native country seven years ago. It is this life story that drives her narrative and purpose in the one song she has released.
This is one of the important dimensions of hip-hop and of political music generally: the element of storytelling, of relaying detailed chronicles that need to be heard. Music can make itself a platform for human stories otherwise lost, and with her single, Firooz has made use of hip-hop in just that way. It’s a highly personal narrative for her, and one to which she brings authenticity and poignancy, calling for her audience to listen: ‘Hear my stories and hear/Hear my sorrows, my sadness/Hear the story of my displacement and homelessness/We were lost, we were lost, lost around the world.’ Her lyrics continue with the narration of life as a refugee, dreaming of their homeland and being treated as worthless abroad, ending with a call for hope and an end to abuses, to the invading and interfering forces of the west and of Pakistan and Iran. ‘From now on,’ she concludes, ‘it will be Afghanistan.’
At the moment, Firooz has put out only this one song: titled ‘Our Neighbors’ and performed in Dari. Firooz, who lives without a great deal of financial luxury with her family in north Kabul, worked on the song’s production on an old and finicky desktop computer and a donated keyboard. She also works as an actress in local soap operas. Her father left his electrical department job to accompany her as a bodyguard, fearful of the death threats she has faced.
With this song, Firooz doesn’t just join the ranks of Afghanistan’s newly minted hip-hop scene, but the ranks of many Afghan women working to shine the light on poverty, women’s rights, refugees’ rights and the effects of war (joined by her mother, who does humanitarian work in southern Afghanistan). She has garnered international attention because of the bravery and talent she invests in what she does, but also by dint of the western fascination with the idea of an Afghan woman who does not cover her hair, making her way as a hip-hop artist and television soap actress. She should be looked at, not just as a representative of a conventionally western understanding of rebellion and musical expression, but as a representative of all those who work to narrate suffering in the voices of Afghans themselves.