Iranian Icon Googoosh on Being Banned from Singing and Breaking the Rules

The singer and actress reflects on her two decades of silence and looks ahead to the new generation discovering her legacy.

My conversation with Faegheh Atashin begins with her asking why, after half a century of influence, I care to tell her story. Her humility takes me by surprise. As Googoosh, Atashin, whose surname roughly translates to “with fire,” still indisputably wears the crown as Iran’s most iconic entertainer—an even more impressive feat once you understand the extent of her “firsts.”

Learning the rules of showmanship at a young age, Googoosh would go on to break a number of them. She was the first woman to star as a protagonist in an Iranian film, 1972’s Bita. She was also the first woman in Iran to incorporate modern dance movements into her performances, which often featured her clad in Western-style ensembles and a trendsetting mod bob haircut. As Iran’s most cutting-edge diva, her range allowed her to balance heart-wrenching ballads with upbeat numbers incorporating contemporary pop, funk, and psychedelia. At its height in the 1970s, Googoosh’s career was marked by successful multilingual releases and memorable performances alongside the likes of Ray Charles and Tina Turner.

On the brink of international superstardom, Googoosh was suddenly hidden from the public eye. As the 1979 Iranian Revolution ushered in radical change, Googoosh initially fled the country, quickly realizing she could not be away from home. Returning three months later, she lived in silence—first, in prison, then, on house arrest. She was unable to perform, as a woman singer, under the regime’s policies for close to half of her career. “For 21 years, I didn’t know anything about my listeners,” she said.

But Googoosh’s light did not dim. Against all odds, her following continued to grow and spread through the Iranian diaspora and beyond, one bootlegged tape at a time. In 2000, she made her comeback at the age of 50 with a North American tour and a new album called Zoroaster, which reflected on her country’s struggles. The tour’s kickoff in Toronto that summer boasted a crowd estimated at 12,000 to 15,000 people, and her music continued to outsell that of any Iranian artist all year long. In the years since, she has been sampled by Kanye West, shared by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and recognized internationally for using her music to highlight taboo subjects like Iran’s LGBT persecution.

Having given little press since her comeback, the 68-year-old is ready to step back into the limelight. She’s currently working on a book about her life as well as new music, already teasing her next project with sophisticated diva fare like “Ajab Jaei.” In the wake of Iran’s inclusion on Trump’s travel ban of seven Muslim countries early last year, Googoosh’s return to America was briefly threatened, but now she continues to attract massive crowds stateside. And while she doesn’t view herself as a political figure, her recent performances set against footage spanning the Revolution to Iran’s anti-mandatory hijab movement are nothing short of powerful.

Ahead of her next big performance, headlining the Hollywood Bowl on May 12, I spoke with Googoosh by phone. Her manager, Shahram Norz, provided translation assistance at various points.

Pitchfork: You’ve been out on the road since February. How has your tour been so far?

Faegheh Atashin: This tour is happening with my songwriter and lyricist [Hassan Shamaizadeh], who’s revered and famous as well. I have so many—too many—hits with Shamaizadeh. But this was the first time I ever got to perform with him on stage, and people loved this combination. My first concert was in Toronto, and when Shamaizadeh started singing with me, I was so surprised. I couldn’t believe how much people applauded, especially younger people.

The world is a much smaller place today, with social media. I’ve been trying to adjust, and understand Iranians. From Iran to North America to Europe, we are all different. My performances in Istanbul are different from my performances in Los Angeles. Thankfully, I am still able to connect with the younger generations.

This time last year, you were dealing with a scare regarding your visa and the travel ban. Can you reflect on that experience, and how political issues continue to impact you as an Iranian artist?

Forty years earlier, after the Iranian Revolution, I was grappling with being unable to stay outside of Iran. I decided to return, and because singing is banned for women under the current regime, was unable to perform for 21 years. For 21 years, I didn’t know anything about my listeners. And that was such a difficult experience for me. My comeback in 2000 truly felt like a rebirth for me. I started experiencing a newness again, pushing myself to make connections with younger generations. This recent incident [with Trump’s travel ban] happened just as I was about to have a concert in Arizona. It filled me with fear, because I felt these same feelings all over again. I felt like I would not be able to return to my home and perform, all over again. It was a few days of back and forth, cloudy, dark London weather, and restlessness. It worked out, luckily. I was able to make it to Arizona and my show was sold out. But it all fell on the decision of a federal judge, that I could travel with my green card.

Rewinding to that 21-year period: How did not being able to perform change your day-to-day life?

For most of those 21 years, I was under house arrest—in prison, for the first month. My life was very routined… I spent my days watching films, listening to the radio, cooking, reading books, it was an ordinary life. But music was missing. I couldn’t go near it. I was not able to do anything because of the regime change, and being unable to sing at all—especially as a woman—it deeply affected me. I didn’t write or record. I could not be in public places, because I was constantly under surveillance, at all times. Because music was missing, this core part of my life was missing. And because it was my life since I was 3 years old, I really knew no other life.

How did you start performing so young?

My father was an acrobat and comedian. He would take me to perform as a partner when I was 2 years old. And then little by little, he had me singing, and I was a full-fledged singer by the age of 3. I didn’t choose this. My father made me an entertainer.

Going back to your current tour. One memorable moment of your New York City show was your performance of “Talagh,” which featured a montage of Iranian political footage spanning from the Revolution to the White Wednesday movement. How did that come together?

This was really dedicated to the women of Iran. It starts with footage of the Shah, people going to the mosque, and how that is a part of our lives. It leads to a point where a woman takes off her headscarf, an image that is quite famous now. As the scarf comes off, the new generation stands up to represent themselves.

The lyrics go hand in hand with what’s on the screen, and it was my request to the video producer to put this together. Mainly, it’s my way of showing appreciation to the women at the front of today’s movements in Iran, the courage they’re showing. What they’re doing is very admirable.

You’ve championed Iranian women for your entire career. What do you think will help them prosper, in Iran and around the world?

Some of the greatest poets and artists in Iran have been women, throughout history. And it’s a shame that the new generation is lost in the same way. It’s a shame they can’t go beyond the borders, the cultural limits, of the current regime, to live their full potential. I have a song called “Ay Mardom Mordam” that sort of talks about the idea of a woman being in the confines of a kitchen, and it really speaks to this idea.

I believe that women—Persian women, all women—have the capacity to have the kind of life that they want. We have so many difficulties in our country for women. From the day that I began performing, I broke the rules, because I performed a modern dance on stage, which at the time was unheard of. Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri was the first Iranian woman to remove her hijab on the stage, and I was the first one who moved and danced and made expressions on the stage. That’s why, in some ways, I want all women to break the rules in their own worlds. To be the way that they want to be. I did that, and I still see how women appreciate it. The majority of my fans are women—and I think it’s because at one point, I did what they wanted to do, and what their mothers couldn’t do.