Interview by Parisa Eshrati
CHAII is the pseudonym for genre-bending New Zealand-based Persian rapper, producer, and videographer. Her latest single in the three-part Safar video series, "Digebasse", harmoniously blends influences of traditional Southern Iranian music with contemporary styling of trap rap, experimental electronica, and heavy global dance beats. We caught up with CHAII to discuss finding the balance between Eastern and Western melodies, representing for the Iranian underground music scene, and fighting against social pressures through her raps.
A really impressive aspect of your music is how you find ways to incorporate Persian time signatures with Western beats, i.e. rapping over the Southern-Iranian style drumming in your latest single “Digebasse”. What do you think is the key to finding harmony between Eastern and Western melodies, and how does that harmony reflect in you finding that balance in your own bi-cultural identity?
Finding the balance between the two worlds in my music really did parallel to the journey of finding that balance within myself. It's been quite difficult to bring those two major aspects of my life and mold them together. I hid away for about four years spending time alone working in the studio and trying to blend these different melodies and time signatures together. Throughout the time I spent producing and working in the studio, I was growing and working on myself as well. I came to the realization that I need this process to happen organically at its own pace, because things don't sound harmonious when you try to force it together. I wanted to dignify the process by letting it happen naturally. I think the sound of these songs ended up quite experimental, which is a good mirror of this whole process of finding balance between the music and myself. It was pretty difficult, but I came out of it feeling fluid and driven.
Songs like “Digebasse” are about standing up for your rights, but also carries a subtext of millennial pressures. Going off on what we were just discussing, a lot of first generation immigrants usually try to subside their cultural background when they move to a new country to try and feel “normalized”. Was this a pressure for you growing up, and if so, how did fighting against that fuel the drive that we see in your messages today?
Yeah, absolutely. I guess when you're younger, it feels really important to try and fit in. I had moved to New Zealand when I was eight years old, and at that age you're really just trying to go along with your surroundings. In a sense, I've always kind of been on my own buzz, but looking back I obviously tried to understand how to live with these two identities while feeling as "normal" as possible. Part of growing up, though, is learning that you shouldn't have to be normal; you can embrace all aspects of yourself and be an individual. Having to have those realizations at such a vulnerable age was difficult, but also very empowering, which like you said can reflect back in that energy you hear in my music.
You've stated how Eminem was a big influence for you growing up because you moved to New Zealand right as The Marshall Mathers LP released. What were some other influences, whether it was rappers or shows you watched to help you learn English, that helped inform your flow?
Ooh, taking me right back to the nostalgic days. When I moved here, I was listening to a lot of that era's R&B and hip hop music. I remember putting covers on my school books with pictures of D12, Usher, T-Pain, Busta Rhymes and Twista. I loved all the fast rappers because I found that style so fascinating. I think I just related to it, because I used to speak really fast, and damn I think I still do too [laughs]. My teachers would always tell me to slow it down when I was talking, so naturally I just gravitated to those kind of raps.
I was writing a lot of poetry at that time too. I found rhyming in poetry quite fascinating and was naturally drawn to it. Aside from that, I was watching a lot of kids movies at the time... lots of animated movies, and maybe like Lizzie McGuire and silly things like that. I think my early influences explain why I have a bit of an American accent now. My accent has a strange mixture of everything, and it's from having to adapt to learn English in whatever ways I could.
Let’s talk a bit about this on-going music video trilogy. The videos were filmed in Oman, since that’s the closest you could get to your birthplace of Southern Iran to film this project. They feature both very artistic, polished and posed shots, along with a spontaneous guerrilla-style feel. I’m curious to hear more about your background in film making, and your intention to feature these two contrasting styles in your video.
I've worked quite a bit behind the scenes in the music industry by making music videos and working on short films for other artists, so it only felt right to use those skills I've learned to create my own project. A lot of previous projects I've worked on have been centered around that guerrilla style, I really like the way it gives this music video a bit of a documentary feel. I also obviously have budget restraints so I wanted to keep it do-able, but at the same time effective. I'm more about keeping some strong self-made images and have that carry the themes in the video, rather than spending a lot of money on a big budget production.
You're creating a bit of a mystery around your persona. You rap under a pseudonym, and your face is almost always covered in your photos and music videos. Is this at all a commentary on the hidden identities of Iranian musicians and showing solidarity for the underground scene?
Definitely. You said it perfectly. It's to stand up for everyone who is doing their art in Iran that have to keep their work underground and not be able to be vocal about their passion. In addition to that, I also wanted to keep everything about the music. I don't want my messages to get distracted by me or what I look like. I want it to be music that everyone can connect with regardless of anything superficial. So yeah, shout out to the underground music scene in Iran!
Do you still have friends or family back in Iran? What's the feedback been like from the musicians and artists out there?
It's crazy, honestly. They're all really proud and super supportive. I always wondered if the music would reach Iran, because obviously they're on different platforms as far as how the people out there consume their music. After "Digebasse" was out for about six months or so, I noticed that I started getting more messages than usual from people in Iran. I started talking to them, and they would be so stoked that I even replied, as if they thought I was famous or something! I figured something is going on here, so I messaged back these people in Iran and asked how they even found my music.
For quick context, there are these international Iranian TV channels that are usually based in Los Angeles, and people living in Iran can have access to them by streaming through a third-party cable provider. Technically it's illegal, but everyone has these channels. Anyway, these people would message back and say that my video comes on those Iranian TV channels like every hour, and people on the streets are blasting my songs out of their cars. I was like, 'Holy shit, that's so cool.'
I didn't think my music would reach out there, but it made me really happy to know it has. My hope for "Digebasse" was to be a powerful message for Iranian people to not hold back. It's a song in solidarity to support the underground scene, and for all the women wanting freedom. That's why in the chorus of that song, I say 'She's untouchable/Getting through to her is just so impossible.' Iranian women are so powerful and independent, despite whatever preconceived notion people may have of them. That line is a shout out to Iranian women.
I love that you chose “Chaii” as your rap name, because for those who don’t know, chaii, the Persian word for tea, is one of the most essential parts of Iranian heritage. I mean, samovars are usually started in the morning and kept on until the end of the night. Aside from reppin’ your heritage, what else does this name mean for you?
It's funny actually, because I just loved the way the word "chaii" looks on paper, but I just pronounce my stage name like "ch-ai" (instead of "chai-ee", which is the Farsi pronunciation for tea). It totally just came from the fact that I love tea and it sounds cool. It is a huge cultural thing too, as you've mentioned, because I grew up with tea as a very important aspect of my family living. My grandmother would start the day every morning by starting the samovar and having us all drink some freshly brewed hot tea. It's pretty funny to have a nod to that as my name because it stirs up all those sweet memories. If people read into the meaning of it, that's really cool, but if they don't know the meaning, then hey, it's a good sounding word as well!
I saw that you’re an ambassador for Play It Strange. Can you tell us a little more about that organization, your role as an ambassador, and how it shaped your musical career as well?
Play It Strange plays such a huge part in the music industry in New Zealand. It's essentially a secondary and high school competition with various creative opportunities. It's an amazing resource and allows kids to think outside of the box without any strict guidelines. When you're in high school, everything is so structured, but when I went through this program myself as a teenager, I felt like it was the one time I could freely express myself as a musician. Mike Chan created this program, and he's the most amazing guy. A lot of New Zealand musicians have come out of that program, and we all owe a great deal of gratitude for Mike and that community for shaping the local music industry.
So yes, Play It Strange is really where I got my start in thinking about music as an actual career. When I was in high school, my friends and I did a rap that was in English, Farsi and French. My teacher suggested we submit our song to Play It Strange, and from there we got selected into the Top 20, which meant that we could go into a proper recording studio. Being able to see a real recording studio is what made me realize that music is all I want to be doing, and I'd do whatever it takes to make it my career. It was so encouraging to know that music didn't just have to be a side-hobby.
As an ambassador, I make myself available for the kids when they have questions or ask for guidance. I recently got to work on this really fun opportunity with the kids where they got to see Fleetwood Mac before their New Zealand show, and even covered one of their songs in front of the band. It's really inspiring to see that joy in these kids, and it reminds me to keep that spark alive as well.
Speaking of covers, you’ve done a few really killer Iranian covers on your YouTube channel. Do you have any ideas of what you’d like to cover next, or do you already have anything in the works?
I'm glad you mentioned that, because I keep meaning to do more of those covers. It's really fun for me to take a current song and spin it in Farsi. At the moment, I don't have anything in the works but being in isolation is a good time to post up and see what people would want to hear. I think a Lizzo song would be cool, or a Doja Cat track. She's really mean sounding, so it'd be hard one to do, but it would be fun. .
I imagine it’s a strange time to be an up-and-coming artist right now. I know you were supposed to play at SXSW and had to cancel some other surrounding shows, so how are you adjusting to promoting your work without live events?
It's definitely an interesting time. Of course it's a bummer because that trip to SXSW was going to be our first time performing in the US. I was really looking forward to it, but when we come back to do shows in America, it's just going to be bigger and better. I'm seeing this time as an opportunity to just keep working and prepping for what's ahead. Since I'm not doing any live stuff, I've been writing a lot of new content, editing videos, making beats, trying to stay interactive on Instagram live an. Honestly, quarantine life is pretty much my normal life [laughs]. When I'm not gigging, I'm writing. The performance chapter of my artistry has just moved down the line a little bit, but it's all fine.
We’ve now seen two videos from the three part “Safar” project. Both videos are very different so far. “South” is more your personal style shown through industrialism, “Digebasse” is more of outward message, like a call to arms. Where will your next single go, and what will be the tying thread between all three videos?
Absolutely, I'm glad you could wrap it up in those terms. The third video is coming out in a couple of weeks, and that's more of a personal song. I think people can still relate to it, but it's more me coming from a very personal perspective. I think you can see sort of a progressive motion in them when you tie all three videos together. I started off with more general themes of wanting to stand up for the things I believe in, and then the next video was more of an introduction to what I'm doing, and the third video builds on the previous two, but with a much more personal approach to it. I'll be dropping that video in another couple weeks, and I'm looking forward to people to check it out.