Iran's Latest Ambassadors

When Americans speak about an Iranian invasion, few are referring to a rock band. But here they are in New York, four young Iranians who call their band Hypernova.

The group is enjoying unexpected popularity during its first tour of the United States. The band played a packed show Monday night at Arlene's Grocery, on New York City's Lower East Side.

The band's lead singer, Raam, wore his glee and appreciation on his sleeve as he opened the set: "Thank you for having us, America -- being here is a dream come true."

Raam, 25; lead guitar player, Kodi, 17; Jam, 26, on bass; and drummer Kami, 25; shared their delight and discomfort with the attention their band has received.

Though they are open to interviews, the band members refuse to provide their last names for fear of attracting unwanted attention back home in Iran. They won't disclose the names and professions of their parents either. It is clear, however, that these young men are remarkably self-aware, understanding the need to strike a balance between being rock musicians and citizens of a closed society such as Iran.

It seems that this band is representative of a class of young people who are in a tacit agreement with Iran's conservative government. They love their country, largely because they are able to live their lives generally skirting the conservative laws of the mullahs that affect most people there.

Though they do not give many details about their families, these young men belong to Iran's affluent classes. Their parents are educated and well-off; some have even lived and been educated in the West, choosing to return to Iran.

"I do not want to get anyone in trouble for my stupid band," says Raam, who serves as spokesman for the group. "I do not want to get people close to me in trouble."

This band is, after all, from a country with strict rules on what people can say and do in public without suffering reprisals from the conservative Islamic government.

Hypernova is much more than just any stupid band, though. The band has dared to go where no Iranian rock outfit has gone in many years. It has toured parts of Europe and is now in the middle of organizing an American tour.

There are also plans in the works for organizing a benefit concert for the city of New Orleans. "How cool would that be?" Raam excitedly adds. "Kids from Iran trying to help out people from New Orleans."

Raam, who also writes songs, lived in Oregon for several years until he was about 9. His entrepreneurial drive and spirit have brought the band this far. He speaks fluent English and serves as a translator for two members of band.

He also has a keen understanding of Western media, which allows him to get his message through rather succinctly. "We are representative of Iran," he says. "We are here to tell America that there are people like us back in Iran."

These young men seem strangely oblivious to the Western view of Iran -- the nuclear program and the current crisis involving British soldiers has little do with their lives. They instead spend their time in their country planning underground parties. Hypernova claims to have done more for the underground music scene in Iran than any other band. The members say they regularly play to audiences of hundreds, once even playing a four-hour gig.

Iran has stringent rules about public music performances. Lyrics in English and rock 'n' roll generally do not make the cut. The band members suggest that Iranian police are too busy dealing with larger issues, which allows them to slip under the radar.

"We often play in dirty, disgusting places to stay underground," says Kodi, the guitar player. The musicians point out that the prospect of an Iranian jail is quite frightening. "They do not have cable TV in Iranian jails," Raam says, laughing as he points to the willowy guitar player Kodi. "He would have the hardest time!"

These self-declared ambassadors of Iran may be part of a cultural shift within the country. Iran, with a median age of 25, is the youngest nation in the world. Fifty percent of Iran's population is under the age of 25.

The band members are optimistic about the future of their country, and suggest that they are part of cultural movements that could eventually lead to a more broad-minded and open society. They want to tell America that there are rockers in Iran, quite a different image from the mullahs and conservatives that usually represent Iran in Western media.

It took the band five months to get a visa to come to the United States. The band says that a New York senator -- they do not remember which one -- wrote a letter on their behalf. Despite the long wait and myriad efforts, the band missed a date to play at South by Southwest, one of America's most popular indie-rock festivals.

After arriving in New York, the men were detained for hours in a room at John F. Kennedy International Airport, undergoing background checks. They joked about their experience at the airport, saying that the authorities should have known better than to suspect long-haired musician types of being terrorists.

Founding members of the band Raam and Kami described one another as "childhood enemies" who became friends during a three-week stint at a summer camp for "spoilt rich kids" to help them avoid the mandatory two years of military service. At camp they lounged in the sun and solidified plans to form a band. All the members of the group avoided military service through legal loopholes.

Iranians are proud people, Raam says, but he is not particularly nationalistic. Rock 'n' roll has no boundaries and the band has come to the United States to try to change minds and help Americans understand Iranians. Americans, he says, generally do not know the difference between Iranians and Arabs. "They think we are the same -- it's like saying the French and Americans are the same."

The band also wants to bring a slice of the West to average young Iranians, who they say cannot ordinarily leave Iran. People often cannot afford to go abroad, and those who can find it difficult to get visas because Iranians are not welcome in many countries.

They stay away from politics, but did vote in Iran's elections. "You have to make your voice heard," says Raam. "But I will not let my personal politics come into what the band does."

The band's lyrics touch on politics at times, but are often left open to the listener's interpretation. Raam talks about being a news junkie but says he has a hard time with most mainstream Western media.

"Fear is what drives people mad," and a lot of media reports are about perpetrating fear, Raam says.