By Courtney Brooks, RFE/RL
Brooklyn-based band Less Magnetic plays the music of imprisoned Iranian singer Arya Aramnejad (pictured on the screen) during a concert in New York to raise awareness of his plight.
NEW YORK -- Austin Dacey is a self-proclaimed philosopher, writer, and frustrated musician. He is also a staunch proponent of freedom of speech and expression; specifically, the right to rock.
The New Yorker's commitment to that cause gave rise to "The Impossible Music Sessions," an initiative he began in 2010 that puts the spotlight on performers who otherwise might never be heard.
"There's music all around the world that deserves to be on stage, but because of political, and cultural and religious barriers and risks, it's all but impossible," he explains. "But music will not be silenced, so the singers, and musicians, and composers are finding ways to continue making it despite the risks -- quite literally laying their own bodies on the line for the sounds they love."
The fifth and most recent of 'The Impossible Music Sessions" was staged this week in Brooklyn on March 3.
Hardcore fans of music and freedom gathered to hear songs by Iranian singer Arya Aramnejad.
But Aramnejad himself was not available to perform. He is currently in prison for composing songs against the Iranian regime.
Instead, Aramnejad was represented by a microphone lying on an empty stool at center stage. The instrumentals were performed by "Less Magnetic," a Brooklyn-based band.
Aramnejad, 28, ran into trouble with the Iranian authorities for his song "Ali Barkhiz" ("Ali Rise Up"), which calls on the Imam Ali -- a central figure in Iran's Shi'a religion -- to take action against the Tehran regime.
The song denounces the crackdown on the Green Movement protests that followed Mahmud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in 2009, and accuses the Iranian regime of desecrating Islam.
WATCH: Arya Aremnejad's "Ali Barkhiz:"
"Ali rise and obliterate the wrongdoings of these hypocrites, for they have forsaken justice to the devil himself," read Aramnejad's lyrics. "They corrupted Mohammad's religion to such a degree; as though the Prophet Mahdi takes his orders from them."
Aramnejad was arrested in February 2010 on charges of endangering national security.
During the performance on March 3, Dacey read from in-court testimony Aramnejad gave during his trial.
"After the Ashura uprising, which resulted in so many of my compatriots being killed, I felt it was my duty to condemn this inhumanity, and to use my musical talents in doing so," Aramnejad's statement said. "I wrote and composed a song which became known as 'Ali Rise Up.' The content of this song is to do with the exploitation of God, the Koran, and the imams by a bunch of imposters to achieve their demonic goals."
For his creative efforts, Aramnejad was handed a nine-month sentence. In a blog entry posted after his release he gives a chilling account of the physical and mental torture he was subjected to in prison.
He describes how his life was threatened, his medical conditions ignored, and at one point he was forced to walk barefoot through the blood of an AIDS-infected cellmate who had committed suicide.
'His Voice Will Not Be Silenced'
In November 2011 he was arrested again, and reportedly has not yet been charged or allowed legal assistance.
"We are here tonight," Dacey reminded the audience during this week's performance of Aramnejad's music, "so that this man may not be forgotten, and his voice not be silenced."
Other concerts in "The Impossible Music Sessions" series featured persecuted artists who were able to participate with the help of modern technology.
In June 2010, for example, New Jersey-based emcee Hasan Salaam interpreted the music of Baloberos Crew, a hip-hop group from the West African nation of Guinea Bissau.
The members of Baloberos Crew, who have experienced intimidation from military police for their political lyrics, "attended" the concert via live video feed.
Five months later, the Boston-based Afro-pop ensemble Lamine Toure and Group Saloum performed a song by imprisoned singer Lapiro de Mbanga of Cameroon.
De Mbanga, who was sentenced to three years in prison after his song "Constitution Constipee" became an unofficial anthem of antipresidential demonstrations in 2008, was able to listen in by mobile phone from his jail cell.
And in the summer of 2011, underground Cuban political hip-hop artist Escuadrón Patriota listened in by phone as Chicago-based emcee Miki Flow performed his music, backed up by the Iranian band "The Casualty Process."
Plenty More Banned Music
Dacey said his plan for the sixth session is to find a band to play the music of unregistered Christian house churches in China.
It is all the culmination of a dream born, Dacey says, when he learned that one of his favorite Iranian bands, "The Plastic Wave," faced restrictions at home because it has a female vocalist.
In Iran, women are not allowed to sing solo in front of audiences which include men.
"That left me wondering about those who could not, or chose for their own reasons not to leave their situations," says Dacey. "How could their music find its way to the stage where it belonged? How could they end their artistic isolation and build lasting relationships with artists elsewhere?"
The answer, he decided, was "The Impossible Music Sessions."
And in March 2010, "The Plastic Wave" reached the shores of New York, when the local band "Cruel Black Dove" played its music in Brooklyn.
Dacey is unlikely to lack material for "Impossible Music Sessions" in the near future.
Freemuse, a Denmark-based NGO which advocates for the rights of musicians around the world, has documented violations of freedom of expression in 120 countries, with Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, China, and Myanmar listed as among the most repressive.
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