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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: SF State’s Professor Hafez Modirzadeh on Amplifying the Struggle for Freedom through Music

By Taylor Nasim Stone, Center Graduate Research Intern

The streets of Iran continue to be the site for the struggle for freedom since the protests calling for “Woman. Life. Freedom.” erupted after the death of the young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini on September 16, 2022, after being fatally beaten in Tehran by Iran’s morality police. Since then, young people, led by women, girls and university and high school students, have continued to protest daily, demanding an end to the repressive and undemocratic policies of the government of the Islamic Republic and putting themselves at great personal risk in doing so. Despite waning news coverage of the protests in the West, many in the US and elsewhere continue to keep these protests visible by making daily social media posts, participating in regular in-person protests in cities throughout the US and the world, and by promoting the cause of freedom by means of the arts. 

While many know of the now famous song, “Baraye” (which means ‘because’ in English) which has become the de-facto anthem of the “Woman. Life. Freedom.” movement, and for which the Iranian songwriter, Shervin Hajipour, was arrested and just last month received a Grammy award for “Best Song for Social Change,” there are many more who are turning toward music to raise awareness about the long-standing struggle for freedom in Iran. Dr. Hafez Modirzadeh, a professor in the SF State School of Music, who specializes in Creative/World Music, is also paying tribute to the cause of women and young people in Iran through music. Modirzadeh, who specializes in cross-cultural music, as well as jazz and ethnomusicology, was inspired to create a series of musical events since the fall at SF State with his many Iranian-born students raising awareness about the movement for change inside Iran. On December 1, 2022, Modirzadeh hosted a musical concert with past and current SF State music students who have studied with him, to pay tribute to the brave young protestors in Iran. This March, in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, Modirzadeh wanted to make a special musical event for the Bay Area and SF State communities to further honor the protest movement in Iran. Partnering with both the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies and the Poetry Center, as well as poet Tonya Foster, who also holds the George and Judy Marcus Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at SF State, Modirzadeh received an “Extraordinary Ideas Grant” from the College of Liberal and Creative Arts for two events on March 8th and 16th. His vision, he says, is distinct from simply creating a concert to entertain. “I want these events to be different—they are an offering, a way pay homage to the women of Iran through music,” he adds. The event on March 8th from 1-3 PM in Knuth Hall, features a musical/poetry collaboration between Modirzadeh as well as acclaimed Iranian singer/songwriter Marjan Vahdat. That event will be followed by poetry readings by SF State students.

The March 16th musical concert, “Music for a New Year’s Liberation,” which occurs just before Norooz (spring equinox and the start of the Persian New Year ) will take place from 7-9:30 pm in Knuth Hall (free and open to the public). In directing this musical concert, Modirzadeh has assembled his many accomplished past and current music students to play for the event, which includes his own composition, “Nava-ye Mardom” (translated as “The People’s Blues”), and features traditional Persian as well as Western jazz instruments, such as the saxophone and piano.  For more information about the concert you can find the flier here:

In addition to being a highly accomplished saxophonist whose work can heard on Pi Recordings, Modirzadeh is a recipient of numerous fellowships, and has published original research in numerous peer-reviewed journals. Above all, Modirzadeh is a lover of jazz. Born in Durham, North Carolina, to an Iranian father and a mother of European heritage, he has always been attuned to the richness of Black American music. While his mother grew up in New York City, his father moved to the United States from Tehran in 1956, and was among the first small group of Iranian immigrants at that time. His parents met as graduate students attending Duke University. Modirzadeh says that he and his family spent intervals throughout his childhood in Europe, and especially France. He also spent a small period of his childhood in Iran, but the Bay Area has been home for the past fifty years.

Modirzadeh explains that he “became conscious of culture through African American music, specifically, jazz,” and that ignited his interest in picking up a musical instrument. “When I heard Charlie Parker (a highly influential saxophonist of the mid 20th century), I just connected with his music in a very profound way.” So, as a teenager in high school, Modirzadeh knew the only instrument for him was the saxophone. Playing the saxophone as a primarily jazz instrument continued until 1983 when, as a 21-year-old, he met his future mentor, Mahmoud Zoufonoun, a great violinist and teacher of traditional Persian string instruments. “This is when I began to blend the sounds of traditional Persian music with my saxophone practice,” he says. He further adds, that like the language (Persian), he did not have fluency in Persian music and “I played with an accent.” But today, he says he has learned to embrace and “cherish this idea of the accent because it absolutely lends itself to intercultural music-making.” His interest in jazz and its global impact and influence was only strengthened when he was in graduate school at UCLA, and read the speeches and autobiography of Malcolm X. “I began to realize my position in the United States—that I am in part a result of this amalgamation that is responsible for the music called ‘jazz’.” This is one reason why Modirzadeh feels it is indeed an “honor to be recognized by these musicians who were born and raised in Iran and come here and learn English and continue their traditions on their instruments,” he says. “They are more than my students; they are performers, musicians, and composers in their own right.”

Throughout his education and artistic scholarship, Modirzadeh has learned about and embraced the intersectionality of identity, music, history, and human rights, from his mentorship with Ostad (master) Zoufonoun, to inspirations like Malcolm X. “One of the things I’d like to get across in this brief introduction at the March 16th concert,” he explains, “is that for those who come here, and for those who are here from other parts of the world—particularly women and those who feel marginalized—it is important to learn about all of America’s history, including the sordid parts.” Modirzadeh emphasizes that in light of the fight for freedom in Iran, “understanding the Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latin American shoulders that you’re standing on is essential.” And, despite the history of this country that has many dark and painful periods, Modirzadeh says, “there has been great solidarity and struggle throughout all of that.” For these events, Modirzadeh says he wants to draw upon the historical connections between peoples ‘ resistance movements and “to make music that brings  us together in solidarity” while also recognizing the bravery, sacrifice, and losses that Iranian people, and Iranian women in particular, have paid in their struggle for freedom.

We at the Center are grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Hafez Modirzadeh and his many past and current students, as well as fellow world and jazz musicians to mark 175 days of struggle for freedom by the women and youth of Iran. Find details about both the March 8 and March 16 events on our website at:

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