Taylor Hanson on why he recorded protest song for women of Iran: ‘This project breaks all of my heart and my brain’

By | September 9, 2023

Yahoo! [Video interview at the Source]

The Hanson brother, father of seven, and For Women Life Freedom co-founder has gathered 16,000 voices — each representing a political prisoner in Iran — for a new version of Shervin Hajipour’s Grammy-winning protest anthem, “Baraye.”

Taylor Hanson just released an Iranian protest anthem. Here’s why.

Seven months ago during Grammy week, when every pop star was in Los Angeles, Taylor Hanson, the middle brother of pop-rock trio Hanson and a co-founder of For Women Life Freedom (FWLF), was working the party circuit — but not in the way one might expect. The musician and activist was in town recruiting singers for a passion project, dubbed the Voices Project, that he was organizing that week at the world-famous Jim Henson Studios: a new all-star recording of Iranian singer-songwriter’s Shervin Hajipour’s viral protest anthem, “Baraye.”

Hajipour had created the original “Baraye” on his iPhone in response to the shocking September 2022 story of Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who had died in a Tehran hospital under suspicious circumstances after being arrested for allegedly not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards. Hajipour himself was later arrested by the Iranian government over his song. For Women Life Freedom — a 501c3 non-profit committed to advocating for women’s equal rights as well as for a free and civil society for all Iranians — was launched in an attempt to save Hajipour’s life, as the organization campaigned to secure a nomination for “Baraye” in a brand-new Grammy Special Merit Award category called Song for Social Change.

On Feb. 3, 2023, Taylor’s Voices Project began gathering more 16,000 voices, each representing a peaceful political prisoner currently jailed in Iran, eventually setting a world record for the most voices on a single musical recording. Hundreds of people unison-sang in shifts at Henson Studios that day or digitally submitted their vocal tracks from all around the word, and some of the more famous voices included Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds, Glee stars Darren Criss and Kevin McHale, Cassadee Pope, Ryan Cabrera, Leila Frouhar, Hamid Saeedi (who is also on FWLF’s board of directors), Shahbal Shapareh, film director Gus Van Sant, and producer Mark Hudson. And the day after the Voices Project’s marathon Henson recording session, the original “Baraye” actually won the inaugural Song for Social Change award, which was virtually presented to Hajipour by first lady Dr. Jill Biden during the Grammys ceremony.

Now, to coincide with the anniversary of Amini’s death and the global protests that followed, the Voices Project’s all-star version, “Baraye – Women Life Freedom,” is finally being released to, as Taylor puts it, “help elevate the continued resonance of this movement, which frankly has had a hard time cutting through the noise of so many different global challenges and issues.” Proceeds from the track will go to FWLF’s “efforts to partner and work with other artists that are amplifying the awareness of this cause.”

In the video above and the Q&A below, Taylor opens up about why Amini’s tragic death and Hajipour’s message resonated with him so deeply and spurred him to join forces with both music industry leaders and human rights activists and lawyers to found FWLF and take action.

Yahoo Entertainment: It’s really exciting to finally get to talk about the Voices Project with you, because you’ve been working on this months. Back in Los Angeles during Grammy week, you were in boots-on-the-ground mode, getting the word out and recruiting people to come to record this song with you. So, the obvious first question is, what made you so passionately want to do this?

Taylor Hanson: At the end of last year, a particularly violent act happened against a young girl named Jina Mahsa Amini. She’s a Kurdish-Iranian person. And this woman was killed and essentially arrested because she showed some hair in public, which has been known to be demonized and made completely illegal by this government that’s existed since the late ‘70s. And of course, the idea of this seems absurd, hard to imagine from an American perspective, but it’s been tolerated in waves among the country. People have been brutalized and killed for things like that for a long time. And this particular arrest and then killing of this woman, this young girl, just really sparked a wave of responses and protests. There have been very strong protests at different times in that country, but this one just really lit a fire, especially with young people.

And what hit me about this is, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve probably have more of a perspective that’s a little broader than many people, just since I’ve spent a lot of time traveling the world. But I thought to myself, “I’m completely ignorant.” Really, until this moment, the idea of realizing you’ve got people in a country that are living without basic rights — with young girls fearful of walking down the street and showing hair, thinking about that and the fact that that could be suddenly a justification for an officer to arrest you, rape, beat you and have no recourse — it’s just hard to fathom. … I guess it was a brain-shift for me, because for many of us growing up in the United States and other places, unfortunately we go, “Hey, we’ve heard the country or the government of Iran is not a country or government that we associate with. It’s a government that we see is representing violence and lack of human rights and even terrorist acts.” But in fact, the people of this country are this incredibly diverse group of people, who are the first victims of this government and its behavior.

And it just inspired me to see and hear young women like my daughter. I have an 18-year-old daughter. I have a 10-year-old daughter. I have a 2-year-old daughter. I’m a father of seven — I have four sons and three daughters. And I thought, I would have to believe I would be in the street if my daughter had been arrested and killed for nothing, if my children were at risk of persecution for living, frankly. And I know that seems almost naive, but I really couldn’t look away once that resonated with me. So, October of last year, I got this message, got this understanding, this idea that these people are standing up for their rights and they’re standing up for people like Mahsa Amini.

Tell me about this song you then decided to record to create awareness, “Baraye.”

Well, another powerful thing happened. This song called “Baraye” is a song by an artist named Shervin Hajipour, who wrote a song basically compiled of tweets from people in the country saying, “These are the reasons why we’re standing up, because I have no rights to dance, to sing, to show affection to my partner, basically to live.” And [fans] were sharing that this song had a chance [to win a Grammy]. They were hoping that it could be recognized by the Recording Academy and hoping that that would elevate the song and the movement. And so very quickly, my connection to this cause — which seems very unlikely, very kind of out of nowhere, in a way — and also the idea of music having a role to play, also really struck me.

So, there were three days when I first heard about it, [before] the cutoff of that song possibly being able to be submitted for a new award that the Recording Academy was launching called Song for Social Change. And I got this message and thought very quickly, “OK, well, who can I call? How can I at least figure out if this song is even eligible for this award?” And what the various folks that had reached out to me about this didn’t know about me is I’ve gotten pretty involved in the Recording Academy over the last 10 years. I’m one of the 12 chapter presidents. And because of that, I really just kind of knew who to call. It doesn’t give me any stake in deciding awards, but I could figure it out.

So, it was all coming full circle: You’re in L.A. for Grammy week. The song that you helped get on the radar of Grammy voters actually wins that week. And you are in L.A. doing this massive-scale charity version.

Yeah, as we got closer to the Grammys, we conceived of an idea. We were to try to do a new recording — which did break all historic records of how many people we could record on one studio recording — and create a new version of “Baraye” and invite people to converge as we headed into awards season. We created a huge session at Henson Studios, which historically is where “We Are the World,” the legendary song for relief, was done. And I said, “Call me crazy, but what if we were to go to the ‘We Are the World’ studio and literally record 16,000 voices, because 16,000 people are in prison right now for protesting? What would that sound like?” I called everyone and anyone, including people campaigning and visiting during the Grammys, and said, “Come down to the Henson Studios the day before the Grammys sing on this song. Help us capture every voice that is currently a representation of people that are in prison right now.” And I was blown away. We literally got thousands of people to come to the studio.

It was moving. It was powerful. … We also launched an app so people could record their voice remotely. Our friends at Audio Bridge set up a great little mobile recording app so wherever you were in the world, you could sing along and easily sing with our new arrangement. And so we had a cloud of songs, people singing and sending their voices. And then I personally reached out to artists. … I have to say a special thanks to people ranging from Kevin McHale to Darren Criss to Ben Folds who sent a video and a recording from Australia, Rufus Wainwright. … [The single] begins with one child’s voice, a young Iranian-American who is 3 years old [Neev Rastegar]. Then you’ll hear my two daughters’ voices, Wilhelmina and Penelope. And then you hear thousands by the end of it.

Neev Rastegar, 3-year-old singer with the Voices Project. (Jonathan Weiner/Courtesy FWLF)
Neev Rastegar, 3-year-old singer with the Voices Project. (Jonathan Weiner/Courtesy FWLF)

There’s so many things going on. And the idea of different people standing up and adding just: “Hey, I’m here. I’m a part of this.” That was sort of the message. And so the Voices Project in part was about making some noise to help elevate the message of this song in a moment where people were all gathering and trying to celebrate music. We were really grateful that we had others help us tell the story for that session. … And the day after our session, the original “Baraye” song, Shervin’s song, won the Social Change Grammy.

Taylor Hanson and friends record the Voices Project's
Taylor Hanson and friends record the Voices Project’s “Baraye – Women Life Freedom” on Feb. 3, 2023, at Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood. (Jonathan Weiner/Courtesy FWLF)

Shervin Hajipour was arrested by the Iranian government for his dissent, and he remains under house arrest. Is he involved in this project in any way?

The short answer is no. This is very real, and what we’re talking about is happening right now. We know he’s aware of what we’re doing and what other people have been inspired to do, but we want to make sure that we’re clear that we are all doing this on our own. … We want to be really cognizant of not putting other people’s lives at risk, by further putting responsibility on him or others that are in Iran right now.

Why is your recording finally coming out now?

Well, miraculously, after our initial session, we still had thousands of people sending voices. So, we didn’t immediately release it, because we were essentially collecting voices from around the world. … We’ve chosen to finally share this song as we head into September because we want it to have the most value for this movement. We want it to help elevate the continued resonance of this movement, which frankly has had a hard time cutting through the noise of so many different global challenges and issues. And September is the one-year anniversary or the commemoration of really the beginning of this current wave of protests. [Editor’s note: Jina Mahsa Amini was arrested on Sept. 13, 2023, and died three days later.]

Taylor Hanson and friends record the Voices Project's
Taylor Hanson and friends record the Voices Project’s “Baraye – Women Life Freedom” on Feb. 3, 2023, at Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood. (Jonathan Weiner/Courtesy FWLF)

There are some people that still think of you as the kid from Hanson, the “‘MMMBop’ kid,” who might be like, “Why is he getting involved with this? Why does he care? What does he have to say about it?” If there are people that have a sort of preconception about you, about Hanson, about why you have any stake in this game or in being a political spokesman, have you encountered any resistance  or just surprise  as you’ve tried to get this project going?

I’m no more a spokesman than any person living. I think if there’s any “Why should I listen to Taylor Hanson?” — I say, don’t listen to Taylor Hanson. Simply be curious about this movement and open your heart and your mind to a movement, which I am one of those 16,000 voices. … This project breaks all of my heart and my brain. … I shy away from getting too extreme on the facts because they’re frankly gruesome and they almost begin to sound from me, almost dramatized because they’re so horrific. But people are being killed and their lives taken in ways that are unimaginable.

All I’m doing is standing by something I think is really meaningful. And what I would hope is that others could have the experience I’ve begun to have, which is just to be enlightened — that there’s a movement that is actually worthy of championing. And it’s not about whether “Taylor Hanson said so,” but it is certainly let your curiosity be your guide. [People might think] “Why is Taylor Hanson caring?” Why does this guy from that looks like me, that sounds like me, that has my history, whatever you associate your expectation of Taylor’s belief system. “Why would he care about this? He’s certainly not Iranian. He’s certainly not Persian. He certainly has not done X, Y, and Z.” But I’ve experienced something that I think is significant.

I think there’s a great moment for this cause, where many people could be inspired to understand and embrace supporting a really powerful historic movement: the first officially women’s-led movement for liberation and freedom in a country that has a history of not even recognizing women as being a whole person. Unfortunately, that’s the truth of it. I want to be really clear in saying Taylor is not the expert on all things that have occurred. But I am really very convicted about what I know is true, which is that we have a moment to stand up and recognize that a call for freedom among a group of people that deserve to be heard.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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