Photo: Ramona Razaghmanesh
As the internet fracks further into the world’s creative diaspora, adding cultural sounds in pop music is being further explored by artists like Berlin based, Iranian born musician and artist, Mentrix.
Including the daf drum into her production is like a sacred ancestral signature. She says evidence of the drum’s use in Sufi temples dates back to well before the 15th century. It is known as one of the world’s oldest frame drums linking back to ancient Asian and African history.
In Mentrix’s world, music is both a tool and her oldest friend. She has strong memories of growing up between France and Iran – during the course of this interview we talk about how that experience of contrasting worlds has forged her identity, pain and joy.
“Music was a way for me to express myself in my own inner journey, it became a means to define who I am.
“It wasn’t my first medium of self expression and I don’t remember music being an element of my environment as a child. So on my spiritual journey music was a true discovery, I was always in awe. There was just this huge mystery about where music comes from and how people make it.”
Recalling high school in France as an “atheist” experience, she says she feels blessed to have discovered Islam in subsequent years through Sufism.
“Making music feels like I’m doing magic sometimes – and I don’t know how,” she laughs.
Looking to artists like MIA, she says:
“My story was a little bit different. I wasn’t necessarily the second generation of a family who moved together and then struggled and thrived through immigration.
“I was more tossed around between countries because immigration statuses were not successful. So I didn’t grow up in a culture that I would have assimilated in fully.
“When you look at an artist like MIA, she makes this …she’s a rapper and she raps like a Londoner would, but then she also has her own visual identity where she can tap into her roots. I love all of that and she is a true source of inspiration to me, but …I don’t feel that way, I belong to myself and my inner-world and I have to do something with that.”
During Ramadan 2021, Mentrix put out a stunning video titled, ’99 Names of God’. Based on a traditionally Islamic chant, it depicts the artist with a shaved head, naked – superimposed on a man’s body.
“I wanted to use this opportunity to share this chant which is well known globally. But the women are generally always veiled, or in hijab, when they perform it,” she said.
“In the video I’m covered with all these letterings, you also see me dance, but my head is bald and attached to a male body so it’s like a she-male.”
“The truth is there’s nothing in the Quran that says a woman should cover her head or hair – nothing. But for various reasons women covering their head and their hair has always been part of a social contract, whether it was throughout the time of Judaism, Christianity and later in Islam, it has always been associated with purity and decency and it continues to be in a way…”
“Somehow the words of veil have also always been interpreted as a covering that women should have.”
“And that’s no coincidence you know, because the world was always ruled by men and they always had the privilege and position to interpret these texts.”
Mentrix was disappointed when her video 99 Names Of God was criticized by another woman online. “Sadly, our biggest enemy in the fight for gender equality is the other woman who would, for instance, comment on Instagram saying it’s a beautiful video but it’s offensive to see ’99 Names of God’ with a half-naked woman.”
“What I find offensive is the thought that the body is offensive. There’s absolutely nothing offensive about the body.”
“And it’s that notion that’s been created, and then embraced by women, that a woman’s body could somehow be offensive to God. As if God regretted creating the woman and did a bad job.” She laughs.
“The whole thing is just so wrong you know.”
“I have seen some horrors done in the name of Islam in Iran, just like it has been done in the past in the name of other religions in other parts of the world… and sadly continues today… but with all the prejudice against women and all the horrible behaviours justified by a culture that oppresses women, I never had any bad feelings toward the religion itself, I only ever felt resentment towards the people that had this mis-understanding of religion.”
“To me there is a huge contradiction between the teachings and what people are doing in day to day life,” she says.
“So in my work I always try to challenge that without provoking (I hope). It’s really hard because provoking is really easy I feel.”
“In my own naive way I do want to have a conversation with those people, I’d like to speak with those women who tell me I am wrong for the art I’m making.
“I believe it’s important to also have the assistance of men who speak to that audience, to help support this position – it’s very important, I feel the roots of much evil can be exhumed in this mentality, that the women’s body and gender is somehow a topic in religion, where in truth the teachings of Islam speak of Existence and Life, about the essence of Creation…but how we deal with it in society is a general weaknesses towards topics like sexuality.”
She says as an artist you don’t always get back the energy you put into your work, but making a change for Women of Colour worldwide is a worthwhile effort which doesn’t phase Mentrix.
Her label is called ‘House of Strength Records’. It started because she had to make a platform for herself first, she says. But now it’s about making a space for Eastern artists and Women Of Colour who need an outlet too.
“If you are creative that sort of becomes your main topic. How do you define yourself, how do you describe yourself and tell your own story? And you’re made up of all these influences and these roots – and then you know, you just make this sauce and it’s got all the flavors of where you came from and all the things you have absorbed.”
“There’s this concept that somehow the pinnacle of immigration is the ‘American Dream’ – the success stories of struggling in tight-knit family units, which I think is not at all representative of stories of immigration, or at least, not my story.”
Follow Mentrix for more of her journey and stunning visuals.