A Conversation with: Säye Skye
If there’s one word to best describe Säye Skye, it’s brave. The Iranian-trans rapper has had a career marked by significant highs, like working on award-winning soundtracks and scores for the film No Hard Feelings and the show Sort Of, but has also been marked by persecution from his home government, and hate-based attacks which followed him all the way from Iran to Toronto. Skye, however, has never ceased to move forward, consistently releasing boundary-pushing songs serving as anthems for liberation.
Calling in from Berlin, I was privileged to speak with him about his journey.
You’ve been writing since you were seven. What drove your creativity?
My grandfather. He was a poet and taught me about Rumi, made me memorize verses, learn the meanings and everything. Every time I did, he gave me dried apricot and pistachios. It was then when I started writing my own poems.
As a teenager, I started writing for big newspapers in Iran, but they always censored my writing. I realized it didn’t matter what I wrote, they weren’t going to publish it, so I switched my medium to rap. Here, I could say whatever I wanted in any way I wanted, there were no restrictions in my flows, lyrics, anything. I started performing at private parties and school gatherings, talking about what was going on in society. I realized this was something people related to, and I should take the next step and record a song.
Take me through the first song you recorded.
I recorded my first three in an underground studio east of Tehran. The first one I released, “Shadow of an Iranian Woman,” was about LGBTQ+ rights, and it started a huge wave of movements outside the country. People started talking about queer rights because, as much as the regime says we don’t, Iran does have queer people.
There was no internet here, so I gave the song to my partner, who was Iranian-Canadian, on a CD to upload. When she did, I immediately went viral. I got interview offers from Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.
Little did I know for six months after this the country was tracking me. I was a teenager so I never thought they would see me as a threat. I found a friend who had some connections in the government. He showed up one day at a coffee shop while I was drinking a cappuccino, grabbed my phone and smashed it onto the wall. He was sweating and started asking “What have you done?” and then showed me prints of emails and phone calls from the past six months and told me I had to leave. I didn’t even tell my family, I just said I was travelling around Iran with friends. I found somebody, paid them $2,000 US and then waited for three months for him to finally take my name off the blacklist.
During this wait, I contacted him a few times, and each time he told me that something came up, be that a change of who was in charge, or an issue with timing, I just had to sit and wait and wonder whether I had given him my money for nothing. In the end, he ended up contacting me, telling me my case had gotten worse. He said “You have three days to leave, but if you don’t, I’m going to give them everything. Don’t contact me ever again.” I got on an airplane after being heavily searched, and was able to leave Iran. The government didn’t stop when I went to Turkey either, they tried to kidnap me. I finally got to choose between Canada, US and Germany as sponsor countries and I chose Canada.
The only reason they didn’t come for me before I left Iran was because they were trying to figure out who my connections were, but I had no connections. It was just me as an artist needing to put out a song. I needed people to know we do exist.
What was life like for you when you came to Toronto?
It’s funny because when I first came to Toronto, I was moving my luggage into my room and I saw this queer girl sitting on the stairs next door. She looked at me and said “Hey, welcome,” as she was smoking a doobie. My roommates were pretty conservative, but it was the house next door which was my gate to the city. It was this three-floor townhouse filled with queers. They were all so amazed by my story, of course, everyone has struggles, but my story made them realize they may be taking some freedoms for granted. They took me to bars, put me on guest lists and just showed me the scene. It was amazing. Eventually, I learned I was lucky, it was not like this all the time. I came to the right city and went to the right location, Dundas and Dufferin.
I feel like, all in all, my experience in Canada was a roller coaster. I’ve had many highs, like winning the Telus newcomer artist of the year and being part of the jury for the Toronto Arts Council. I have also had many lows, like when I was part of a homophobic and transphobic attack. Three people jumped on me, 40 bystanders watching, none of them doing anything. My face was beaten up, blood was coming down, and people didn’t want to help me. I went on CBC and talked about it. I wanted people to know in our beautiful Toronto, this can happen. Coming to Toronto taught me resilience and hope are the key to altering an environment.
Activism is so integral to your art. What is its importance to you?
They [the Islamic Republic of Iran] imprison so many artists and so many rappers, and it just shows me the power of art. This is what we forget about living in the diaspora. It doesn’t matter where you are, the queer community is always under attack and if we stop fighting for our rights, the system will always try and take them away. I do this through my music, and I see messages from people saying things like “I saw your performance, it changed my perspective,”or “you moved me,” or “I relate to you.” Regardless of our differences, or political perspectives, we’re all humans. How can we coexist without respecting each other’s feelings? So I choose love, because only with love can you change minds or bring something to somebody’s attention.
What can we look out for next?
I’m hopeful about the “Woman Life Freedom” movement. People [Iranians living in Iran] have shown the world how brave and thirsty they are for freedom and liberation, for a better future. I watch this and I know this is not the end, the fight is not over.
In terms of music, it’s going to have a drastic shift based on the past few months. I have a new EP I’m working on which has four sections: before the death of Jina Amini [the Kurdish name of Mahsa Amini], right after her death, after the executions and punishments from the regime, and then the mourning which followed when people went back to the streets. I’m open to new collaborations and opportunities to be the voice of my people back home and show borders cannot divide us. People are uniting, and I’m right there with them.
Enjoyed reading this piece? Check out How ‘Sort Of’ is Making Canadian TV History on Glossi Mag.
Thomas Publow is a contributor at Glossi Mag. Currently finishing his degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University, Thomas considers himself an expert in all things VMAs and Beyoncé.