Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian, who spent two years in prison. (Hossein Rajabian) (Mehdi Rajabian/Mehdi Rajabian)

As America’s midterm elections draw closer, the country’s polarization feels starker than in any previous cycle, and this time, the campaign is playing out not only on metaphorical stages, but on real ones, too.

On Sunday, Taylor Swift broke her political silence when she took to Instagram to endorse a Democratic candidate, encouraging her 112 million followers to register to vote. But Swift’s pro-Democratic message was soon challenged by another musician, Kanye West, who held a bizarre meeting with President Trump in the White House on Thursday, discussing racism, jobs and how he feels like “Superman” with a Trump hat.

The two prominent cases put a renewed spotlight on the age-old question of whether musicians should stay out of politics, raised recently by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who tweeted earlier this year, “Don’t ruin great music with trash,” in response to a Grammys award ceremony that turned political. “Some of us love music without the politics thrown into it,” Haley tweeted.

Sure, mixing politics and arts might be annoying. But it’s worth keeping in mind what societies look like when artists aren’t free to speak their minds, and the incredibly long and rich tradition of artists agitating for freedom.

Last year, at least 48 artists were handed prison sentences in authoritarian countries on questionable charges, according to UNESCO. “Women artists were attacked, arbitrarily restricted and had their artistic freedom violated. Minority artists faced terrorist charges. LGBT artists were persecuted and their arts censored. Thousands of pieces of art, music, paintings, theater, dance and literature were censored, vandalized, and destroyed. We live in a world where artistic freedom is not for everyone,” the U.N. organization wrote in a damning summary.

Restrictions that affect freedom of speech aren’t always the result of direct governmental intervention, the report warned, but can also come from “religious groups, political associations, criminal gangs, private individuals and the artistic communities themselves.”

Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian has experienced such intimidation tactics. The 30-year-old spent two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison with his brother, Hossein, a filmmaker, after they were found guilty of breaching the country’s tough censorship laws that require all artists to obtain government licenses to produce and disseminate music.

The duo had no such license, but their label, Barg Music, quickly became a heavyweight in Iran’s underground music scene — until authorities busted their business.

After Rajabian’s condition deteriorated following a hunger strike, authorities temporarily hospitalized him in 2015. At the time, Rajabian was able to get in touch with my colleague Ishaan Tharoor, telling him via a messaging app that he had lost 33 pounds and “40 percent of his vision.”

Currently out of prison after a temporary release, Rajabian is refusing to back down, even though he is not allowed to work as an artist in Iran or leave the country. For his latest project, still unpublished, he assembled dozens of musicians from across the Middle East to protest oppression and human rights violations.

“With the language of music, we were able to shout out to the world that the Middle East is tired of suppression,” Rajabian wrote in a message. Other artists involved in the project agreed that music could offer a defense of human rights, even if musicians themselves held differing political views. “Music serves the culture and culture saves nations,” 42-year-old Palestinian musician Wasim Qassis was quoted as saying.

To some, that’s worth a whole lot of risk. “For me, creating a piece of art is more important than any consequences that might follow,” Rajabian wrote.

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