After living half his life in the U.S. for about 30 years, Majid Naficy is equal parts Iranian and American.
“I see myself as an Iranian-American poet," said Naficy, sitting in his living room on a recent afternoon. "I was born in Iran, I was raised in Iran, but then I moved here. So I have both worlds within me.”
The conditions under which Naficy was forced to leave Iran are something that has informed his poetry ever since.
It all started in the 1970s, when the student movement in Tehran drew him to Marxism and he joined thousands of fellow 20-somethings who were calling for the end of totalitarianism and the overthrow of the Shah.
“I participated in the revolution against the Shah, very actively, but when the new regime established itself and became a very repressive theocracy, we recognized we didn’t have any freedom," said Naficy. "So I had to flee Iran on horseback through the Kurdish borders into Turkey.”
Around that time, Naficy’s brother and sister-in-law were forcibly taken by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s security forces. He later learned they were executed. Naficy’s young wife was also killed.
Lost and alone, Naficy left Iran in 1983 and made his way to Paris, and then, to L.A.
He ended up in Venice Beach but quickly became connected to what’s known as Tehrangeles and its community of about 500,000 Iranians and Iranian-Americans. He began publishing poetry and essays in Persian.
In 1989, he was among the founders of "Saturday Notebooks," a literary group of Iranian writers that still meets the first weekend of every month. It's also around the time that Naficy’s son was born.
Azad, which means “freedom” in Persian, is another important subject in Naficy’s poetry.
His poem “Secret of the River” was written for Azad when he was eight months old. It’s published in his 2003 book of poems, “Father and Son”:
"Every day we go along the river/ And your body / Takes on the smell of the water.
Seeing us, the wild geese / Tune up their battle horns, / And a cat behind its green hideout / Lifts its tail in triumph.
The old fishermen, / With their buckets full of sorrow / Move from place to place / And a palm leaf in our way / Forces me to bend my head.
I stand still / And as you sleep on my shoulder / I think to myself: / "It's too late for me / But maybe you will find / the secret of the river."
Azad grew up around poetry and music. He played the piano and violin as a kid, but his dad may have secretly hoped he’d become a poet.
“I took him with me to my poetry readings," said Naficy. "Sometimes he would sell my books in my events and get a commission from me at the events. So he was exposed to my poetry readings in different places. But he would always say, ‘I never want to become a poet.’”
He did become something of a poet. Twenty-four year-old Azad Right—that’s his nom d’artiste—is a spoken-word and hip-hop artist.
Sitting in his bedroom in his father’s apartment, Azad brought out his laptop and played the song and video he is proudest of. It’s called “Spiderwebs.”
When asked whether he sees himself as a rapper from his father’s school of poetry, Azad said, no, not really.
“I don’t really fit with that because I didn’t grow up with those people, know what I mean?" said Azad. "And then as I got more recognition, I started meeting Iranians that were relating to my music more, and I said why not be like their spokesperson? Because there’s no Middle-Eastern musician in hip-hop.”
Azad is more Angeleno than Iranian; he started writing rhymes when he was in high school and now he is gearing up for his first full-length recording. His team of producers and collaborators are a culturally-diverse bunch, with roots elsewhere. Last month, Azad performed at the recent TED Conference in Long Beach; he loves being on stage.
While Naficy may not totally get his son’s rap songs, he does see that they both share a passion — an obsession — for words.
“Toward the end of high school he was drawn into this. And I think it has become his raison d’etre of his life," said Naficy. "He is a performer. But me? I’m just a poet. Except, you know, when I read it on stage."