SAN ANTONIO — She stepped to the microphone and introduced herself as Gola, the stage name she’s used since self-exile from Iran more than a decade ago.
The singer spoke of her homeland as a land rich with Persian art, culture and history. As a child, she heard about a more open life before 1979 when the Iranian government issued fundamentalist laws that suppressed women’s rights and banned Western culture.
The call to speak at a DreamWeek 2023 opening event in San Antonio surprised the Iranian singer. Gola also sang the national anthem Saturday at the Mayor’s Ball held at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
“It’s an honor to be part of something that takes us toward a better future for all,” the singer, songwriter and activist said. “Singing the anthem is a reminder for myself and everyone what this country is about and that nothing is impossible. It’s a vision of victory, achievement and unity.”
Wellness trainer Amira Abdelkader introduced Gola to DreamWeek founder Shokare “Sho” Nakpodia, who invited her to take part in the event that closed the citywide summit.
Nakpodia said Gola embodies DreamWeek’s theme, “Identity and Representation.”
“She overlaps and identifies with so many people, but at the same time produces this unique being,” Nakpodia said. “And that’s what we want to express through DreamWeek.”
Gola said she’s not only trying to be the voice of those fighting for freedom in Iran, but she will also do her best in her new home to create positive and tangible change through music and activism.
“So, many innocent people lost their lives in the current revolution fighting for freedom in Iran for us and future generations,” she said. “Now it’s our responsibility to talk about it, act and make sure they are not forgotten. The fire of this revolution doesn’t go out — it keeps burning stronger until we see victory.”
A decade ago, Gola made the painful decision to leave Iran and her family to follow her dream of performing music. She said women aren’t allowed to sing, record, or perform solo in her homeland.
As the singer left, she closed the front door and kissed an outside wall of the home where she grew up. It’s where she played the piano and sang in front of a mirror, imagining she was Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. She touched the wall and said, ‘I may never see you again, but I will always cherish our memories.’”
“That was my mecca,” Gola said. “This feeling is not right. It hurts so bad.”
Good memories of home lift her spirits as she performs. Thoughts of family and home kept Gola going when she left on a one-way ticket to London and a new life.
She calls the stage her “holy place.” She stayed active in music, getting her master’s degree in music psychology while working part-time jobs.
Gola gradually broke through the Iranian music industry around the world. Her first English song, released in 2018, reached the top 20 U.K. pop charts. She continued fighting for women, gender equality and human rights through music by releasing her protest Farsi album, “Change.”
On track nine, called “Haghame” (It’s My Right), she sings about her feeling toward the Iranian regime’s compulsory hijab law. She knows the subject well, something she said women and girls have been fighting against since the Iranian revolution. The singer said, as a teen, the Iranian morality police jailed her three times, including an arrest for a strand of hair outside of her hijab.
“It’s my right to feel the wind blowing in my hair,” she sings in “Haghame.” “It’s my right to live my life free from any threats.”
The self-directed video of the song was released weeks before a fatal incident in Iran sparked protests across Iran and around the world. On Sept. 13, 2022, the morality police arrested and beat 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly not wearing a hijab properly. She died three days later in police custody. Amini’s death ignited protests, with thousands marching in the streets and around the world in support of the revolution in Iran.
They chanted, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” as they held up Amini’s photo. Women cut their hair and burned hijabs. Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour wrote “Baraye (Because of),” thread with tweets by protesters that became an unofficial anti-government anthem around the world.
“She was a normal girl from a normal family,” Gola said. “She was a girl that any dad, brother or husband would like to have.”
Gola doesn’t take her freedom for granted. Speaking for girls and women without a voice is her focus.
“I truly believe we are where we are at for a reason,” Gola said. “I can’t think that the years of not being with my family and friends was for nothing. Who knows, one day we can all go back and show the beauty of Iran.”