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Straight outta Persia

Paria B. fuses hip-hop and spoken word—with an Iranian spin

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Paria B. performs at the Red Room, with trumpeter Joby Knaus at her side.
Photo: Bill Hughes

In the midst of a rather disappointing DJ competition at the Red Room on Sunday, with a talky crowd that seemed more interested in drinking than the show, on came a young MC to briefly throttle the joint to attention. She was decked in black pants, a red top, a black vest, a red truckers cap perched high above a camouflage bandana, neither of which could corral her long black hair. Draped on one shoulder was a ceremonial black-and-white scarf.

And then Paria B. went to work, ironically, in a challenge to hip-hop itself, taking aim at a stock figure—a “kid in the white hat, fitted tee and saggy jeans. He can rap but, um, I’m sorry, I came here for poetry, for stanzas that would break a melody and put hip-hop to shame … because all they can be artistic about is women, diamonds and crack things.”

In Las Vegas, you don’t see much cross ground between hip-hop and spoken word poetry, surprising given that both can be heavily political, as well as showcases for dazzling, rhythmically sophisticated word play. And you never see hip-hopper spoken word artists who hail from, of all places, Iran.

Paria B

So, yeah, there are lots of barriers the 23-year-old is trying to break—not the least of which is being a woman in a male-dominated field. “As a woman I thought it was necessary to show we have intelligence, we can hang with the guys.” While it’s sobering that Paria still feels that need, the good news is the woman can perform.

Paria B. was born Paria Bakhtiar in Kansas City and moved to Vegas when she was 18. Teachers couldn’t pronounce her last name, so she long ago shortened it to B. She started writing in a journal at age 11, then began penning songs a couple years later. Her influences are diverse, from Nas, Tupac and Lauryn Hill on one hand, to historical Persian poets Omar Khayyam and Rumi on the other.

While politics inform a lot of her music, she tries to not to talk too much about the Middle East. She’s been to Iran to visit several times, and it’s still a culture shock. “When you go from being loose to being almost in a cage, you don’t know how to react. You need to break that cage.”

Now she’s at work on her first album, Break Free, produced by her friends Lord Q. and Duwop Rose and due out later this year. It will mix spoken word and hip-hop beats. A couple demo tracks she played for me showcase her lyrical energy with classy-yet-thumping beats.

Although she’s spent years as a spoken word poet—winning three of four competitions in which she’s entered and performing at joints as varied as House of Blues and Planet Hollywood, (she opened for Talib Kweli at the latter), she’s spending more time on hip-hop. The difference? Spoken word is more free, she says, but the beats of hip-hop can open her work to a wider audience.

So how do her folks dig her artistic expression? Well, her dad’s a Tupac fan … but let’s say the parents don’t quite dig their daughter’s vibe. Yet. “If I want my people like my father to listen, I have to be about something.”

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