Former SMC Student Arsi Nami Prevails Through His Art
When the war between Iran and Iraq expanded into the main cities, Arsi Nami was about four years old. His family lived in the ancient, cultural city of Shiraz, Iran. Every day warplanes flew, dropping their bombs on residential areas and killing innocent, defenseless civilians. Sounds of terror shocked the entire community, but Nami’s mom did not want her children to know about war and its brutality. She took them into the basement while singing calming lullabies, and said the sounds of destruction were just fireworks. However, the war was too big to hide from the eyes of her children.
Eventually, Nami’s family decided to apply for asylum and Sweden accepted their request. They immigrated to a country with a totally different culture and language. Even the people looked different. Adopting the new culture was difficult for the family, especially for Nami’s mom. In Iran, she was a teacher and had a lot of friends. Unfortunately, she had to leave her friends and other family members behind. However, she believed that her sons were her biggest treasure.
In high school, Nami found a new friend: music. He listened to his brother play the piano at home, and music became his refuge. It was something he could relate to. He started to rap by studying Will Smith’s style. It helped him grow his self-confidence. One of his teachers gave him a guitar and suggested he learn to play. He recounted, “At first, I just knew how to play three songs: Enrique’s ‘Hero,’ ‘Again’ by Lenny Kravitz, and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ by Metallica.”
When Nami was about 17, he performed those songs at his high school’s end-of-the-semester concert. His friends were surprised by the quality of the performance. That was why they encouraged him to participate in a talent show known as Aiming at the Stars, the Swedish version of American Idol. Out of 4,000 people, he was one of 45 to compete, and he became the second place winner.
Santa Monica College Music Program
Nami continued learning music by going to an institute in Sweden, but he always dreamed of studying the art at an internationally-known college. “One day I sat down at my computer and googled ‘music, college, USA,’” he said. “The first thing that popped up was Santa Monica College’s Music Program.”
In 2006, Nami applied for the program at SMC. He was so excited and couldn’t wait for the response. Before receiving a reply from SMC, he and his mom flew to the U.S. They went to the International Administration Office at SMC to meet Mr. Ogata — one of the most popular advisers to Santa Monica College’s international students at the time. Nami introduced himself to Ogata and asked if he had been admitted or not. “Believe it or not, my paper was right on top of his table. And he said he was going to send me an email to say congratulations for being admitted to SMC’s music program.”
The experience of coming to SMC was beyond his greatest expectations. He made best friends with people from different parts of the world. “I was taught Chinese culture, Turkish culture, German culture, as well as the Persian and Hispanic culture through going to these music classes. I learned a lot from the music I was listening to, from the amazing professors, and most importantly from the environment of SMC. Everywhere you look, you see different faces from different corners of the world. That drove me so much,” said Nami.
Almost six years ago, one of Nami’s family members was in a car accident, and was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor. The surgery took away sensation in some parts of the relative’s body, and part of his hospital treatment included music therapy. Nami found this method fascinating and decided to apply for admission to a music therapy program. He graduated from California State University, Northridge in 2014 and started to work as a music therapist.
“I liked it so much because it wasn’t about you; it was about unconditional love put in clients who were disabled,” said Nami. “Through the communication of the music, working in a hospital made me realize what life is actually about, and I loved it.”
Life throws a curveball
But life has many ups and downs, and about two years ago Nami experienced one of life’s downs. He was in a car accident. It damaged his discs and neck, and the injury was almost the same one that his family member had sustained years earlier. As a result of the disability caused by the injury, Nami was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
“Here I was with a music bachelor’s degree in therapy … so many loans, but I was not able to go back to work and to do what I really loved,” said Nami.
One day, coming out of a psychotherapy session, he saw the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild) building. “I saw that posting for free acting workshops. I fell in love with it. The moment I walked in, I thought that was my therapy.”
Nami used that workshop as a distraction from his pain and depression. It worked. He started attending auditions for fun, and the next thing he remembers is that he was acting in different movies and booking international commercials for Samsung, Guitar Center, HP, the NBA, and Disney. “I wasn’t supposed to be there. But I understood that this was a moment for me in the darkness … that I had to rejuvenate myself.”
One of the first jobs Nami auditioned for was the role of Giovanni, a visually impaired man, in a short film called “Love is Blind.” “I worked for years with visually impaired clients at clinics and hospitals. It was close to me also because I was going through my injury,” said Nami. Out of 250 submissions, he was chosen to play the character. Because he was a music therapist, Nami was also approved by the producers of the movie to compose “Love is Blind, The Original Film Soundtrack,” as well as to create the official poster for the project.
“As the film was done, and with the disability community close to my heart, I took the opportunity to reach out to the presidents at film festivals in Cannes and India. Weeks later, I got the news that Love is Blind was an Official Selection at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival Entr’2 Marches, and the We Care Film Festival in India, [where it was] nominated for Best Film.”
After all these years, Nami still believes that those years at SMC were the best years of his life. The friends he made at SMC are still his best friends. “My mom always says ‘if you want to see when people can grow, see where any plant can grow.’ Santa Monica is possibly one of few cities in the world where whatever you plant, it can grow. At SMC, I felt connected again to my roots. I was missing the collectivism that we had in Iran because Sweden has an individualistic culture. I think that was what Santa Monica College introduced to me, right in the beginning, collectivism,” said Nami. “That means we are always one. No matter what background we are, we all have one purpose, one goal, and we do it together.”