A Rapper’s Detention Shows Iran’s Crackdown Is Failing
It was a balmy 1:30 a.m. nearly a year ago in Shahin Shahr, a city in central Iran, and the rapper Toomaj Salehi was sitting on the roof of his apartment building, jotting down some new lyrics. On the street below, he watched as the driver emerged from a small, boxy Saipa Pride and started rummaging through a trash dumpster.
It was a depressingly familiar sight.
The irony, Mr. Salehi pointed out to me as we briefly DM’d on Twitter that night, is that a Saipa Pride used to be among the most affordable cars in Iran. Now it’s 2 billion Iranian rial — or about $3,900 at the official exchange rate — while the average minimum salary hovers around $100 a month. “We’re being finished off,” he wrote, referring to how the clerical establishment is wearing down the people of Iran.
A little over four months later, Mr. Salehi was in prison, where he remains today. Iranian authorities arrested the 32-year-old dissident rapper in October for supporting the anti-establishment protests that erupted after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the mandatory law requiring that women wear hijab.
Now Mr. Salehi’s life is in danger. The Islamic Republic has carried out many executions in recent weeks, and human rights organizations say they believe he is an imminent target. The grisly rise, intended to stamp out dissent, has helped make the Islamic Republic one of the world’s leading executioners.
Its campaign against dissent won’t succeed. As the protests that erupted last fall simmer on and repression continues, Iran’s Gen Z-ers have made it clear that their demands for change cannot be silenced. Mr. Salehi knows that; the body of music he worked his whole life to create has helped that generation find their voice.
For years, young Iranians have gravitated toward Mr. Salehi’s fearlessness and anti-establishment lyrics. He raps in Persian, part of the Rap-e-Farsi genre that took off in the 1990s. But his idol is Tupac Shakur, and like Mr. Shakur, Mr. Salehi writes about the injustice and inequality that haunt his society — in Iran’s case, poverty, child labor, killings of protesters, executions. He has taken the country’s clerics head-on, calling out their systematic corruption, state mismanagement and their increasing repression of society as a whole — all topics that deeply resonate with Iran’s fed-up youth.
“The youth and teenagers don’t see a future,” he told me during our chat that night in June 2022. I had contacted him to talk about Iran’s Gen Z for my research. “Aspirations and talents are repressed. People have become disillusioned and nihilistic.”
Born to working-class parents with ethnic roots in the Bakhtiari tribe, which prides itself on its horse-riding and shooting skills, Mr. Salehi grew up in Iran’s central Isfahan Province. He displayed his heritage by sporting a necklace strung with a large single bullet. He once posted a photo of himself wearing traditional Bakhtiari clothing, astride a horse, rifle in hand.
Mr. Salehi’s family was also politically active. His father was once a political prisoner for eight years, and his mother was detained briefly. Mr. Salehi did take part in Iran’s mandatory conscription. Like his father, he is a mechanical engineer by trade. Before his detention, the two worked together at a metalwork factory in Shahin Shahr.
It was Mr. Salehi’s older brother who introduced him to hip-hop, and by the time he was a teenager, he was writing his own lyrics. Iranians need rap as an art form, he said in a video: “The upper classes have a voice enough. I think rap is the voice of the suffocated throats.”
Despite his motivation, Mr. Salehi struggled to pay to get his work produced; at one point, he sold his household items and even his motorcycle. He was shunned by many underground studios that didn’t want to be associated with his openly political lyrics, and ultimately had to travel to the north to find a producer who was comfortable working with him.
But as public anger has built since December 2017, when one of the largest mass protests since the 1979 revolution began, Mr. Salehi’s music found its audience. In his first big hit, “Rathole,” he rapped about regime apologists inside Iran and abroad, telling them to buy a “rathole” with the money they received propping up the clerical establishment. The lyrics were so shocking when the song came out in 2021 that many Iranians found it hard to believe the rapper was living inside the country when he released it. He had to do an Instagram live to explain he was, in fact, based in Iran.
“There has certainly been a history of angry lyrics before Toomaj, given that rap has functioned as a language of protest,” Nahid Siamdoust, an assistant professor of media and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “What sets Toomaj’s music apart and is a new feature is its radical anti-state rhetoric.”
After “Rathole” went viral in Iran and across the Iranian diaspora, Mr. Salehi was arrested in September 2021. Fans and supporters reacted to the news by starting the social media hashtag #FreeToomaj, calling for his release. After being accused of “propaganda against the regime,” he was released on bail after eight days. The brush with incarceration made him only more defiant. That month, he pinned a tweet that read: “Shall the pen that doesn’t write break. Behold what these people have suffered.”
When the anti-regime protests kicked off in September 2022, Mr. Salehi, like many Iranians, found he couldn’t sit on the sidelines. Despite the risk of returning to prison, he uploaded videos of his peaceful participation from the streets of Shahin Shahr and recorded two songs highlighting the bravery and plight Iran’s people. In essence, the artist was now living his art.
“We come to streets like ghosts and become a nightmare for the government,” he rapped in “Battlefield,” during the height of the demonstrations. “We see the light after this hell. Neither suppression nor execution can stop us. We shout and go forward. Call us roaring fighters.” In the video for “Fortune,” he confronts the clerical establishment directly, sitting across from an anonymous official representing the Islamic Republic and predicting its demise by reading coffee grinds.
Knowing he faced arrest again, Mr. Salehi left his home in Shahin Shahr, and with the help of friends, reportedly moved from one safe house to the next. Not long after his arrest, an alleged confession video aired on state television. In it, he was blindfolded, clearly under duress and with bruising to his face. He claimed he had “made a mistake.” But his family and fans said he was tortured — as has happened before when such videos were recorded by the Iranian intelligence apparatus. They now believe he needs urgent medical treatment.
As the protests gripped the world’s attention, European lawmakers selected individual Iranian political prisoners and highlighted their cases. A member of Germany’s Parliament, Ye-One Rhie, chose Mr. Salehi. According to Ms. Rhie, the rapper has since been charged with “insulting the leadership,” “propaganda against the regime,” “cooperation with hostile governments,” “inviting people to kill and disturb,” and “corruption on earth.” That last charge, which is used against actual or perceived dissidents to squash any opposition to the Islamic Republic, could carry the death sentence.
Ms. Rhie said that Mr. Salehi was in solitary confinement, and has had limited contact with his lawyer since his arrest. There has been no due process in his case, she said, and a court date hasn’t been announced. “Should one be set, however, we can expect not a trial based on the rule of law, but arbitrariness and terror,” she wrote in an email to me.
The #FreeToomaj hashtag is back in circulation. His social media manager, Negin Niknaam, who is based in Germany, told me that the international community plays an integral role in pressuring Iran’s leaders by condemning its actions and demanding answers on the health and status of political prisoners like Mr. Salehi.
In a recent Instagram post, Ms. Niknaam wrote that the last thing the rapper said to his father was, “Dad, is anyone out there talking about me?”
Mr. Salehi knows better than anyone that silence is no longer an option. All the clerical establishment’s efforts at breaking the people of Iran for the past four decades have merely been an iron forged into a fire calling for change. His voice is part of the defiant spirit of a new generation of Iranian youth that cannot be broken. The world needs to pay attention. We must keep talking about Toomaj Salehi and what’s happening in Iran.
Holly Dagres is an Iranian American who spent her formative years in Iran. She is a nonresident senior fellow in The Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia” report.
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