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Source: Washington Post

May 2, 2024

Rapper Toomaj Salehi became an icon in Iran. It could cost him his life.

A rare and unapologetic voice of defiance inside Iran, rapper Toomaj Salehi has been sentenced to death for his support of the anti-government uprising in 2022.

By Nilo Tabrizy

In the video posted to Telegram, a banner emblazoned with the face of rapper Toomaj Salehi hangs from a highway overpass in Tehran.

“Forced officer, forced executioner, one who just follows orders, go find a rat hole,” says a woman off camera, quoting lyrics from Salehi’s 2021 breakout hit.

On April 24, the day before the video was shared online, Salehi was sentenced to death on charges of “spreading corruption on the Earth” in connection with his support for the anti-government uprising that erupted in the fall of 2022. A rare and unapologetic voice of defiance inside Iran, Salehi was an inspiration for the protest movement, and among the most high-profile figures to be caught up in the state’s brutal crackdown.

International reaction to his death sentence was swift, with the United Nations, the White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the Recording Academy all putting out statements of support. Analysts said the draconian twist in Salehi’s case was a sign of his far-reaching cultural impact

Rapper Toomaj Salehi films a music video for his song “Pichak” in 2022 in Iran. (Courtesy of Toomaj Salehi)

Iran’s leaders view Salehi as “a national security threat,” said Holly Dagres, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs who spoke to Toomaj as a part of her research on Gen Z Iranians. She described his music as “a sword” that “tears at the very fabric of the clerical establishment.”

Salehi first went viral in September 2021 with “Rat Hole,” a song that openly challenged the Islamic Republic and its authoritarian rule.

“If you play in the middle and ask, ‘What is politics?’/ Know that we don’t have a vote to abstain./ Nobody can be neutral in this battle,” he rapped.

He quickly attracted attention, both from new fans and from the country’s security apparatus, which arrested him just days after the song’s release. But he was released on bail soon after and refused to stay quiet. He continued to put out music under his name and videos that showed his face, often from undisclosed locations within the country.

“No musician has been as bold and outspoken as him. … Even people with safety outside of the country,” said Nahid Siamdoust, an assistant professor in media and Middle East studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Salehi was born and raised in Isfahan to Bakhtiari parents, an ethnic minority in Iran’s southwest. He was introduced to rap music by his brother at a young age, he has said, and cited Tupac Shakur as an early influence.

Negin Niknaam, one of his closest confidants, who manages his social media accounts from Germany, said he has also loved martial arts and boxing since childhood.

“That’s why I think he became interested in rap, because it’s also very direct,” she added.

Salehi came from a family of activists. His father was a political prisoner who spent eight years behind bars, one of thousands of leftists rounded up in the 1980s as the revolutionary government took control of the country.

Salehi during filming of his “Pichak” music video in Iran. (Courtesy of Toomaj Salehi)

In Iran, where rap is illegal, the 'rap-e farsi” genre began to take shape in the 1990s. But the scene still exists entirely underground, making it difficult for artists to survive financially off their music.

“This is a man who’s sold his personal items, even his motorcycle, to produce music,” Dagres said. “It’s a real testament to his passion — not just for the genre itself, but also his love for Iran as a country.”

From the start, Salehi’s music was overtly political, tackling women’s rights, government corruption, the economy and child labor.

The “foregrounding of regime change discourse” in “Rat Hole” helped shift the conversation inside Iran, and ultimately became the core demand of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, Siamdoust said.

Navid, a Tehran resident who took part in the protests, said that Salehi set himself apart from the rest of the underground rap scene by going toe-to-toe with Iran’s leaders.

“It’s as if he’s poking the dictator directly in the eye and saying, ‘No matter what you do, I’ll continue on my path. Whatever happens to me, I’ll keep going,’” he said, speaking on the condition that he be identified by his first name for fear of reprisals.

When the women-led uprising began in September 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the “morality police,” Salehi addressed the budding movement with two songs.

“Woman, life, freedom, we will fight to the death/ Shoulder to shoulder like a defensive wall/ I believe in solidarity like divine faith,” he rapped on “Battlefield,” released in early October of that year.

Later that month, Salehi released “Divination,” squarely speaking to the morality police: “Someone’s crime was her hair dancing in the wind,” one verse went.

Six days after the release of “Divination,” Iran’s state broadcaster announced that Salehi had been arrested, and a state propaganda campaign kicked into gear. The judiciary’s official media outlet released a video accusing him of “planning and organizing” demonstrations with “diaspora leaders,” including an image of Salehi blindfolded in a vehicle.

On Nov. 2, 2022, Salehi appeared in a video blindfolded and with a swollen face as he apologized for encouraging security forces to abandon their posts. Another forced apology video was released that December, showing Salehi speaking to someone who resembles an interrogator; the camera angles appeared to mimic those from his music video for “Divination.”

After more than a year behind bars, Salehi was released on bail in late 2023. Days later, he posted a video to his YouTube account in which he explained his forced confessions and alleged that he had been tortured.

“They broke my arms and my legs. They were hitting my face and my head, so at first I tried to cover myself with my hands, and they broke my fingers,” Salehi said.

He was arrested again less than two weeks later for “publishing lies and disturbing the public mind after publishing some false and undocumented comments online,” the judiciary’s media outlet reported.

When Salehi’s case was appealed to the Supreme Court, it called on the lower court to drop some of the charges against him. But a revolutionary court, part of Iran’s parallel justice system, reassumed jurisdiction and sentenced him to death — an “unprecedented move,” according to his lawyer, Amir Raeisian.

Niknaam spoke with Salehi days after his death sentence was made public. She said he was most concerned that people who took to the streets to protest his sentence might be arrested. Salehi’s phone privileges have since been taken away and she has not been able to speak with him again.

“Toomaj is becoming a national hero,” said Navid, the Tehan protester. He explained how at a protest organized by pensioners in southwestern Khuzestan province on April 28, there were calls to “free Toomaj” amid chants about wages.

“I’m thrilled to see that aside from political and human rights activists speaking out against the regime, a rapper is continuing this fight,” he said.

On Wednesday, one of Salehi’s closest friends and collaborators, the rapper Afrasiab, released a freestyle from inside Iran.

“Enforcing this sentence is the biggest mistake of the century,” said Afrasiab, rapping to the camera with his face in full view.

“Toomaj is not just one person. He’s a nation that won’t be chained down.”

By Nilo Tabrizy

Nilo Tabrizy is a video reporter for The Washington Post's Visual Forensics team. Before joining The Post, she worked as a video journalist at the New York Times, where she covered Iran, race and policing, and abortion access. She was also a reporter at Vice News covering drug policy and harm reduction.Twitter

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