Rapper's death sentence is a risky move for Iran's 'revolutionary' justice

Anger at possible execution of outspoken musical dissident Toomaj Salehi is energising Iranians at home and abroad

Toomaj Salehi's acerbic critiques of the regime made him into a popular star. Courtesy: @OfficialToomaj / Twitter
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Last weekend, dozens of cities around the world saw a familiar sight: Iranians protesting against the Islamic Republic, a regime many of them have long opposed. In Toronto, a key site of Iranian diaspora, at least 8,000 took to streets on April 27. Such solidarity demonstrations had been common during the height of the 2022-23 “Women, Life, Freedom” movement but had gone dormant for a while. But last week, a disturbing piece of news from Iran shocked the nation and jolted many Iranians to renewed action.

On April 24, a court in Isfahan issued a death sentence for Toomaj Salehi, a 33-year-old rapper whose acerbic critiques of the regime made him into a popular star. It was most unexpected. In October 2022, as the anti-regime movement was rocking Iran, Salehi was arrested and convicted of a capital crime – one notorious for its vague definition – known as “spreading corruption on Earth”. Although the regime has previously used this charge to send thousands of dissidents to their deaths, Salehi’s lawyers were able to appeal to the Supreme Court, which called on prosecutors to drop some of the charges. Last year, he was sentenced to more than six years in prison. In November, he was released on bail, and many assumed he would be included in a general amnesty that saw the release of thousands of Iranians who were arrested during the 2022-2023 protests.

But Isfahan’s “revolutionary courts”, a part of the judiciary close to the security services, decided to up the ante by sentencing Salehi to execution. The decree was even more shocking because it appeared to contradict the Supreme Court’s previous ruling.

Salehi is popular – even loved – among many Iranians across the political spectrum. Born in a village in central Iran’s Chahrmahal and Bakhtiari province, he followed his father’s trade of metalwork and got an engineering degree. But he also always loved music and poetry (specifically that of the 11th century poet Omar Khayyam) and decided at the age of 25 to sell his motorcycle and some furniture to start producing music.

Before long, Salehi revolutionised the Iranian music scene. His bold songs take the regime to task for its corruption and tyranny, a mission that has appealed to a wide range of Iranians.

Street protests against his sentencing have not been limited to the diaspora. Last week, pensioners in the southwestern city of Ahvaz chanted: “Toomaj is a nation. Free him!”

The long list of political and artistic personalities that have come out against the death sentence include Shirin Ebadi and Narges Mohammadi, Iran’s two only Nobel peace laureates. The latter warned the country’s theocratic government it would face “an eruption” of popular anger. Dozens of Iranian musicians and artists have also joined the chorus. Keyhan Kalhor, one of the most celebrated Iranian musicians alive, wrote: “Our silence equals support for oppression and the oppressor.”

If many Iranian artists are known for their artfully subtle criticisms, Salehi represents a new generation too fed up with decades of the regime’s repression and failure to have time for niceties

Kalhor’s short message fits the spirit of Salehi’s work. In one of his most well-known songs, Rathole, Salehi enjoins those who protect the regime explicitly or implicitly to fear the rage of the people and look for a “rathole” to hide in. “You saw the people’s pain but you closed your eyes,” he says. “You saw the oppressed were being oppressed but ignored them.”

Salehi’s music has had an especially electric effect because he doesn’t beat around the bush. Unlike many rappers who use complex plays on words and sound effects, he uses a relatively simple beat and straightforward and explicit Persian. His lyrics are almost all directly political and target various ills in Iranian society. In one, he took on the crisis of drug addiction in Iran and blamed it on disastrous policies. In another, he attacked a 25-year Iran-China deal in 2021 widely perceived to favour the Chinese. The very name of this song made its position clear: Turkmenchay, reminiscent of the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay with Russia in which Iran gave up control of some of its territories in the South Caucasus and is thus infamous among Iranians.

If many Iranian artists are known for their artfully subtle criticisms, Salehi represents a new generation too fed up with decades of the regime’s repression and failure to have time for niceties. In another song, Nadidi 2 (“You didn’t see”), he directly addresses the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful figure.

“From your office, you can’t hear the sound of poverty,” he sings. “You don’t understand homelessness in cold nights. Come see the depth of pain in people’s eyes. For one night, look at the city from my eyes!”

In a country in which people are sentenced to prison for the mildest criticisms of Mr Khamenei, such bold confrontation can be awe-inspiring for many. But Salehi went even further after the Women, Life, Freedom movement. In one of his most visually arresting music videos, Fortune Telling, we see him attending a divination session reading coffee grounds to decipher the future of Iran. In his cup he sees “blood and rage”, “corpses of old and young people” and “a regime that has deprived us of light”.

But more importantly, he predicts a good future in which oppressors have been arrested and people have a better life. The song’s chorus, repeatedly whispered throughout the track, asks him to get the results of the cup reading to the Supreme Leader. If protest music is a reflection of politics of an era, Salehi’s perfectly fits the rageful and youth-led movements of post-2017.

Shortly after his arrest, Iran’s state TV broadcast videos of Salehi blindfolded, visibly beaten and distressed. He was shown apologising for a message on social media in which he had asked the security forces to abandon their posts to avoid oppressing the Iranian people. Repeated state media reports have smeared him since, occasionally claiming he has collaborated with the regime.

But if the authorities thought they had tamed Salehi, they were obviously wrong. After he was bailed in November, he could have bid his time in silence. Instead, he published an explosive 14-minute video in which he denied all allegations of collaboration and said he had even refused to hand over access to his social media accounts despite experiencing brutal torture. “I was severely tortured at the time of my arrest,” he said. “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.”

The death sentence Salehi has now received seems to be punishment for his open refusal to stand down. The question now is how successfully his supporters protesting on the streets can stand up for him.

Published: May 02, 2024, 2:00 PM