|nāla bar-ār az qafas ey bolbol-e ḥazin
k-az ḡam-e to sina-ye man
por šarar, por šarar, por šarar šod.
|O sad nightingale, lament from your cage.
Because of your grief, my heart is
Full of sparks, sparks, sparks.
When asked in a 2010 interview why he chose to begin performing “Morḡ-e saḥar” (“Bird of Dawn”) in 1990 as what would become his trademark concert encore, Iranian singer and master of Persian traditional music Mohammad-Reza Shajarian had a ready answer. Although the tasnif (ballad) was nearly 70 years old in 1990, had seen the rise and fall of a dynasty and a revolution, the anthem possessed a special timelessness. It was “a rallying cry, a form of protest that must be repeated over and over again, which says, ‘we still have this protest, we still feel the same way’” (qtd. in Siamdoust 2017: 38).
The song, a plaintive injunction for a caged nightingale to break free from the confines of its oppression in the light of a new dawn, follows a centuries-old literary and aesthetic trope in Persian culture: the gol o bolbol (the rose and the nightingale). It also taps into a more recent, more subversive practice: As Nahid Siamdoust notes in Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran (2017), using the gol o bolbol “to signify loss and mourning, not for the lover but for a political struggle, is rooted in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, when it represented a turn in the use of Persian poetry and song.”
Now, while the Iranian people rise relentlessly against their government in the wake of Jina (Mahsa) Amini’s death in state custody last year for “improper” hijab placement, while expatriates and their allies in the diaspora hold rallies all over the world to support Iranians in Iran, the impassioned spirit of the now nearly-century-old ballad of “Morḡ-e saḥar” is more urgent than ever. Moreover, it has been diffused into other Iranian protest anthems and projected outside Iran in extraordinary ways.
Despite severe internet censorship and periodic web disruptions by the Iranian government, protest footage from inside the country and around the world coheres around a core selection of anthems. These songs rally protesters internationally—despite technology, not to mention language barriers—in keeping with what we’ve grown to expect of protest ballads and even Iranian protest ballads, more specifically. However, rather uniquely, their strategic social-media translations as “sounds” on platforms like Instagram and TikTok additionally convey political messages and organize internet traffic into meticulously-tuned algorithms. What we’re seeing (and hearing) from Iran is a reconfiguration of the protest ballad as a genre in the age of short-form content and its still-unfolding possibilities.
The gol o bolbol have gone viral. To put it mildly.
While most know Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” (“For”) from its sweeping win earlier this year of the first-ever Grammy special Merit award for Best Song for Social Change, several other ballads have emerged to both document the ongoing political unrest and cohere related internet traffic into usable clusters of information. Some of these are natural: songs by imprisoned Iranian musicians. Some are unexpected: classic love songs sung by young Iranian protesters in candid footage before they, too, died in custody. Some aren’t even Iranian. But all have emerged as a coherent, revealing soundtrack of profound grief and hope.
That soundtrack is a living archive: It evolves as continuously and resolutely as does the ongoing uprising, transforming to suit the needs of the Woman Life Freedom (WLF) movement. While the representative sample to follow is by no means exhaustive, the best-known anthems at the time of this writing tend to drift into two coherent categories. The first is Gol, which encompasses those unexpected anthems that became associated with specific, fallen protesters; the second is Bolbol, which constitutes deliberate rallying cries that, like the nightingale of the trope, call for hope and fortitude in reaching a new dawn.
|jāneb-e ʿāšeq negar ey tāza gol–az in
bištar kon, bištar kon, bištar kon
|O rose, look towards this lover,
Look again, again, again.
The juxtaposition of two viral videos characterizes one of the most widely-known Gol anthems: In one, 16-year-old Nika Shakarami leaps onto an overturned trash bin in a bustling street, having just torn her mandatory hijab from her hair and set it ablaze. She defiantly holds the flaming material up in a clenched fist. Around her, fellow protesters’ activity is punctuated with shouts of “Marg bar diktator!” (“Down with the dictator!”)
In the other, strikingly different video, a giggling Nika Shakarami implores her friends not to tease her as she clutches a microphone, gestures gleefully at the camera, and belts out a comically exaggerated verse from “Soltane Ghalbha” (“King of Hearts”), to the delight of her young audience. The song – which debuted in a 1968 Iranian melodrama of the same name and has remained popular ever since – follows a singer who begs their beloved to remember their devotion despite the lovers’ separation.
The video of Nika Shakarami leaping onto the trash bin is one of the last before she disappeared; her family was not contacted to identify her body until eight days later. The misalignment of the government’s inarguably self-serving story—that Nika jumped from a construction building that night—and eyewitnesses has been the subject of global scrutiny ever since.
While at first blush, “Soltane Ghalbha” may seem an unlikely protest ballad for the Woman Life Freedom movement against state brutality, it represents an instance of activists repurposing existing tracks in a culture’s collective memory, thus “reawakening forgotten structures of feeling,” as Eyerman and Jamison (1994) suggest of protest ballads, stretching them across generations for maximum efficacy: “In this respect, the songs of social movements affect the dynamics of cultural transformations, the historical relations between dominant, residual, and emergent cultural formations.”
Under Iran’s repressive regime, accessing those “structures of feeling” requires meticulous discretion that, more often than not, results in a sort of dual encoding of messages. Shajarian himself walked this line tensely: Dubbed as one of NPR’s 50 Great Voices of all time and as “Iran’s most famous protest singer — even though, strictly speaking, his music doesn’t directly protest the government at all”, Shajarian was banned from performing in Iran for vocalizing support of the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 until his death in 2020. Iranian musicians in genres running the gamut from classical composition to heavy metal are routinely jailed for violating strict, religiously informed codes of artistic expression.
Gol songs like “Soltane Ghalbha”, which lyrically invoke “structures of feeling” connected to the loss and grief of a loved one, achieve an encoded additional layer of resistance when paired with the specific images and stories of lost young protesters—especially in the age of social media when these things are more easily accessible. In this way, “Soltane Ghalbha” taps into the grief of its related scene in the 1968 film as well as intergenerational nostalgia for pre-Revolution Iran; this is then contextualized alongside footage of Nika Shakarami, eyes and grin bright as she sings it on social media footage from before her death, in a way that slips under the radar of the government without explicit lyrical roots in protest.
What’s more, as I’ve written elsewhere, social-media translations of the song into an organizing “sound” form catchment zones for Woman Life Freedom-related content on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, enabling the rapid-sharing of protest footage while diffusing identifying information that could endanger the source sharer. Take, for example, a viral video under the “Soltane Ghalbha” TikTok sound of a large group of Iranians, led by a single guitarist, singing the song in what looks to be a street or park. Despite the increasing danger, many women wear their hair uncovered, with no small number arranging their scarves so they could be quickly tugged back into place over their hair.
Several in the crowd wear masks and sunglasses to complicate identifying them from any video. On the surface—and potentially under scrutiny—they sing a classic Iranian love song. However, TikTok’s “resharing” and “stitching” features leave the original footage slung far outside the Iranian government’s control, where it accumulates additional captions for protest. In this way, its wistful lyric “I remember you everywhere, everywhere” gains additional political force as it memorializes Nika’s shy smile and the threatened youth of Iran in one, flung into the feeds of sympathetic social media users worldwide.
Another Gol song, Alireza Talischi’s “Ghaf” (a reference to a mountaintop in Persian mythology and an idiom for “Far Away”) (2021), emerged under similar conditions as “Soltane Ghalbha” When 19-year-old Hamidreza Rouhi was shot by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces at a protest in western Tehran on November 18, 2022, his social media presence was particularly expansive. A model for most of his life and an avid biker, a video quickly circulated of Hamidreza singing “Ghaf” from astride a motorcycle, cementing the link between the ballad and his tragic loss.
This link is enduring: On 14 March 2023, footage of an entire neighborhood in Tehran singing “Ghaf” to honor Hamidreza on the Iranian festival of Čahāršanbe soori spread on social media. The lyrics “My memories don’t let me sleep. You are away and I’m at the end of the world” acquire an added level of grief and resistance that is discreetly communicated to memorialize a fallen protester and the future they represent; the song anchors information about Hamidreza, and the movement, across platforms.
The circuitous nature of these Gol songs and the social media that boosts them is poignantly highlighted in the vlogs of Sarina Esmailzadeh, a deeply thoughtful 16-year-old from Karaj, whose YouTube channel meanders from trips with her family and experimenting with pizza recipes to reflections on women’s rights: Social media has enabled young Iranians to see the rest of the world, she reflected in her video “Musings of Iranian Youth” (22 May 2022), and it leads them to fight for a better future. This certainly tracks with Iranian sociologist Hosein Ghazien’s conclusion that Gen-Z Iranians are “more up to date and aware of the world they live in. They’ve realized life can be lived differently.”
Sarina’s first YouTube entry (16 May 2022) includes her lip-syncing Hosier’s “Take Me to Church” (2013). When she was beaten to death by IRGC forces at a protest in Karaj on 23 September 2022, “Take Me to Church” became her Gol anthem. Hozier himself retweeted the video, stating: “We talk about freedoms with no understanding of what it means to pay the ultimate price in fighting for it.”
Unnervingly like Nika’s, Sarina’s death was conveniently ruled as suicide by leaping from a rooftop. Also like Nika’s, Sarina’s family was pressured to adopt the suicide script. Hamidreza’s family has also been harassed and his father arrested, according to an Amnesty International report.
Again and again, social media both informs and amplifies Gol anthems: Given the young ages of the protesters—the deputy commander of the IRGC admitted in October 2022 that the average age of arrested protesters was 15—there is no shortage of candid social media footage of Iranian children singing the songs that appeal to them.
This is what makes these songs so dreadfully haunting: Gol anthems become the roses left at the digital altars of slain protesters. (This is particularly resonant because Amnesty International reports rampant protester gravesite vandalism in Iran.) Gol anthems become, to borrow from Sarina as she sang “Take Me to Church”, a way to offer protesters “that deathless death” under a system bent on seeing them compliant or destroyed.
|ey ḵodā, ey falak, ey ṭabiʿat
šām-e tārik-e mā-rā saḥar kon
|“O God, O Heavens, O Nature,
Turn our dark night to dawn.”
If Gol songs memorialize, Bolbol songs mobilize. These tend to urge strength and unity through night or darkness to arrive at freedom in the light of dawn. With the Iranian Constitution only conditionally offering protections for creative expression “with due observance of Islamic criteria and the welfare of the country” (Article 175), such careful encoding is crucial for artists and their audiences alike.
What is extraordinary is how this has played out outside Iran. The best-known ballad of the movement, Hajipour’s “Baraye” is also a unique example of what cultural critic Henry Jenkins calls participatory politics: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern,” which, crucially, “are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions.” “Baraye” is an assembly of Iranians’ tweeted responses to the question of why they want regime change in the immediate aftermath of Amini’s death. Released on Hajipour’s Instagram page, it brought Iranians’ individual voices—collected—to social media’s global stage even before it won the special-merit Grammy this year.
Doubtless, the promise of “Bareye”‘s penultimate stanza, “Because of the sun after a long night”, rankled Regime leaders. This explains why it became, as Siamdoust wrote for Foreign Policy, “a thorn in the side of the theocratic government in Tehran”—to the degree that Hajipour was jailed for it and charged with “propaganda against the regime.”
Although Hajipour was released within two weeks of his arrest, others have not been so fortunate. Rapper Toomaj Solehi was also arrested nearly a month after Hajipour and remains imprisoned today, with human rights groups detailing incidents of torture and insufficient medical care in his early days of arrest. The #FreeToomaj hashtag presently clocks over 40,000 posts on Instagram and over 5 million views on TikTok. The TikTok “sound” for Toomaj’s Bolbol anthem “Meydooni Jang” (“Battlefield”) (2022) gathers videos that inform users about his (and his Kurdish fellow rapper Saman Yasin’s) imprisonment and related calls to action, as well as rally information—in multiple languages.
“They took the sun from us; we will take the sleep from them at night,” Toomaj raps in “Meydooni Jang,” in a video laden with protest imagery. Then, a more forceful nightingale’s injunction: “We see the light after this hell.”
The most recent entry in this Bolbol canon’s effects are still unfolding: Mehdi Yarrahi was arrested within one day of posting his ballad “Roosarito” (“Your Headscarf”) to his YouTube channel in August. The song encourages Iranian women, “Take off your headscarf; the sun is sinking” over an array of WLF footage, including clips of Nika and Sarina each singing their Gol anthems. Inspired by the song, Iranian women have flooded social media with videos of themselves removing their veils and dancing to it, typically with their faces obscured for safety.
“You are the sun,” Yarrahi praises, “So it is impossible that the night falls.”
“Roosarito” perfectly demonstrates the inevitable result of protest songs: that of the bolbol drawing strength from its gol, of the nightingale’s song growing more resilient with each new rose on the altar of a slain protester. These ballads are in anguished, unyielding conversation with one another, gilding grief in unstoppable resolve to greet a new dawn.
“We are fueled by the will to survive, whether we are inside prison or outside,” 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi wrote in September—from her prison cell. “The government’s violent and brutal repression may sometimes keep people from the streets, but our struggle will continue until the day when light takes over darkness and the sun of freedom embraces the Iranian people.”
Inevitably, the viral gol o bolbol will greet the dawn.
Eyerman, Ron, and Andrew Jamison. Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press. 1998.
Siamdoust, Nahid. Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran Stanford University Press. 2017.