Toomaj Salehi
Photo: Hossein Ronaghi | CC BY SA 4.0 (cropped) | Wikipedia

Son of Freedom: Dissident Iranian Rapper Toomaj Salehi

Dissident Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi – an heir to the legacies of Persian rap’s founders – carries a torch for Women, Life, Freedom as death looms.

Iranian hip-hop artist Toomaj Salehi, one of the most globally recognizable figures in the ongoing Woman, Life, Freedom movement in Iran, has just been sentenced to death for the “crime” of Mofsed-e-filarz (“Corruption on Earth”). Toomaj was jailed in October 2022 for participating in protests following the death of Jina (Mahsa) Amini in state custody for improper hijab placement.

After enduring 252 days in prison, Toomaj was released in November 2023, only to be re-arrested two weeks later following the publication of a video in which he detailed his experience of torture while in prison. Toomaj’s sentence comes despite global outcry, including international political sponsorship, regular campaigns from his over 2.3 million social media followers, and a specific feature in the report from the United Nations independent international fact-finding mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Toomaj’s lyrics routinely and directly lambast the Iranian government and its political corruption. For example, one of his most famous songs. Soorakh Moosh (“Mouse Hole”) advises Regime agents and their supporters to invest in the titular mouse hole in which they might hide when the people inevitably unite to overthrow them. “Bedune māle kešidane to in sistem kāmel nist. Irān enqadr zendān dāre ke hamatun jā bešin,” he warns: “Just know that without apologists, this system is incomplete. Iran has so many prisons that you would all fit in.”

Lyrics like these are in keeping with the unique subversive functions of Rap-e fārsi (Persian Rap) as, at once, a fervent resistance to religious authoritarianism and political corruption and a crucial site of identity (re)formation in post-Revolution Iran. Amayah Pelegrin remarks in The Journal of Persianate Studies:

In Iran today, Persian Rap is used as a form of social commentary and empowerment through self-expression. It is an act of retaliation against authority and prejudice. It is a medium through which the social reform of Iran’s youth can be explored, as it daily experiences a diverse range of cultural and political issues. Its lyric-focused style brings the word of truth down to a street level, where political hypocrisies and social injustices are laid bare. For this reason, and the self-empowered attitude that is central to the genre, rap is currently the most popular form of underground Iranian music.

Toomaj, an heir to the legacies of Persian Rap’s founders such as Soruosh Lashkari (better known as Hichkas) and Yaser Bakhtiari (Yas—himself heavily inspired by Tupac Shakur), was also an heir to Regime oppression. Two of his uncles were murdered at age 19 in the aftermath of the Revolution, and both of his parents were detained (and jailed, in his father’s case) for anti-government activism.

When the Woman, Life, Freedom protests erupted throughout Iran in 2022, Toomaj “became a leading figure in the movement, joining marches after the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, helping out at rallies, and posting videos to instill strength and courage in his fellow compatriots.” This highly visible, heroic activity, in conjunction with his pertinacious lyrics, is what ultimately led to his arrest in October that year and now to his death sentence.

In an April letter of this year (translated and posted by relatives to her Instagram account) from the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where she is presently serving a 16-year sentence for publicly advocating against the death penalty in Iran, 2023 Nobel laureate Narges Mohammadi urges global outcry on behalf of Toomaj, whom she calls “the voice of [the] ‘Woman Life Freedom’ movement and its soundtrack.”

This is plainly visible in songs like “Mehdooni Jang” (“The Battlefield”), in which Toomaj lyrically invokes the language of revolution—a pointed choice given the Islamic Republic of Iran’s origins—in a call to arms meant to unite the country’s many distinctive populations into one bold Iranian identity. In its video, laden with imagery from Woman, Life, Freedom protests and, intriguingly, bearing original English subtitles, Toomaj raps: “We are the voice of the anger of the people whose voice was silenced. Don’t call us rebels; we came for revolution. Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkman, Mazani, Sistani, Baluchi, Talysh, Tat, Azari, Kurdish, Gilaki, Lori, Persian, and Qashqai. We’re unity of the rivers, we’re the sea.”

Against the Iranian government’s effective repressive state apparatuses, which through structural discrimination and mistreatment functionally fractionalize the country’s many distinctive ethnic and religious minorities the better to reinforce a flattened, Islamic Iranian identity, Toomaj’s message of a diverse but shared Iranian cultural identity represents an unveiled threat. If the Woman, Life, Freedom movement has demonstrated anything, it’s that the Regime doesn’t respond favorably to unveiling.

Indeed, stifling his incendiary lyrics has always been at the center of Toomaj’s detention: On earlier charges in July 2023 of “propaganda against the State”, “cooperation with hostile governments”, and “formation of an illegal group with the intention to disrupt national security”, Toomaj was sentenced to six years imprisonment, a two-year travel ban, and a mandated “life skills” course—in addition to a two-year ban on producing any music. (Toomaj’s characteristic response was to release “Tifus” (“Typhus”) in March 2024; the lyrics seem to have been delivered over a phone call.)

While most know Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” (“For”) from its sweeping win in 2023 of the first-ever Grammy special merit award for Best Song for Social Change, Toomaj’s death sentence offers a worrying glimpse into how the Islamic Republic of Iran will deal with dissenting artists who criticize the establishment in their work but fall outside the spotlight of global scrutiny. (For example, the fate of Kurdish rapper Saman Yasin, who has been in prison since September 2022 for also supporting the Woman Life Freedom movement, is often attached to Toomaj’s by proxy.)

This is increasingly important because the Iranian government is so present in global news at the moment. On the same day that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) branch of the Iranian military attracted international attention for Operation True Promise, a joint drone strike on Israel, the Iranian government also initiated an internal crackdown called the Noor (“Light”) Plan on Woman, Life, Freedom protesters, and allies. Since the strike on 13 April 2024, journalist and university student Dina Ghalibaf has been detained and sent to Evin Prison after posting on her since-suspended X account about her sexual assault in detention in Tehran for hijab noncompliance.

Slain teenage protestor Nika Shakarami’s sister Aida was detained and imprisoned for the same. (Upon her release on 23 April 2024, Aida wore a resolute expression and, notably, no head covering.) Iran International reports (in English and in Farsi) that, alongside ramped-up Guidance Patrol (morality police) presence, instances of police extortion in exchange for avoiding hijab-related punishment are on the rise. Although disturbing videos capturing state violence have poured out from Iran in the days since the IRGC drone strike, western attention on rising Iran-Israel tensions has offered a convenient distraction from the Noor Plan—with devastating consequences.

Toomaj, in collaboration with Afrasiâb from 2021, pronounced, “Man pesare āzādiyam” (“I am the son of freedom”). Toomaj’s shocking death sentence seems unequivocally linked to the Noor Plan in that it evidences the indelible link between Iranians and their dissenting voices—and their government’s sustained attempt to silence both by any means necessary.

Ahead of the Noor Plan, Toomaj’s death sentence and Amini’s murder threw the country into ongoing revolt, Pelegrin had this to say about rap’s role in Iran: “Persian Rap has created a sphere of freedom that, though paradoxically confined to the underground, manifests itself in verse and song with an ever-assertive fervency in an online, ‘plugged in” world.’”

At this writing, the “son of freedom” urgently requires attention from this “plugged-in” world. Toomaj’s lawyer has tweeted an intent to appeal the decision within the 20-day legal deadline. In the immediate aftermath of the death sentence announcement, action resources— including demonstration calls and a bill draft with a congressional briefer for a proposed TOOMAJ (Targeting Oppressive Officers to Mitigate Abuse in the Iranian Judiciary) Act—are cohering across platforms under the #FreeToomaj and #ToomajSalehi hashtags. Accounts to follow are: @Azadi.daily, @From__Iran, @MiddleEastMatters, and @IranianDiasporaCollective

In one of the last videos before his arrest, Toomaj remarked:

To be human means nothing without freedom. We are not born merely to eat and sleep until we die. We are born to savor life, to laugh, to be happy, to make the most of our time on earth, whether that be one year or one hundred. We must construct a beautiful world in our lifetimes, live beautiful lives, men and women alike, all of us together, building a good country and helping others do the same. That is my wish.

What world might we have if we, each of us, honored it? #FreeToomaj.

Works Cited

Akrami, Bahareh and Farid Vahid. “Names That Will Go Down in History”. Woman Life Freedom, compiled by Marjane Satrapi. Seven Stories Press, 2024.

Annual Statistical Report of Human Rights Conditions in Iran 2023. Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), 20 December 2023.

Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Report No. A/HRC/55/CRP.1 UN. 19 March 2024.

Pelegrin, Amayah. (Formerly Sholeh Johnston.) “Persian Rap: The Voice of Modern Iran’s Youth.” Journal of Persianate Studies, vol. 1, no. 1. January 2008. ResearchGate.