Toomaj Salehi raps about subjects not often publicly discussed in the Islamic Republic of Iran. His hard-hitting songs touch on child poverty, discrimination against minorities and regime corruption, often accompanied by videos that depict him confronting regime clerics. Social justice themes are common in the “rap-e Farsi” genre that arose in Iran in the 1990s, but few have been as bold as Salehi. A Persian-rapping Tupac Shakur, Salehi is so direct in his criticisms of the regime, some have assumed he must live abroad; when his first big hit, “Rat Hole,” landed in 2021, he had to do an Instagram Live to prove he actually lived in Iran. 

On April 24, Salehi received a death sentence from the Revolutionary Court of Isfahan for the crimes of rapping in support of the Woman Life Freedom movement and posting videos of himself at protests. 

When the women-led protests broke out in September 2022 — sparked by the killing of Mahsa Jina Amini by the Morality Police for “bad hijab” — the Woman Life Freedom movement swept across Iran. Huge crowds took to the streets and women publicly burned their headscarves. Salehi was instantly vocal in his support for the protests, which he attended and filmed. Nine months after being brutally arrested in October 2022, he was sentenced to six years and three months in prison; only a Supreme Court ruling spared him a death sentence. Upon his release on bail in November 2023, Salehi  made a video describing the physical and mental torture he suffered during his imprisonment — mostly in solitary confinement — resulting in broken fingers, arms, legs and teeth. Though visibly emaciated, he remained defiant and called out the Iranian regime for fabricating a video showing him apologizing for his actions. He reassured his fans that he was unrepentant and described plans for an operation to fix a broken leg that had healed badly. He talked of the future and of continuing to resist the regime.

Within two weeks of releasing the video, Salehi was again brutally arrested, with reports of police carting him away covered in blood. When the Revolutionary Court handed down the death sentence against him last week, protests erupted across Iran calling for his release. The rapper has become a symbol of the people’s struggle, his songs anthems of protest. His words and image cover walls in Iran’s cities and “trees of hope” have been planted in honor of a self-description in one of his best-loved raps. Some of the signs beg for international support to save him from execution. Imprisoned human rights activist and Nobel Laureate Narges Mohammadi has called for an international campaign to save Salehi. “Toomaj Salehi epitomizes the resounding voice of the Woman Life Freedom movement and its anthem,” she said from her own prison cell. “His execution would signify the death of our vibrant movement.”

The regime is fighting back. On April 25, Milad Alavi, a journalist for Shargh newspaper, was summoned to the Tehran Prosecutor’s Office for publishing a video of people’s reactions to Salehi’s sentence. Many others have been silenced with threats of harm to themselves and their families. A new crackdown on women’s dress, meanwhile, has been in effect since April 13 under a national action plan called “Noor,” resulting in yet more videos of women again being forcefully arrested and abused for violations. Female university students have been targeted, as pressure intensifies on civil rights activists, dissenters, cultural figures and female political prisoners. Mohammadi has spearheaded a call to document and amplify these abuses on social media using the hashtag “#WarAgainstWomen.”

Within two weeks of releasing the video, Salehi was again brutally arrested, with reports of police carting him away covered in blood.

The women of Iran remain defiant. They go out without the mandatory headscarf and resist arrest by shouting, screaming and kicking. Crowds flock to film and post online abuses meted out on the streets. As operation Noor gains traction, a university student from Isfahan who goes by the name “Effy” shared footage of heavily veiled women from the Morality Police patrolling Naqshe Jahan square, circulating among families, couples and groups of friends enjoying the weekend’s balmy spring weather. “The Morality Police are back in force and, of course, we are aware of them, but remember we are also used to this,” she told me. “All my life I have seen these people proliferate when it’s coming into summer.” When I ask her if she is scared, she laughs. “The people of Iran are tough. To be honest, we are more worried about the economy, how to afford bread and if there is going to be a war with Israel.”

To join the campaign to amplify Toomaj Salehi’s name, music and story, use #freetoomaj

A similar sentiment was recently echoed in Iran’s Etemad newspaper in an article titled, “Rising Costs, Inflation, and Unemployment Strain Public Nerves, Don’t Squeeze the People Further.” The article boldly criticizes the authorities for failing to address the economic hardship and rising social pressure on citizens, exemplified by skyrocketing inflation that has seen the price of lentils increase 71% and white beans an extraordinary 130% since January. Mismanagement of the economy, corruption and blatant inequality is enough to fire people up against the regime. Police abuse and the discriminatory hijab laws only add to the discontent.

As Salehi rapped in his controversial song ‘Normal’, “A laborer’s annual wage is worth a dinner abroad / Here, people are just alive, they don’t have a life.”

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