Toomaj Salehi, the most famous protest rapper in Iran, is a mechanical engineer and a lathe worker who has spent his salary and even his motorbike on creating his songs in protest against the regime. He says he is not afraid and wants to spread his courage to others. In the past years, he was imprisoned twice, turned 34 in prison, and faced charges of “corruption on earth.” Now, Toomaj’s lawyer says that the Islamic-Revolutionary Court has sentenced this protest singer to death on same charges.

According to Amir Raisian, the court unprecedentedly deemed the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn the death sentence as advisory. Mr. Raisian stated that the death sentence was issued for the charges in his client’s 2021 case file. He notes it is strange that the court, in addition to the death sentence, has also banned Toomaj from leaving the country for two years and from engaging in artistic activities for two years.

The first time was during September 2021 after performing “Buy a Rat Hole,” and then he was released on bail. However, on the November 2022, he was imprisoned again.

In his song “Buy a Rat Hole,” he sharply criticizes the positions of the Islamic Republic and those he considers supporters and backers of the regime. In part of this song, he says: “If you cover up a murder, you are a murderer too, to cover up a crime you must walk on blood. Without smoothing things over, this system is not complete, Iran has so many prisons that you all should take notice.”

Although the protest song “Buy a Rat Hole” made him very famous, he himself says the peak of his popularity came after performing the song “Turkmenchay,” which he sang in protest against the 25-year agreement between Iran and China. The themes of all Toomaj’s songs are against discrimination, poverty, social crises, economic corruption, and security suppressions. The most notable of these were the protests in December 2017 and November 2019; protests that were violently suppressed.

During the protests related to the Jina/Mahsa Amini’s murder, Toomaj Salehi went beyond just singing and joined the protesters in the streets. His songs echo the voices of young protesters who have struggled to make their voices heard by the Iranian government, but have hit a dead end. Rap music has emerged from the struggles of oppressed societies challenging the status quo. This is true in Iran as well, where Toomaj Salehi uses his art to loudly protest against the regime’s misconduct.

Childhood

At the age of 7, he started learning music by playing the Tombak (a type of drum) and the organ. He mentioned once in a room on the Clubhouse that he has been reading poetry since childhood and now his favorite poet is Khayyam. He is originally from the Bakhtiari Lors and can speak in Luri, although with “a bit of an accent.” He has lived in Isfahan and Shahin Shahr since childhood. He has two machining diplomas and, like his father, studied mechanics; both are engineers in the design and production of medical industrial parts.

His father was a political prisoner for eight years, and Toomaj says that none of their family members hold government jobs. He had completed his mandatory military service and always wears an empty bullet casing around his neck during interviews and in his songs, which he says signifies his Bakhtiari heritage. He first heard rap through his brother, who is nine years older than him, and liked the genre. Around 2015, he seriously started singing rap, although he had performed occasionally before that and was once arrested for wearing a T-shirt with an image of the American dollar on it.

In an interview on a YouTube Chanel with one of his friends, he says that of the different meanings of Toomaj, he prefers the Turkmen meaning, which is “brave horseman.” When upset, he finds peace in reading books and writing poetry. He has fallen in love, and in an interview a few months ago with his friend after his first prison term, he says he is still fond of a relationship that ended, but he hasn’t given up on it. He likes boxing and trains every day at the gym unless he is in prison or the gym is closed.

In October 2022, after about two months of fighting and living in hiding, he was arrested in the village in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province. Iqbal Iqbali, Toomaj’s uncle who is outside of Iran, told the media that his nephew posted a message hours before his arrest that he and his friends had noticed suspicious changes outside his house. While living in hiding, Toomaj participated in demonstrations and spoke about the necessity of standing up to the government through recorded videos. Fars news agency, affiliated with the IRGC, described him as one of “the leaders of the riots who promoted violence.”

His family and friends have said that he was injured during his arrest and that his face was bloody, based on images that were broadcast after his arrest.

In any case, less than a month after Toomaj’s arrest, the court hearing his charges, which included moharebeh and corruption on earth, was held “behind closed doors and without the presence of his chosen lawyer.” Concurrently, a campaign for Toomaj’s release began, which gathered 300,000 signatures in just a few days. Simultaneously with these developments, more than 150 politicians, organizations, and political figures from around the world called for his release.

During interrogation, Toomaj suffered injuries, including swelling and bleeding in his eye, as well as fractured ribs and fingers, and needed to be transferred to a hospital. However, judicial officials opposed his treatment outside the prison. While detained in Dastgerd Prison during this period, he suffered greatly from the lack of medical facilities to the extent that he reported in a letter to his lawyer that he had to perform a nerve extraction on his tooth using “mask wire, salt, and unbearable pain.”

During this time, Toomaj’s “right leg, left hand fingers, and right eye,” which had previously been injured due to “assault” during his arrest, urgently needed medical attention, and his right leg also required surgery. Consequently, judicial officials agreed to release him on bail to continue his treatment outside of prison. When Toomaj was released in early November 2023, he had spent over a year of his life in prison, 252 days of which were in solitary confinement.

In his first video after being released from prison, Toomaj spoke about several issues, including the torture he endured at the intelligence agency’s detention center, the public’s support for him, and the rumors about him that had circulated online. In a lengthy video, he expressed gratitude for the public’s support, saying: “Some call me a hero, but the people who saved my life [in prison] are the true heroes.”

Regarding the torture he endured during his detention, Toomaj said: “For a long time, they tortured me, hitting my head and face, and breaking my arms and legs.”

The release of this video had a significant impact both in the media and on social networks. However, just 12 days after his release, on November 30, 2023, Toomaj was re-arrested in Babol by a group of armed plainclothes officers who did not present any legal warrant, identification, and subjected him to severe beating before taking him to an unknown location.

Rap and Protest

As he walked barefoot through the Bazar and singing, everyone looked at him, but still, no one had the trust in him that they have today. The first thing that caught attention was the sight of a young man walking barefoot among the people, speaking out about the rights of workers and the hardworking people, against poverty and misery. This was an interesting point.

In the song “Fortune Telling,” he predicts in a coffee cup that all the “small pieces” and all the “leaders” will be captured:

“I’m a seer, I’m a fortune teller, In the coffee of the regime, I saw a fence, I see a river in the future, this place, I see prosperity and construction, I see a people who are happy, see, this is your line, you are the losers”

In the music video, he sits opposite a man who appears to be a representative of the Islamic Republic regime, holding a rosary, and predicts the future of the government. In a forced confession broadcast on Iranian TV after Toomaj’s arrest, a scene similar to the one with the coffee cup is recreated. However, in this version, Toomaj and the man with the rosary have swapped places, and Toomaj expresses regret for “promoting violence through song.”

When not under the pressure of interrogation or in detention, in an interview with CBC Canada, he says: “Protest music can create a significant transformation and is very effective in society. This music gives hope to the community and injects courage because in societies where people are so pressured by the government, they become discouraged and passive.”

He mentions that he was forced to sell his motorcycle and home appliances to produce his music because studios in Isfahan were unwilling to record it due to its political themes. This compelled him to travel to more distant places like northern Iran, incurring higher costs. He sees his duty as instilling courage and hope in people and says he is fearless: “What should I be afraid of? I am afraid of being cowardly, of being afraid myself. I have always confronted fear head-on.”

He also mentions his concern during protests that if he were arrested, it might demoralize and upset some of the protesters: “We don’t need sorrow now. If my loved ones are killed, I shouldn’t cry. I should be seeking justice.”

Toomaj believes that Iranians have become like a family, making it harder for the government to suppress them: “I’m a rapper and I know the lower class well. When this class is so aware, then the others are too. We will soon reach a very beautiful society.”

He believes that there is no alternative but to fight the government, and that negotiating with the government is not possible. He says he has been present at all the protests since 2017, including the 2018 protests which he says are often forgotten: “In all these demonstrations, women were the initiators and usually stood at the front.”

Toomaj argues that the scale of the unrest is significantly underestimated by mainstream media coverage. He estimates that as many as 50 million people have participated in some form of protest. “The visibility of street protests in the media does not accurately reflect reality, as recording and publishing footage poses significant risks,” he explained.

In 2023, Toomaj Salehi received the “Heretic” award from the Global Music Awards for his song “Fortune Telling” in the category of protest music and activism. He also won the “Culture of Resistance” award for his support of human rights, freedom of speech, and promoting peace through his art and poetry. In the same year, the organization “Index on Censorship” recognized Toomaj as the winner of its annual Freedom of Expression Award in the arts category. However, Toomaj donated the £2,500 prize to the flood victims of Sistan and Baluchestan.

Toomaj changed the face of Iranian art. Of course, rap existed before Toomaj, but with his words, he created such impactful images that they resonated deeply. His ability to express himself and the goals of the people is crucial. Not everyone can defeat their enemies with words. As much as compromise and silence are important in non-revolutionary situations, eloquence and uncompromising stances are critical in revolutionary times. This quality was recognized and respected both inside and outside the country.

Against Execution

Beside Toomaj’s death sentence, concerns on Iranian social media about the potential execution of political prisoners, especially Mojahed Kourkour, Reza Rasaei, and Abbas Deris, have increased in the shadow of widespread domestic and international reactions.

Mozhgan Eftekhari, the mother of Jina/Mahsa Amini, wrote on her Instagram story: “Do not let Toomaj’s mother’s heart become like mine. Do not let Toomaj become the target of a mother’s suppressed anguish. Let Toomaj breathe so that his mother and the mothers of my land do not run out of breath. I am still warmed by Jina’s breaths, let Toomaj’s mother share the breaths of her living son, can you allow it?!”

With the announcement of the death sentence for Toomaj Salehi, concerns about the execution of other protesters who have received this sentence have increased on social networks.

The greatest concerns relate to the potential execution of Reza Rasaei, a detainee from the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, who is accused of being directly involved in the intentional murder of Nader Birami, the head of the Intelligence of the Revolutionary Guards in Sahneh, Kermanshah Province.

The Supreme Court of the country confirmed this sentence on December 25, 2023, and the trial court, citing the “judge’s knowledge” rule and based on forced confessions from Rasaei, issued a death sentence for him. In Iran’s penal laws, a judge can issue a verdict based on personal conviction in establishing and attributing charges to the accused.

Mojahed Kourkour is among the political prisoners whose death sentence has been confirmed by the Supreme Court of the Islamic Republic. The Revolutionary Court of Ahvaz issued a “triple death sentence” for him on April 7, 2023, without access to his chosen lawyer. The Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence for Mojahed on December 25, 2023, and his case was sent to the Execution of Sentences Branch of the Court in Izeh.

Mojahed Kourkour was arrested during the protests in 2022 and was sentenced to death on charges of “waging war by drawing weapons with the intent to take lives of people,” “intimidation and spreading corruption on earth through committing war crimes,” “disturbing public order,” “causing significant bodily harm resulting in the death of 7 people, including Kian Pirfalak,” “causing major damage to public and private property,” and “forming and being a member of a rebel group through armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic.” The family of Kian Pirfalak has denied these accusations. Zeynab Molaei Rad, Kian Pirfalak’s mother, also rejected the charges against Kourkour, stating that Kian died due to gunfire by government forces.

Forced confessions from Mojahed Kourkour were broadcast on state television before the start of the judicial process. During this period, many witnesses testified that Mojahed was not in Izeh on that day; however, the court did not consider any of these testimonies.

The lawyer for Abbas Deris, had previously told Shargh newspaper about the latest status of this political prisoner: “After the initial verdict in Abbas Deris’ case of moharebeh (enmity against God) was fully confirmed in the appeal, we filed a request for retrial, but unfortunately, Branch One of the Supreme Court refused to accept our retrial request and confirmed the death sentence for Abbas Deris as a punishment for the charge of moharebeh.”

The Mahshahr massacre refers to the mass killing of protesters in the city of Mahshahr, Iran, which occurred between 16 November and 20 November 2019, during the 2019–2020 Iranian protests. Estimates of fatalities range between 40 and 150.

Abbas Deris, 51 years old and a father of three, was arrested during the November 2019 protests in Chamran (Jerahi) township of Mahshahr and is also a witness to the massacre in the marshes. He was arrested along with his brother, Mohsen Deris, 28 years old, on charges of “moharebeh, disturbing public order, and involvement in the murder of a special unit officer.” Mohsen was released in early November last year.

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My journey in creating this space was deeply inspired by James Baldwin's powerful work, "The Fire Next Time". Like Baldwin, who eloquently addressed themes of identity, race, and the human condition, this blog aims to be a beacon for open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions on similar issues.

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