Now everyone knows his name. An Iranian rapper and songwriter whose regime-critical lyrics catapulted him to fame on social media over the past year is now hitting international headlines, with his fans increasing day by day. Few young Iranians by now have not heard at least one of his fiery tracks – albeit for the worst of reasons.
Toomaj Salehi is one of millions of Iranians sick and tired of living under constant oppression in the Islamic Republic. But unlike most, he didn’t remain silent about it. His rap songs targeted a number of regime figures, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi to ex-premier Mohammad Khatami, as well as some journalists and activists, and manifestations of the regime's failings from the water crisis to brutally-suppressed mass protests.
Salehi was arrested at his home in Isfahan last Monday and held incommunicado for several days. News of his arrest spread widely at the end of the week, prompting a global clamor for his release, with groups like Amnesty International, Iran Human Rights, celebrities and journalists expressing outrage and concern for his welfare.
After a week of no updates, his lawyer Amir Raisian told reporters on Monday, September 20 that a case had been lodged against Salehi at the court of Shahinshahr, Isfahan. The young rapper, he said, was accused of “propaganda against the regime” and was not being allowed any visits.
But concurrently, Salehi’s uncle Eghbal Eghbali took to Instagram to announce that his nephew was expected to be released on bail on Tuesday. Eghbali wrote: "Good news: Toomaj’s sister and father managed to talk to him on the phone today. He’s fine.
“Toomaj is scheduled to be released tomorrow on bail. Greetings, and thanks, to each and every one of the loved ones and dignitaries who became Toomaj’s voice around the world.”
Is There Even a Case Against Toomaj Salehi?
In an urgent message posted on Twitter last Friday, Amnesty International called for the rapper’s “immediate and unconditional” release, adding that he had been “detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
Lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifehlou told IranWire that in his assessment, the musician had committed no crime even under Iranian law. In fact, he said, Iran’s own Code of Criminal Procedure allows citizens to criticize any and all officials of the Islamic Republic.
Two music videos by Salehi shot in Iran in the past year, Normal Life and Mouse Hole, had slammed the regime and people he considered to be supporting it. His lyrics had also addressed issues like workers’ strikes, corruption, the death sentence, arbitrary detention, the 25-year agreement with China and artists’ indifference toward the state of society.
Khalifehlou told IranWire: “The charge of propaganda against the regime is the most common and widely-used by the security and judicial authorities against citizens who criticize. The charge has been used as an excuse to suppress any voice asking for freedom.
“But according to Article 238 of the Iranian Code of Criminal Procedure, this accusation should be used only against defendants who are ‘permanently active’ against the principles of republicanism and the Islamic approach.
“As far as we know, Toomaj Salehi has only been protesting against political and creative figures. As such, it’s against the law to detain and brand him with this accusation.”
Technically, Khalifehlou added, the Iranian Constitution also allows citizens to freely criticize even the Supreme Leader. The mass detention of journalists, activists and artists on the charge of “insulting the Supreme Leader”, he said, only showed that Iran’s security and judicial branches had no regard for the rule of law.
Toomaj Salehi’s anger, candour and no-punches-pulled lyrics electrified listeners in Iran and around the world. Despite being aware of the dangers, he attached his own name and face to his furious dispatches from Isfahan. Described by some Iranians as the “voice of a nation”, he was regarded by many as representative not just of his generation, but of the vulnerable and oppressed across Iran. At the time of writing on Tuesday, there was not yet any news of his release.