Hip-hop artist Toomaj Salehi rapped with blistering conviction about the Islamic Revolution’s “failure,” filming himself at protests and inspiring demonstrators to “battle” the country’s ruling clerical establishment.
Now the popular performer could be hanged in public after a court charged him with “corruption on earth” — a term that authorities use to point to a broad range of offenses that threaten social and political well-being and carries a possible death sentence.
Fear for his safety have also grown after Salehi’s official Twitter account posted Friday that despite being in danger of losing his eyesight, he was being repeatedly beaten.
The rapper was among the thousands who attended demonstrations for Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman who was detained in September by the country’s “morality police’’ after allegedly breaking the country’s strict dress codes. She died in a hospital three days later after falling into a coma.
The government has denied mistreating Amini, but the protests over her death only grew in the weeks that followed as more young people died and security forces brutally cracked down on demonstrators. Now, what started as an outburst of nationwide anger at the treatment of women and girls has morphed into a demand for deep and fundamental change.
Using his voice and lyrics, Salehi came out in support of the anti-government protesters from the beginning.
“Unity is the secret to our victory, we are all Iran’s family,” he said in the caption to an Instagram post uploaded Sept. 22, six days after Amini’s death. In the accompanying video, he stands on a darkened street and speaks directly to the camera while demonstrators around him chant.
At the heart of the protests, and Salehi’s lyrics, is the conviction that the government must go.
In a music video titled “Fal” — meaning fortunetelling in Persian — uploaded to YouTube in late October, he raps about the “44 years” since the theocratic regime was installed after the Iranian Revolution deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
He takes on the diverse group, from austere-looking clerics known as mullahs to those dressed in “suit and tie that they have embezzled,” as well as “lobbies of the government abroad.”
“How many young people did you kill to build towers for yourself?” the rapper demands of a shadowy figure dressed in black.
“Someone has lost their young children and someone has lost their youth. Someone’s crime was having hair that flows free in the wind,” Salehi sings. “Someone’s crime was having a brave heart and a sharp tongue.”
‘Not a place for justice’
On Oct. 30, the state news agency ISNA reported that intelligence officers had arrested Salehi again as he was trying to flee the country. NBC News could not confirm the exact events that led to his arrest or check official accusations because independent reporting is tightly restricted in Iran.
On Dec. 6, state media ran video of his alleged confession, overlaid by one of Salehi’s own protest songs.
“Music can produce violence,” he said. “I have made mistakes, I do apologize. I apologize to you and the society for any violence that I have instigated.”
More than 500,000 people have signed a petition for his release.
Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said he felt no confidence that the country’s courts would find justice for those swept up for demonstrating — including high-profile detainees like Salehi.
“These courtrooms are really not a place of justice since they don’t involve any investigation, due process or the right of a defendant to defend himself and have independent counsel,” the Iranian-born Ghaemi said.
Salehi is now waiting to see whether a death sentence passed in November will be upheld. After initially not being allowed legal representation of his own choosing, he was permitted to get access to personal lawyers, which was confirmed in a tweet by his counsel, Amir Raesian, on Dec. 29.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency, or HRANA, estimates the number of arrests related to the protests to be more than 18,000 people. Iran’s judiciary spokesperson has announced the number to be more than 1,000, according to the official news agency IRNA. Two have been executed since the beginning of protests, and more than 20, including Salehi, face death sentences, according to Amnesty International.
Iran’s Mizan news agency, under the country’s judiciary, reported Saturday that two people, Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini were executed early Saturday for allegedly killing a security official, making it four men known to have been executed since the demonstrations began.
While Salehi is one of many to have been detained, few have captured the attention of supporters abroad, as well as at home.
Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah, tweeted his support for Salehi on his birthday Dec. 3.
German lawmaker Ye-One Rhie said she had never heard of the rapper or his music before she became his political sponsor.
The artist’s charges that carry a death sentence were handed down “for making music, for rapping about freedom, human rights and injustice,” she told NBC News via email in December
“That’s not a crime. That’s freedom of speech,” she added.
For weeks, European politicians have taken on the political sponsorships of prisoners in Iran, acting as advocates by talking to the media and writing to the European Union and the U.N. to put pressure on the Iranian government.
“He expressed the feelings that many of the people who are protesting on the streets of Iran have toward the regime of the Islamic Republic,” said Rhie, who was elected to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, in September 2021 and stays abreast of Salehi’s case by keeping in touch with people in Iran. “By standing in solidarity with the revolution, and by going out on the streets himself, he made himself a target.”
Omid Memarian, a well-known commentator and a critic of the Iranian government, also tweeted his support Monday.
“This is Toomaj Salehi,” he wrote, reposting a Salehi video supportive of the protesters. “Listen to Toomaj. His voice is louder than ever!”
“Here is the battlefield,” Salehi says in the video. “It is time to attack the enemy without fear.”