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In Iran, political dissenters find expression through rap music

The rapper Toomaj, who was arrested at his home in late October, is just one artist using rap as a form of political dissent in Iran.
The rapper Toomaj, who was arrested at his home in late October, is just one artist using rap as a form of political dissent in Iran.

Rappers and rap music have been a vocal presence in the deadly protests taking place in Iran. The unrest began after a young woman named Jina Amini — also known as Mahsa — died while in custody of that country's morality police.

The same morality police has the mandate to crack down on other behavior that's deemed objectionable by the Islamic Republic, including dancing, most public displays of affection and some forms of music.

But that has not stopped a wave of rappers from making politically charged music — and that's made them a target for arrest and even execution.

That wave of artists right includes artists like the "father of Iranian rap" Hichkas, who left the country after the Green Uprising in 2009, when protesters took to the streets to dispute the results of the presidential elections. That's when Hichkas released the track "A Good Day Will Come," which hoped for a brighter future but did not take direct aim at the government.

Toomaj Salehi, who performs under his first name alone, has been writing tracks that are far more lyrically aggressive, calling for the downfall of the regime. For instance, his 2021 track "Rat Hole," took aim at those who supported the Islamic Republic both within Iran and in the diaspora. He was arrested in his home in Isfahan late October, and remains in custody, with rappers like Hichkas — who continues to release politically-charged tracks about the situation in Iran — trying to raise awareness of his arrest on social media.

Saman Yasin, a Kurdish rapper who has been outspoken about social and cultural conditions in Iran, especially on the plight of the Kurdish ethnic minority, has also been arrested. The 27-year-old has been accused of trying to take down the regime as well as being a "mohareb" or enemy of God — charges for which he has been sentenced to death.

Artists who have left, like Justina, find a way to work with rappers in Iran. She has collaborated with Toomaj in the past, and their most recent collaboration, "Whip," plays off of cultural references used against Iranian women and speaks meaningfully to the specific struggles of women in the movement.

"Rap music as such — sort of non-conformative, non-alternative, non-state sanctioned rap — has never received a permit for an actual record in Iran. So this is really the language of protest," Nahid Siamdoust, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells NPR's Scott Simon.

"Persian language and Persian culture, one of its most illustrious forms is Persian poetry. So the rap format is very, very native and very inimical to Persian culture, and they're using that format to the best of its potential."

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Michael Radcliffe
D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz is an editor at Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, she worked at several news organizations covering wildfires, riots, earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, elections, political upheaval and refugee crises in several countries.