If you are around the San Francisco Bay Area, make your way to Berkeley’s iconic Starry Plough Pub, Saturday, February 24, 6-9 pm. Poetry reading and song will be followed by an invitation to dance in the spirit of people in Iran who are dancing in the streets as a form of mass protest.
Iran’s Political Prisoners Are Revolting
There is no better example of this than the case of rap artist, 33-year-old Toomaj Salehi. As with so many other political prisoners in Iran, the attack on this people’s artist by Iran’s reactionary regime is sickeningly revolting. Three times since September 2021, he has been arrested, insanely brutalized, tortured, and threatened with the death penalty after sham charges and trials, all because of his revolutionary music and poetic lyrics. Yet Toomaj has not stopped revolting against oppression and repression.
A joint statement demanding Toomaj’s release was issued January 31, 2024 on X, signed by Freemuse, the International Federation of Musicians, the European Composers & Songwriters Alliance, and Safemuse. It said, “We the undersigned civil society organizations condemn the re-arrest of the Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi in Babol, 30 November, 2023.” They noted that it was on November 18, 2023 that Toomaj had been released on bail after 386 days in jail, 252 days of them in solitary confinement. Only 12 days later, he was viciously assaulted by the authorities and returned to prison. They suggested that Toomaj’s re-arrest was likely related to his video uploaded four days earlier detailing his prison torture and thanking his millions of fans on multiple social media accounts by his supporters.
As of this writing, he has been unjustly imprisoned for over 460 days. We will post updates on the status of his legal case before March 26, the date of his next scheduled court hearing (and possible sentencing).1
Toomaj had said defiantly, “I don’t deserve to be in prison even for one day.” His first arrest followed the release of his rap video “Rat Hole” (July 2021) which is filled with searing lyrics aimed at Iran’s ruling class and their many (willing or unwilling) accomplices—telling them to go “buy a rat hole” (and crawl into it)! It is a challenge to people anywhere in the world today who fits the description:
If you see people’s pain & suffering but close your eyes,
If you see someone’s oppression but just walked on by,
You’re the oppressor’s accomplice and also a criminal…
If you pretend to be asleep when bloodshed’s taking place,
If you’re busy with your business when they’re taking youths’ lives,
If you stay in the middle and ask “what me political?” …
Wise up! In this battle there is no neutral…
If you used your hands to cover up your eyes, your hands will be bloody….
What kind of artist are you…I piss on your Oscar
If you’re not with the people, it is worthless…
Is freedom costly? It’s OK, freedom fighters will die for it.
from “Rat Hole,” July 2021
His songs are also full of biting sarcasm. In one of his many songs foreshadowing the state murder of Mahsa Jina Amini, Toomaj captured the spirit that came to characterize the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising—which he took part in, protesting in the streets against compulsory hijab:
Yes! Yes Sir! Life is normal here. A laborer’s yearly wage is worth one dinner abroad. Yes! Of course, Sir! Life is normal here. We don’t dare say otherwise, or else we’ll get in trouble. Yes! Yes Sir! Life is normal here. Some sleep in tombs, others own high-rises. Yes! Of course, Sir! Life is normal here, We dare not ask for what is ours, lest asking be a crime….In the era of science/progress, women are beaten for their beauty, thrown into police vans and taken to unnamed prisons…
from “Normal,” June 2021
The Islamic Republic of Iran brutally exploits and oppresses Afghan migrants, including child laborers, and has unleashed xenophobic violence aimed at these impoverished people. In “Unite” (August 2021), Toomaj calls for the oppressed who are pitted against each other in that region to rise up together against the theocrats of the Taliban and the Islamic Republic:
My Afghan brother, stand up against tyranny…The lament of oppressed Afghans is so loud, I can hear it in Iran…Unite oh Afghanistan, Unite oh brother of Iran…Unite, oh brave people, don’t live in humiliation. Die free.
Toomaj is a people’s artist beloved by millions in Iran and beyond—because he stands up for and with the people. He has taken an art form that he is said to have described as a “voice from the bottom of society,” and made it his own, carrying forward its spirit of “fight the power.” He sings to us in Farsi but his fiery lyrical poetry and raw emotions transcend the borders of geography and language. The resistance against oppression and hope for a better world comes through a pulsing beat that is the joy of rap music… He is hated by filthy mullahs ruling Iran for good reason. He serenades the fight against the vile oppression of women, concentrated in the battle over the forced hijab that is a cornerstone of Iran’s theocratic capitalist regime as in his song (with exiled rapper Justina).
We're women and men joining together with this warning,
Your Morality Police are getting left in our dust
Send out your henchmen,
…thousands upon thousands with their heads uncovered are on the streets,
In the city of Shiraz, an anonymous person is passing out flyers,
Now, free hair is dancing — playing with the wind.
….Free hair is shinning, the era of slavery is over.
We’ll sacrifice, yes, but we won't pay ransom, we'll burn, but we'll turn into stars.
No law, no religious verse, we're seeing freedom on the horizon.”
from “Shallagh” (The Whip), July, 2022
Iran’s Political Prisoners Are Heroically Revolting and Must Be Supported and Freed
Toomaj concentrates the selfless and fearless spirit of the political prisoners such as those (including Toomaj) who are now on weekly hunger strikes to demand an end to a surge in executions, including the courageous women in Tehran’s Evin Prison. On January 29, four Iranian Kurdish political prisoners were executed on trumped-up charges and denied a proper trial and legal representation. According to Human Rights activists, at least 746 people were executed in Iran in 2023. And many more are facing execution. Amnesty International noted in its July 2022 report, “…Iran’s Islamic Penal Code provides for various corporal punishments amounting to torture, including amputation flogging, blinding, and crucifixion and stoning.”
The IEC will continue to stand with the prisoners—women and men—their families, Toomaj, and thousands who are speaking out and condemning these atrocities in the face of grave danger to themselves. Like so many other political prisoners in Iran such as Narges Mohammadi, Toomaj is refusing to give in and give up. This should inspire and challenge us all to have their back.
The cultural night in Berkeley is a special opportunity to make our stand bold and poetic. Send messages of solidarity to the IEC and let’s make this night reverberate around the world so that it echoes inside Iran’s prison walls! We heard that supporters of Iran’s political prisoners in Colombia have plans to hold events that same weekend in conjunction. Stay tuned.
We condemn the US imperialists’ increasing war threats against Iran and attacking forces in Iran’s orbit of influence on the Middle East. But this does not make the nature of the Islamic Republic a liberatory or rational society as we can see in its brutal and cruel treatment of a artist like Toomaj and other political prisoners such as its execution of protesters from the righteous Women, Life, Freedom uprising of 2022. We demand of the Islamic Republic of Iran: FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS NOW! We say to the U.S government: NO THREATS OR WAR MOVES AGAINST IRAN, LIFT U.S. SANCTIONS!