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Songs by Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi protest against corruption, widespread poverty, state executions, and the killing of protesters. His lyrics highlight the widening gap between ordinary Iranians and the country’s leadership.

With lyrics that criticize Iran’s Islamic establishment -- condemning state repression and injustice -- rapper Toomaj Salehi has gained fans among Iranians who are angry at the country’s leadership.

His lyrics also have upset Iranian authorities, who ordered his arrest earlier this month.

Salehi was aware that he could be targeted by the Iranian regime for his lyrics. Days before his arrest, he wrote on Twitter that he was being monitored and risked the wrath of Iranian security agents.

On September 13, a dozen security agents arrived at Salehi’s home in the central Iranian city of Isfahan and took him to an unknown location, according to his relatives.

The rapper was released on bail on September 21 amid widespread condemnation of his arrest by his supporters and by rights groups.

Amnesty International said that Salehi was targeted “solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.”

In an online video posted after his release, Salehi said he was overwhelmed by the support he has received while he was in custody.

“I just wanted to thank all of you for having been my voice. When I was [in detention], I kept wondering who was even thinking about me right now. But when I was [released], I realized [that I had been wrong],” he said.

Thanking his supporters, Salehi promised to he would speak more with his fans in the future.

“I broke my cell phone during the arrest. We’ll speak when I get a new one later,” he said in the video.

Salehi did not provide details about his arrest or the charges he faces.

Earlier this week, Salehi’s lawyer said the rapper was charged with “spreading propaganda against the state.” It is a vague charge often brought against activists, intellectuals, and dissenters that Iran's clerical establishment wants to silence.

Attorney Amir Raeisian told the news site Rouydad24 on September 20 that the charge had been “informally” announced to Salehi’s father.

Salehi has gained notoriety for lyrics that rail against corruption, widespread poverty, state executions, and the killing of protesters in Iran.

Here people are only alive. They don’t have a life. Our children sleep hungry at night. Excuse me, but how does your conscience sleep at night?”
-- Rapper Toomaj Salehi

His songs also highlight the widening gap between ordinary Iranians and the country’s leadership, accusing authorities of “suffocating” the people without regard for their well-being.

His angry lyrics resonate among Iranians who are increasingly discontent and alienated by Iran’s clerical establishment -- and by the politicians who fail to keep their promises of change.

Salehi has shared his songs on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. But those accounts became inaccessible while he was in custody.

In one song called Normal, he refers to Iran's troubled economy, which has been crushed by U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement.

Rapping in the Farsi language, he says:

“Here people are only alive. They don’t have a life. Our children sleep hungry at night. Excuse me, but how does your conscience sleep at night?”

Many Iranians blame the country’s leadership for economic pains that include high inflation and rising food prices.

Many are also angry at the lack of accountability over the state’s November 2019 crackdown on anti-establishment protesters. Several hundred people were killed in that crackdown, including children.

Iranians also are angry about the January 2020 downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iran’s military that killed 176 people.

WATCH: Normal by rapper Toomaj Salehi:

Salehi sings:

“Yes, yes, sir. Life is normal. We don’t want our rights, lest it be a crime. Sir, have you seen the underlings? The empty tables? You have so much light. Have you seen the dark city? We are the dead who can’t think of dying 'cause we don’t have money for burials and tombstones.”

In his latest song, titled Rathole, Salehi criticizes Iranian journalists, artists, and others -- both within and outside of the country. He suggests they are complicit and enable the Iranian regime when they turn a blind eye to its human rights abuses. He tells them to “hide in a rathole.”

“If you saw people’s pain and closed your eyes, if you saw oppression of innocents and just walked by, if you did it out of fear or for your own gain, you’re an ally of the tyrant, a criminal just the same. Without your cover-ups, this system’s incomplete. Iran has enough prisons to hold all of you.”

Salehi also uses vulgarities to criticize the Iranian regime’s ties with Russia and China, including a 25-year cooperation agreement between Tehran and Beijing that many Iranians describe as selling out to China.

Salehi raps:

“Haven’t you suffocated us enough? Haven’t you played us long enough? Haven’t you f***ed us over enough? Haven’t you robbed us enough? Now, you want to give half to China and the rest to Russia.”

Many Iranians used social media to protest Salehi’s arrest and to call for his release.

Self-exiled Iranian dissident rapper Hichkas, known by fans as the father of Persian rap, told more than 300,000 of his followers on Twitter that Salehi is “defying the Islamic Republic” as “the voice of his people suffering under the Islamic Republic’s rule.”

Iran has a record of targeting artists and intellectuals that don’t follow the official line and touch on topics deemed as sensitive.

Most Iranian rappers publish their music without approval from Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the branch of the regime that regulates artistic work and enforces strict censorship rules.

Several rappers have been detained in recent years, while others have chosen to live in exile.

Last year, the popular and controversial Iranian rapper Tataloo was detained in Turkey after Interpol issued a “red alert” notice for him on the basis of an Iranian arrest warrant.

Tataloo had been critical of Iranian authorities. He was later released by Turkey.

Iranian police said the country’s judicial authorities requested Tataloo’s arrest “for encouraging citizens, especially young people, to use drugs, especially psychotropic drugs, and for spreading corruption.”

Russian mathematician and physicist Sergei Shpilkin

A Russian researcher known for detailed analyses of past elections says fraud was a major factor in the State Duma election victory of the ruling United Russia party.

Sergei Shpilkin, who published his analysis on September 21, two days after the Duma election concluded, said that, without vote manipulation, the Kremlin-backed party would have likely received around 31-33 percent of ballots in the party-list voting -- not the nearly 50 percent reported by the Central Election Commission.

Shpilkin’s analysis adds to the growing clouds looming over the vote, which was already under suspicion due to the concentrated state crackdown on the alternative voter-guide strategy promoted by jailed corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, among other things.

The preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission indicate that United Russia preserved its two-thirds majority in the Duma, which would enable it to pass major legislation and even constitutional amendments without help from other parties.

In 2020, the Duma voted for amendments that allow President Vladimir Putin to seek two more six-year terms after his current tenure ends in 2024. He has not indicated whether he will.

United Russia’s success came even as preelection polls showed the party’s approval ratings were below 30 percent – the worst in its roughly two decades of existence.

In his analysis published on Facebook, Shpilkin, a physicist by training, estimated that United Russia's genuine support was between 31 and 33 percent.

Shpilikin also estimated that nationwide turnout was likely 38 percent of voters, compared with the official figure of 52 percent.

His analysis was based on data across the country’s 97,000 individual polling stations, examining outlier polling stations where high turnout was reported as well as high vote tallies for United Russia.

Among the biggest clouds hanging over the results is the new electronic voting system that was used in Moscow and six other locations this year. Election authorities billed the system as a way to help minimize the dangers of COVID-19, which has hit Russia hard.

But outside observers and independent election experts say it’s impossible to access and analyze the raw data, leaving the door open to manipulation.

Experts have already identified several districts in Moscow where results are unusual, particularly compared with past election patterns; the release of early results on September 20 was postponed several times.

As a result, out of 15 Moscow single-mandate districts, eight that initially had opposition candidates in the lead eventually ended up going to United Russia candidates.

Electronic voting is "an absolute evil, a black box that no one controls," Shpilkin wrote.

"It is impossible to investigate a million votes piled up in one heap - you can analyze an array of numbers. But in the case of the results of electronic voting, we are shown only the results of several parties and one number on the turnout. There are simply not enough details for analysis," he said.

Shpilkin gained widespread attention in 2012 for his statistical analysis of the 2011 election for the Duma and regional legislatures. He concluded the vote was tainted by fraud.

In the 2016 Duma vote and the 2018 presidential vote, in which Putin won reelection, Shpilkin found similar levels of fraud.

His jagged chart representation of alleged fraud in the 2018 vote gave rise to the term "Churov’s Saw" -- a reference to the head of the Central Election Commission at the time, Vladimir Churov, who oversaw several elections rife with allegations of manipulation.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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