Relatives and Associates of Toomaj Salehi, Iranian Rapper Sentenced to Death, Speak Up: ‘He Has Been Condemned to Death for His Music’

While the United States continues to debate how and when hip-hop lyrics can be used in court, dissident Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi was sentenced to death on April 24 for lyrics that criticized the Islamic Republic’s ruling regime.

The sentence, handed down by the ruling Republic Court of the Islamic Republic, overturns a decree from the higher Supreme Court which, according to the New York Times, found issues with the original ruling that sentenced Salehi to six years imprisonment and banned him from making music or singing for two years.

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The reason given for Salehi’s execution, which the Islamic Republic administers by hanging, is his involvement with Iran’s 2022 protests through his music.

Salehi, 33, released his song, “Soorakh Moosh” (“Rathole”) in 2021, calling out Western apologists of the Islamic Republic. The song went viral and he was promptly arrested. He was released in November 2023, but quickly re-arrested after dropping this video speaking about his time in prison. Reports of his torture and solitary confinement were confirmed by those in touch with Salehi and posted by his social media manager, Negin Niknaam, who is based in Germany.

Salehi’s cousin Azadeh, who resides in the U.K. says, “Putting the heartache to the side, it’s visible that we all admire the bravery of Toomaj, and we need to do our best to put pressure on Islamic regime in Iran to stop punishing Iranians. I wish not only for Toomaj, but all Iranians to achieve their basic human rights that has been deprived of them for 45 years,” she concludes, referring to 1979, the year the regime took power.

Executions for speaking out against the regime are not uncommon in the Islamic Republic: 834 prisoners were killed in 2023. Thousands remain imprisoned, among them, artists, actors, filmmakers, athletes, journalists and musicians. Incarcerated rapper Saman Yasin is serving a five-year sentence. Iranian composer Mehdi Rajabian, who won the United Nations’ International Art Contest for Minority Artists last year, was imprisoned for three years with three months in solitary confinement and 40 days on a hunger strike. Rajabian was with Salehi when he was most recently arrested (and appears with him above in the last photo before that arrest). Salehi was well aware of the consequences of his words when he published his songs online.

A prominent rapper in Iran who asked to remain anonymous tells Variety, “On days when words have lost their meaning, or words have drifted away from their essence, Toomaj makes words clear,” he said. “Toomaj has worked peacefully to achieve minimum citizenship rights not only for himself but also for the entire society he lives in. He wrote poems about the fences that have been used in the ruling of the regime of Iran to exploit the people, so that by reading them, people would remember the meaning of words again. The first thing I heard from Toomaj was a poem in which he said, ‘Didn’t you see them firing of IRGC missiles?’ In my opinion, keeping the historical memory alive is one of the tools of Toomaj’s civil struggle — for the freedom of humanity and not the execution of humanity.”

Iran-born, London-based Iranian-British musician Sepp Osley says, “Toomaj uses his music to simply promote the power of peace and love, but because he is in Iran where the tyrannical regime of the Islamic Republic rule, he now faces the sentence of death simply doing what so many of us artists around the world take for granted.”

The Global Music Awards awarded its heretic award for protest/activist music to Salehi in 2023. Also that year, Salehi was awarded the Index on Censorship’s freedom of expression award in arts. Freemuse, in collaboration with the United Nations and UNESCO highlighted Salehi, among other Iranian creatives in its 2023 State of Artistic Freedom report which outlines global artistic rights violations.

Of Salehi’s execution sentence Niknaam said, “In reality, Toomaj has been sentenced to death due to his music and tweets. We are incredibly shocked. In this world no artist has been sentenced to death for their music and tweets. This is a serious alarm for Iran and the world. In my opinion more pressure should be placed on Islamic Republic with heavy sanctions. And we eliminate Islamic Republic from human rights because they have issued a death sentence to an artist merely for his speech. This is the first time that Islamic Republic has issued an execution sentence for speaking up.

“I think the international community must question the health and judiciary process of the courts system,” she continued. “We always ask and hashtag no to executions and they continue to issue execution sentences.”

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