Art is Political

by Kaveh Bazargan

May 30th, 2024

On April 24th, 2024, dissident Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi got sentenced to death; charged with “spreading corruption on earth” for his lyrics. Originally released on bail, he was arrested again after posting a video in  which he shares details of the torture he endured while in captivity.

There are many analyses pointing to the absurdity of the sentence. “Sentenced to death, just for  rapping” as is often said. Iran, a country in which free speech can end fatally. Framed this way, it almost seems bizarre and mundane, almost erratic, and childish to punish someone for merely speaking. I am not particularly interested in reproducing that narrative. It diminishes the sheer gravity of what Toomaj did and downplays the power of speech and specifically the impacts artists have on our lives.

Maybe we have gotten used to our right to speech so much, we have forgotten the immense power it carries. Maybe we are too lost in a fully commercialized music landscape to fully grasp what music is truly capable of. How songs like John Lenin’s Imagine and War IS OVER! (if you want it) or NENA’s 99 Luftballons not only captured their zeitgeist but also helped shape it. How bands like Rage Against the Machine defined the anti-war movement in the 90s and early 2000s or how N.W.A’s Fuk Da Police still resonates to this day, whenever people of color once again become targets of police violence.

From the depths of Gerd Bisheh, a  village at the heart of Iran, where Toomaj was born,  to the heights of Hollywood whether it activates or pacifies, all art is political, and we should start recognizing it as such.

Music in Iranian politics

Art and especially music has always played a key part in Iranian politics, and so has its repression. In the years prior to the Islamic Revolution discontent with the Shah was not just limited to the streets, nor did it have much of an Islamic character. Many of the mechanisms of repressions we see in Iran today predate the revolution. For instance, Dariush Eghbali, simply known in Iran as Dariush, is a beloved Singer from the 70s who had to spend a total of 26 months in prison, including 6 months in solitary confinement for daring to criticize the the monarchy in his songs. In his song Booye Gandom (engl. The Smell of Wheat) Dariush likens the dynamic between the Shah and his subjects to one akin to an almighty lord and his peasants: “The smell of wheat for me, everything I own for you. A small piece of land for everything I sow for you.” 

Cassette tapes recorded by Khomeini in the small French village of Neauphle-le-Château, where he had resided in exile until his return in February 1979, would be smuggled into the country, distributed, and played all across Iran. Tapes in which he speaks of a corrupt king, drunk on power and blinded by hubris, and explicitly calls for people to revolt against the Shah. While not music per se, the medium through which they were distributed played a crucial role in the revolution.

After the Islamic Revolution and the initial ban on music that came with it, countless artists and musicians fled the country. With that came a flurry of homesick ballads about Iran, and many songs criticizing Khomeini and describing the revolution as a catastrophe. Pop-Sattar writes in his song Gole Pooneh (engl. Pennyroyal) “Are the eyes of god dormant? Don’t they see how someone showed up out of nowhere, spoke of god and murdered love?”. Even artists previously not known for their political works have at least one piece that is a result of them being forced into exile. Artists trying to entertain became political actors overnight just by virtue of trying to make a living from their craft.

Just because music is banned does not mean people stop listening to it. Like Khomeini’s tapes before, music from their favorite artists continued to reach Iranians even as they were forced out of the country. Through the ban, producing, owning and listening to music became an act of defiance. In kind, it became one of the first acts of mass hypocrisy within Iranian society, as most who enjoyed pre-revolution music and art continued to do so in private, while publically pretending these mediums did not exist in order to performatively uphold the revolutionary aesthetic and be accepted within the newly formed power structures.

Why Toomaj matters

There is no shortage of thought-provoking political content produced even inside Iran. As everyone who has seen the movies of Oscar winning director Asghar Farhadi, Like A Seperation and The Salesman, or the many politically charged satirical TV-series of Mehran Modiri, like Shabhaye Barareh (engl. Nights of  Barareh) and Ghahveye Talkh (engl. Bitter Coffee), would know, their works are full of social commentary and criticism. What is often missing, whether in music or in cinema, is that political themes are present and often even discussed in detail and yet the culprit for the suffering is not named. The system is criticized but never challenged. Even Shervin Hajipour, whose song Baraye (engl. For) became the de facto anthem of the Woman Life Freedom movement, is subject to this. His lense is firmly focused on the suffering of the people but not on those responsible for it.

Toomaj matters because he not only breaks the mold, but his lyrics also viscerally challenge and smash every taboo imaginable. His music is not just commentary, but often includes active calls to action accompanied by shaming of those who stand by and do nothing. In his song Soorakh Moosh (engl. Mouse-hole) he calls out the hypocrisy within the people: “If you’ve seen people’s pain and turned a blind eye, if you’ve witnessed the oppression of the innocent and simply walked by, you too are an accomplice, you too are a criminal.” Hiis song about mandatory hijab Shallagh (engl. The Whip) features female Iranian rapper Justina, which is an act of defiance in its own right, considering women are not allowed to sing solo in public, let alone rap entire verses solo without interruption as she does on this track. Not only that, but the song is also a collaboration between an artist inside Iran and one forced to leave it; yet another taboo this song breaks by simply existing. In his song Anar (engl. Pomegranate) Toomaj shines a light on the long-neglected suffering of workers. In bars like “The worker is a pomegranate. Rinse it, water it, feed it. Enough for it to survive. The system of slavery itself is a prison”, he calls out the brutal exploitation of the working class by capital owners. One of his most daring songs is perhaps Nadidi 2 (engl. you did not see), in which reminiscent to what Dariush did prior, he directly addresses the supreme leader Ali Khamenei: “From The Home (Leader’s Office in Tehran) you cannot hear the sound of poverty, you can’t grasp what homelessness feels like in cold nights, come look at the depth of pain in people’s eyes, come look at the city through my eyes for one night.”

His song Habbeye Angoor captures best what makes him different. A reference to the persian version of the Grimm fairytale The Wolf and the seven little goats, in which the big bad wolf tricks the children into letting him into their home and devouring all of them except the smallest one. In the song, Toomaj describes a surviving goat fully pacified and traumatized by wolves, who loses themself in drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, and resorts to prostitution to get by. Yet by the end, the little goat chooses to speak their mind and to uncompromisingly fight the wolves: “Little goat has been writing down their grief, they don’t sing, they scream! Their pen is the blade of resentment, little goat  is not behind a desk but on top, they won’t sit down, they’re not afraid, they tell everything they’ve seen!”. Toomaj wants people to stop looking away. So much of activism in Iran for the past 45 years has been a constant push and pull on what is acceptable and Toomaj dared a giant leap forward. He does not shut up and he has set a precedent for others to follow. And follow they do. Just a few weeks after Toomaj’s sentencing two more rappers, Vafadar and Danial Moghaddam, have been arrested after posting a video of their new song which begins with a dare: “We are one nation! Do you plan to execute us all?”

What makes Toomaj dangerous for the ruling class is that he engages in activism in the most literal sense of the word. His songs are full of wake up calls and shaming of those who choose to stay silent. He has let the cat out of the bag and thanks to him many others will no longer sit idly by and watch; They have been activated.