This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Toomaj Salehi’s lyrical support for protesters in Iran has landed him behind bars before, but this time the popular rapper’s fortune-telling has fans and family members fearing for his life.
Just days before his September 30 arrest, the 32-year-old Salehi released his latest music video, in which he makes foreboding predictions about the future of Iran’s clerical regime if it continues its violent crackdown against ongoing anti-government demonstrations.
“I am the predictor, the fortune teller,” he raps in the video for Omen, which shows him reading the patterns left in his coffee cup and warning that brute force will not prevail.
“I saw a cage in the coffee grounds — a lion was hunting a jackal,” he explains, alluding to a fairy tale about wisdom defeating physical strength. “We will rise from the bottom and target the top of the pyramid.”
Salehi goes on to warn that the regime’s protectors — including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Basij paramilitary forces, the Intelligence Ministry, and the state media — will all get their day in court.
Salehi followed up on the new video by posting on social media images of him standing alongside protesters and chanting against security forces in his native city in Isfahan Province. The rapper, an ethnic Lur who was arrested last year after releasing other songs critical of the government, offered to turn himself in if protesters detained in his hometown of Shahinshahr were released.
In subsequent posts, he called the provincial authorities “cowardly vermin” and “scum who suppress and arrest [innocent] people.”
Shortly afterward, Salehi went missing and has not been heard from since.
State media reported on September 30 that Salehi had been arrested, and a news agency close to the IRGC published a photo of the blindfolded rapper inside a car.
A short video later released by a press club associated with Iran’s state broadcaster purports to show the rapper admitting he made a mistake.
But the reports’ claims he had been caught while “illegally exiting the western borders of the country” have been fiercely disputed, and the video confession has been labeled a fake by some and a coerced confession by others.
Family members as well as Salehi’s official Twitter account have said the rapper was, in fact, arrested in the southwestern Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, hundreds of kilometers from Iran’s western border.
In a statement, Salehi’s uncle Eghbal Eghbali said his nephew was in the province’s city of Borujen on the morning of September 30 when he wrote saying “suspicious things” were happening outside his home. Soon after, Salehi stopped communicating. Eghbali said he learned from Salehi’s neighbors and friends that security personnel had arrived to take the rapper away.
Later on September 30, a prosecutor in nearby Isfahan Province was quoted by the Meezan news agency, which is close to Iran’s judiciary, as saying Salehi was arrested “in one of the provinces of the country.” The prosecutor alleged the rapper had played a key role in “creating disturbances and inviting and encouraging the recent disturbances in Isfahan Province and in Shahinshahr.”
The official IRNA news agency, meanwhile, quoted a judiciary official from Isfahan Province as saying Salehi stood accused of “propagandistic activity against the government, cooperation with hostile governments, and the formation of illegal groups with the intention of creating insecurity in the country.”
Thousands of Iranians, many of them from the younger generation, have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died shortly after being arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s hijab law requiring that women cover their hair.
As the protests have continued, the authorities have intensified their crackdown, resulting in the deaths of at least 305 people, including 41 children, according to the latest figures released by the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) on November 6.
Salehi is among the hundreds of prominent young voices, including activists, artists, and athletes, who have been arrested for speaking out against the state’s bloody crackdown on the protests. Overall, activists estimate thousands of people have been arrested by the authorities since the rallies erupted.
Faced with a potential existential threat to Iran’s clerical rule, 227 of 290 Iranian lawmakers this week called for even greater force by urging the judiciary to “deal decisively” with those behind the protests.
In recent years, Salehi has gained notoriety for his open opposition to the country’s leadership, using his music and social media presence to take on issues that resonate with Iranian youths.
In the song Normal, he highlights the effects of poverty, saying “Our children sleep hungry at night” and asking Iran’s leaders how their conscience can let them sleep.
The song Rathole, released in 2021, accuses members of the media and art community both inside and outside Iran of being an “ally of the tyrant,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In another song, he blasts Tehran’s close relationships with Moscow and Beijing, asking: “Haven’t you robbed us enough? Now, you want to give away half [of our resources] to China and the rest to Russia.”
Salehi was detained in September 2021 after security agents raided his home in Isfahan, with Human Rights Watch decrying the detention of the artist for “exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
Salehi was charged with “spreading propaganda against the state,” but after more than a week was released on bail. In January, he was sentenced to six months in prison but was released on a suspended sentence in February.
While out, he continued his work and released Omen amid the state’s increasingly violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.
“Someone’s crime was dancing with her hair in the wind,” he raps. “Someone’s crime was that she was brave and criticized.”
Listing a litany of violent acts carried out by the authorities against protesters, Salehi asks, “How many young people did you kill building a tower for yourself?” and predicts that next year, the 44th year of the clerical regime’s rule, will be its “year of failure.”
Salehi’s arrest has led to widespread condemnation inside and outside Iran, and his advocates have spread the #FreeToomaj hashtag on Twitter to shed light on his situation.
His family has said they do not know Salehi’s whereabouts or health, leaving them wondering if he is even alive.
But the authorities have shed some light on the fate of another Iranian rapper arrested shortly before Salehi. The judiciary announced on November 7 that Saman Yasin, a rapper from Kermanshah Province — a northwestern region with a significant Kurdish population and that has been a focus of the government crackdown — has been accused of waging “warfare” against Iran and acting against the country’s security.