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Arrest Of Rapper Criticizing Regime In Iran Leads To Heated Debate

Iranian security forces arrested dissident underground rapper Toomaj Salehi earlier this week, apparently for his latest song in which he has condemned a host of activists and journalists for alleged complicity in what he calls the regime's crimes or being "regime apologists".

The arrest of Salehi who is better known by his first name, Toomaj, has led to conflicts on social media between his supporters and those who claim his songs contain threats against the latter and should be considered as criminal.

Toomaj's latest music video entitled 'Buy a Rat Hole' belittles regime agents and those who support the regime by telling them it is time for them "to buy rat holes" to hide in because the time of retribution for their actions for and in defense of the regime has arrived.

In his song Toomaj without naming individuals refers to those who he accuses of perpetrating injustice or justifying it, from regime "agents" and "executioners" to political groups such as reformists in Iran and the US-based National Iranian American Council (NAIAC). He shames artists and journalists who he accuses of whitewashing regime crimes. "You are a murderer if you cover up murder. To cover up murder you must walk on blood. The system is not complete without your apologies [for it]," the lyrics of the song say.

A song by Toomaj with Enlish subtitles condemning the Taliban

Twitter suspended the rapper's account after his arrest and some users' reports that it violated Twitter rules. "Death threats, in song, video, or tweets, are a crime," the New York Times' Iranian journalist Farnaz Fassihi tweeted Wednesday, apparently in reference to Toomaj's latest song. Fassihi came under fire after the tweet by other Twitterati who have repeatedly assailed her as a "regime apologist".

Toomaj’s defenders insist that an artist cannot be arrested for what he depicts in his art and he has not threatened any particular individual. They say there are many singers who condemn certain acts or groups in their songs but are not arrested.

Popular rapper Soroush Lashkari who goes by the artistic name Hichkas (Nobody), called Toomaj "a brave hero" after his arrest. " Please be his voice, as he has been the voice of his people [who are] suffering under the Islamic Republic's rule," Hichkas tweeted Tuesday with the hashtag #FreeToomaj. 

Hashtags with the rapper's name have in the past two days become the most frequently used Persian-language hashtags. Hichkas is considered as the godfather of underground rap music in Iran. He has been similarly critical of the regime in his songs including 'The Asphalt Jungle' and 'He's Made a Fist' which he released after widespread anti-government protests in Iran in November 2019.

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), Toomaj was arrested at his home and was taken to an unknown location. An informed source told HRANA that 12 security agents, apparently from the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence organization, were involved in the rapper's arrest.

Very little is known about the personal life of Toomaj except that he is from Esfahan and worked at a small metalworks factory. The lyrics of his songs speak about corruption of rulers, people's poverty, and regime suppression of dissent, and uprising of the people. "Freedom is costly, doesn't matter, freedom-lovers will offer sacrifices. Remember, what washes blood is only blood," he says in 'Buy a Rat Hole'.

In a similar earlier song entitled 'Normal Life' Toomaj juxtaposes the poverty of working classes with the luxurious life of those in power and suppression of dissent and protest by shedding blood. "Yes, yes, Sir, life is normal," he says.

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