The dissident rapper, commonly known by his first name Toomaj, was arrested by Iranian authorities on the 30th of October, just over a week ago. This is not the first time Toomaj has been arrested by the Islamic regime.
His family fears for his safety as authorities have accused him of “propagandistic activity against the government, cooperation with hostile governments and forming illegal groups with the intention of creating insecurity in the country,”, acts for which the punishment can be the death penalty.
In the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini protests have grown massive in Iran, as well as in other parts of the world. Thousands of people have been detained during the unrest, including artists, activists and journalists, for using their voice and sadly many people have lost their lives.
It is believed that Toomaj was arrested, and, according to his family, tortured in prison because of his lyrics. In one of his last music videos, before his arrest, his lyrics included:
“Someone’s crime was dancing with her hair in the wind. Someone’s crime was that he or she was brave and criticized… 44 years of your government. It’s the year of failure.”
“Baraye,” the anthem of Iran’s “Woman, Life, Liberty” protest movement—a song woven together entirely from a Twitter hashtag trend in which Iranians express their investment in the current protests—continues to unite Iranians in their opposition to the Islamic Republic several weeks after it was first released online.
For Iranians in Iran but also for the millions in the diaspora, this is the song of a generation, perfectly expressing this political moment and all that is at stake.
For dancing in the alleyways
Because of the fear you feel when kissing
For my sister, your sister, our sisters
To change the minds that have rotted away
Because of shame, because of being broke
Because of yearning for an ordinary life
What makes this moment different from previous periods of protest is that the wall of acquiescence and pretense that maintained the state’s authority in the public realm has been torn down on a scale not seen since the 1979 revolution. In its recounting of all the painful grievances, “Baraye,” which translates in English to “for” or “because of,” signals the end of patience with the status quo and opens vistas onto a new future with a vocal crescendo that culminates in the word “freedom.”
The song reveals the simple, ordinary nature of the things that Iranians are aching for, asking for, and even dying for. It is radical in revealing on a national level the cruelty of a system that denies such basic demands—exposing the devastating conditions Iranians face under the current regime.
“Baraye” creates national intimacy by citing very specific events that all Iranians have suffered through together, in a palimpsest of collective traumas.
If “Baraye” reflects a different, perhaps unprecedented mood on a national level, it also mirrors the organizational structure of this recent protest movement. If it is networked and leaderless, so is the song. The lyrics were written by Iranians at large and merely set to music and vocalized by the young up-and-coming singer Shervin Hajipour. This explains why security forces detained Hajipour a couple of days after he posted it on his Instagram page, where it had already accrued millions of views. The regime has tried for years to push the apparent and already real aspects of people’s lives out of the public sphere.
On social media, Iranians have created a life that more closely mirrors their inner selves—replete with harsh criticism of leading clerics including Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; female solo vocalists who are otherwise banned singing at the top of their lungs; and the exhibition of private lives that are anything but a reflection of the state’s projected pious paradise. Still, the state has sought to maintain a semblance of its ideology and control in actual public spaces and its media.
“Baraye” has broken that violently imposed wall between the state’s enforced reality and people’s real lives. It forced into the open, in the face of authority, all that people have known for long but were not supposed to express openly on such a national dimension.
For the sake of a laughing face
For schoolkids, for the future
Because of this mandatory paradise
For imprisoned intellectuals
Since its release, the song has become the single most covered protest song in Iran’s history. Within a few short weeks after Hajipour composed the music for it, musicians across Iran and beyond its borders have sung it verbatim in their own voices, translated it, and sung it in other languages—and even universalized the lyrics for a more global audience.
There have now been many interpretive dance performances to it all over the world, and it is regularly blared from cars and balconies and open windows across Iranian cities and towns. Malala Yousafzai, the girls’ education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently sent a video message of solidarity to Iranian women, with the track playing in the background.
Last week, the Iranian rapper Hichkas released a militant hip-hop track referencing “Baraye” through the more casual rap lingo “vase,” enumerating his reasons, starting with “vase Mahsa” (for Mahsa Jina Amini, whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked the protests) and ending with “for a good day,” in a nod to his own 2009 Green Movement protest song.
The Recording Academy, which hosts the annual Grammy Awards, announced that in its new merit category for best song for social change, more than 80 percent of the nominations were for “Baraye.”
Indeed, the expressed concerns wrapped up in the short tweets shown in Hajipour’s video, and in the #Mahsa_Amini hashtag itself, are quite universal—the precarious condition of the planet, drastic inequalities, the desire for a peaceful life—which is why the song has become resonant with so many people around the world as well.
For the garbage-picking kid and her dreams
Because of this command economy
Because of this polluted air
For a feeling of peace
For the sun after long nights
At the same time, “Baraye” creates national intimacy by citing very specific events that all Iranians have suffered through together, in a palimpsest of collective traumas. Hajipour sings “For the image of this moment repeating again,” drawn from a tweet with a photo of Hamed Esmaeilion and his young daughter relaxing together on a couch reading newspapers. (His wife and 9-year-old daughter were killed when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner leaving Tehran in January 2020, and Esmaeilion has become the face of the grief affecting all those who lost loved ones in the crash.)
This line resonates with Iranians because so many families have been torn apart by the country’s massive brain drain, caused by a closed and corrupt economy that offers few opportunities.
In other lines, Hajipour sings sarcastically “Because of this mandatory paradise,” referring to the theocratic state’s imposed restrictions, justified in the name of achieving an Islamic utopia
The state security system instantly understood the significance of “Baraye” as a protest song.
In yet another, he sings of “houses in rubble,” pointing to collapsing buildings caused by the rampant nepotism and corruption that shield state-connected builders from transparency on safety measures. In another, he sings of the “imprisoned intellectuals,” in a nod not just to the hundreds of journalists, human rights lawyers, and filmmakers but even award-winning university students who have been locked up.
The chorus arising from hundreds of tweets is clear: This is a regime that seems to be against life itself, punishing dancing, kissing, and smiling faces.
The song’s singular overnight success is not a small achievement given the long, rich history of protest songs in Iran. Already at the time of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in 1906, poets created songs about the spilled blood of the youth who agitated for representative government and, not long after, about the “Morning Bird” breaking the cage of oppression, which many decades later became one of the most intoned protest songs in post-revolutionary Iran.
The trajectory of Iran’s musical history clearly exhibited a century-long struggle for freedom and justice, not yet realized.
Although “Baraye” and other songs of the current protest movement continue this strong tradition, they break with the post-revolutionary legacy on one key point: They no longer call for reforms.
At the time of the last major convulsions in 2009, many activists and musicians of the Green Movement called forth songs from the 1979 revolution to stake a claim to the revolution’s original yet unattained promises. People wore headscarves and wristbands in the green of Imam Hussain and went to their rooftops to shout “Allahu akbar” to invoke God’s help against a corrupt, earthly power.
But this time around, there are no religious signifiers or any demands for reforms. If classical songs are performed, they are not the icon Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s conciliatory song “Language of Fire” in 2009, when Iranians were still agitating for reforms from within, but his militant 1979 song “Night Traveler,” (also known as “Give Me My Gun”) in which he calls “sitting in silence” a sin and asks for his gun so he can join the struggle. One of Shajarian’s masterful female protégés posted the song with the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini and swapped “the brother” out of the verses to sing “The sister is an adolescent, the sister is drowning in blood,” in recognition of the teenage girls who have given their lives in the protests
The state security system instantly understood the significance of “Baraye” as a protest song. Hajipour was forced to take it off his Instagram account; however, not only has his song already been shared widely by other accounts and on other platforms, but the sentiments behind the lyrics are within the millions of people who wrote them.
The chants of “Death to the Dictator” have reverberated from the streets to the universities, from oil refineries to urban rooftops, and from bazaars to school courtyards. And so have the haunting calls for freedom repeatedly intoned at the end of “Baraye,” pouring forth from every corner of the actual and virtual Iranian public sphere.
That song’s reality can no longer be repressed and hidden by force.
Song lyrics in this article are based in part on Zuzanna Olszewska’s translations.
Nahid Siamdoust is an assistant professor of Middle East and Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran.
As powerful and popular many protest songs have been throughout history they have not had their own category at one of the world’s largest music awards ceremony – until now.
The annual Grammy Awards, in the US, have now added a new category called “Best Song for Social Change”. With this The Recording Academy aims to recognise songs with profound social influence and impact.
One song in particular has by now received a vast amount of submissions for the new award. “Baraye” by 25-year-old Iranian musician, Shervin Hajipour, was written in response to the death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini.
The song went viral on social media, gaining over 40 million views, before Hajipour was arrested by Iranian authorities. The artist has since then been released on bail.
In a recent Instagram post, Hajipour denied any links to any “movement or organisation outside the country” and said clarified that his song was only meant to “express solidarity with the people”.
In a statement, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr said: “The Academy is deeply moved by the overwhelming volume of submissions for Shervin Hajipour’s ‘Baraye’ for our new Special Merit Award, Best Song for Social Change.
“While we cannot predict who might win the award, we are humbled by the knowledge that the Academy is a platform for people who want to show support for the idea that music is a powerful catalyst for change.
“The Academy steadfastly supports freedom of expression and art that’s created to empower communities in need. Because music serves the world, and the Recording Academy exists to serve music.”