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Peter Gabriel on Iranian Rapper Toomaj Salehi: ‘This Is Barbaric and Must Stop’

Since 2021 when he was first arrested, the 33-year-old rapper has been a target of the Islamic Republic which governs Iran. Now, musicians are joining forces to try and save his life
A woman holding a portrait of rapper Toomaj Salehi joins thousands of protesters on January 8, 2023 in Lyon, France (Credit: Credit: Robert Deyrail/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
A woman holding a portrait of rapper Toomaj Salehi joins thousands of protesters on January 8, 2023 in Lyon, France (Credit: Credit: Robert Deyrail/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

On Thursday May 16, Peter Gabriel posted a picture of imprisoned Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, who is sentenced to death by the Islamic Republic on his Instagram grid. Gabriel had this caption: “I very much wanted to be part of this campaign to save Toomaj Salehi @toomajofficial whose life is at risk. In our countries you get fame and fortune for making music but for Toomaj he gets the death penalty. This is barbaric and must stop. – pg.”

The second image of the post is a list of musicians who signed a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, to “implore you to leverage your influence and create an internationally coordinated effort to demand the repeal of Toomaj Salehi’s death sentence and call for his immediate and unconditional release.” Among those signing were Duran Duran, Richie Sambora, Pet Shop Boys, Jack Antonoff, Chrissie Hynde/The Pretenders, Tom Morello, Tayla Parx, Peter Frampton, and Nile Rodgers. 

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration in front of the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, DC to show solidarity with Toomaj Salehi on April 27, 2024.
(Credit: Ali Khaligh / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP)

Since 2021 when he was first arrested, the 33-year-old Salehi, who has over two million followers on Instagram, has been a target of the Islamic Republic which governs Iran. His incendiary rhymes speak the truth about the Islamic Republic and its brutal actions, as much as they speak to the plight of the Iranian people. This is a bold move for someone living under the watchful eye of the Islamic regime. 

He was arrested again in October 2022, soon after the protests that broke out after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. Salehi was tortured, kept in solitary confinement, and sentenced to over six years in prison. He was released in November 2023, then promptly arrested again after releasing this video detailing his horrific experiences in prison.

On April 24, 2024, Salehi was sentenced to death, which the Islamic Republic administers by hanging. His crime is “corruption on earth,” a blanket charge the Islamic courts hand down for any behavior they feel goes against their fundamentalist, arbitrary laws. Salehi had 20 days to appeal, which his lawyer filed. Since this sentence, Salehi has not been allowed any calls, including to his lawyer. 

“Toomaj should be celebrated around the world for his incredible craft as a rapper and artist,” says Iranian-British singer/songwriter Sepp Osley, who has been very proactive in bringing awareness to the situation in Iran, and was instrumental in gathering musicians for the UN letter. “Instead, he has been persecuted and paying the ultimate price for doing the same thing all of us who have signed this letter do freely in our open societies in the West. I’m grateful to all my peers who are using their tremendous voices to speak up and be the voice of Toomaj in this dire time of need.”

Protesters walk on the national flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran during a demonstration in front of the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, DC in solidarity with Toomaj Salehi, April 27, 2024. (Credit: Ali Khaligh / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP)

Salehi is not the only musician imprisoned by the Islamic Republic. Saman Yasin is another rapper facing a five-year sentence for his participation in the protests. Musician Mehdi Rajabian, who was with Salehi when he was last arrested, spent three years in prison, three months in solitary confinement, and was on a hunger strike for 40 days. Pop singer Mehdi Yarrahi was arrested upon releasing his song “Roosarito” or “Headscarf” in support of Iranian women. Ali, a DJ/producer and founder of Techno Tehran Records, an electronic music label based in Iran’s capital city, had his home raided this month and was arrested, alongside five colleagues.

Ali’s “crimes” are “participation in providing corruption and prostitution” — that last bit being a stretch, even for the regime. In an Instagram audio message he sent me on Monday May 13, Ali shared that the court was looking for a payoff, the equivalent of approximately $200,000, collectively, from all six “criminals,” to make the charges disappear. The amount is utterly out of the question for Ali and his colleagues — their $10,000 bail bond was already beyond their financial capabilities.

This past weekend, Ali received word from the court that he is being sent to prison. He has the option to appeal, but while his case is going through the judicial system, he will remain imprisoned. “I have dedicated my life to sharing the joy and energy of music, creating a space for expression and connection in a place where such freedoms are often restricted,” he said in an Instagram DM after his sentencing.

“Unfortunately, my passion for music has led to severe consequences,” he continued. “I have been sentenced to prison for being a DJ and playing music. This sentence is not just a punishment for me, but a stark reminder of the challenges faced by artists and musicians in Iran. Despite the risks, my love for music remains unshaken. Music is a universal language, a source of hope and resistance, and I believe it has the power to bring people together and inspire change.” He then thanked everyone who has supported him.

All creatives, and journalists and activists, are in the crosshairs of the Islamic Republic. Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, Iranian journalists and recipients of the UNESCO press freedom prize, who broke the story of Mahsa Amini’s murder, were imprisoned for 480 days, with prolonged solitary confinement. Recently, film director Mohammad Rasoulof went into exile upon escaping Iran after an eight-year prison charge for making documentaries. Celebrated filmmaker Jafar Panahi is banned from making films and from leaving Iran. His films, like Salehi’s rhymes, speak to the harsh realities of living under the Islamic regime. 

This past weekend at the Cannes Film Festival—where Rasoulof’s film The Seed of the Sacred Fig was screening—a photo exhibition with large-scale images of imprisoned and banned Iranian filmmakers was on display. This exhibition is part of the Woman Life Freedom Project spearheaded by attorney Fedrah Fateh. It brings awareness to “[Iranian] artists who have faced censorship, bans and imprisonment,” reports Hollywood Reporter Italy. 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner, engineer/activist Narges Mohammadi has been arrested 13 times and sentenced to 31 years in prison, which she is serving in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Just to recap, she won the Nobel Peace Prize!

People take part in a protest opposite Downing Street, in Whitehall, London, against Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi being sentenced to death on April 28, 2024.
(Credit: Jeff Moore/PA Images via Getty Images)

Also this past weekend, as you doubtless heard, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi — aka “Butcher of Tehran” — and Foreign Minister Hossen Amirabdollahian were killed in a helicopter crash. The state media showed Iranians praying and mourning. 

In contrast, Instagram posts from Iran show fireworks, dancing and celebration. 

Meanwhile, at an underground rave outside of Tehran, 261 individuals were arrested and charged with “satan worship,” BBC Persian reports. In its extensive story, the BBC referenced numerous raids on events over the last 45 years of the Islamic Republic. “Satan worship” is ascribed to anyone who is showing individuality in appearance or behavior that is not in line with the fundamentalist beliefs of the regime. An anonymous participant who had been arrested previously shared via audio that he received 99 lashes by a three-pronged whip with metal soda bottle caps attached to its ends as part of his punishment.

On May 9, 2024, The Guardian reported that Coldplay, Sting, and “more than 100 figures from the worlds of music, culture and human rights activism” signed a statement calling for the release of Salehi. Iranian actors Nazanian Boniadi and Golshifteh Farahani, who have been very vocal over the last few years, released a video calling on international artists to rise up for Salehi’s release. The Recording Academy issued a statement two days after Salehi’s death sentence, stating: “No artists anywhere should have to fear for their life or livelihood when expressing themselves through their art.”

To put the rampant executions of the Islamic Republic in context, the UN reports 834 executions in 2023. That is the most executions per capita in the world.

The people of Iran—women in particular—live with fear for their every move. Iranian artists put their lives at risk speaking the truth in their art. Salehi’s death sentence has reactivated Iranians, and creatives, across the globe. 

But neither Salehi, nor any other Iranian people, should have to be sacrificed for the brutal and dangerous Islamic regime to be extinguished, and its cruel and medieval practices brought to a permanent end.