On March 18, musicians from all 31 provinces in Iran released a rap video that exposes the deep discontent among the young, even as they unite to express love of a nation that was once at the forefront of culture and human rights. Like much of Iranian rap, the lyrics carry subtle political messages. The singers lament the repression and darkness of the times, the limits on expression, and a fiery will. “Holiness brought toxicity to the game,” Sina Sae raps.
The artists express pride in the history of their nation, but not for the state of their nation today. Some lyrics cite historic figures, from the warriors who fought for the ancient Persian Empire against Alexander the Great to modern figures such as Mirza Kuchik Khan, who led a revolutionary movement in northern Iran in the early twentieth century.
The pretext or cover story of the video emphasizes unity in a country that has long been a melting pot. “Iran has several cultures, ethnicities, languages and dialects, each of which is the reason for the existence of several thousand years of history in this country,” the creators explained in the introduction. Rap has evolved into one of the most popular music genres among Iranian youth. The underground video—entitled “Khanevadegi 2” (or Family 2), featured 39 rappers and took two years to secretly produce.
The singers all rapped in the language or dialect of their regions and were accompanied by musicians on traditional local instruments. Each singer initially wore a traditional local costume, then switched to a black T-shirt showing all of Iran’s provinces. The video was shot at sites across Iran, including at historic monuments. It featured Persians, the largest ethnic group, as well as Arab, Azeri, Baluch, Gilaki, Kurdish, Lur, Mazanderani, and Semnani ethnic minorities. It included only one female—whose rap handle is Tarin—from Hormozgan province.
The lyrics included:
Sina Sae (Tehran): We don’t know what to do. All the roads in front of us are blocked. The sky is black. But I won’t give up.
You can feel the tension. The faces are grim. There is a wall behind me. But I won’t give up.
Look at this f***ed up situation. Hip hop gives lightness to darkness like the sun. Holiness brought toxicity to the game.
So we interact with our audience in the most common way. The domain of this association is the intersection of poetry and thought.
Our power comes from accepting the criticism and criticizing the acceptance.
Parham Sezar (Gilan): All the great things we did were not accidental. We may start a revolution just like the one that "Mirza" did.
We have always been at the forefront of culture and human rights. And that's the reason they talk behind our backs.
Kooh’Gel (Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad): Sit here and call us the bandits of rap. Nobody can force us to do anything.
Hamed Slash (Khorasan Razavi): Rap should be the voice of our nation, and break all the mirrors of the past.
Yas: People are stuck in the grip of geography. Our time is short but God's patience has no limits. The hook is in the hands of fake people, in the middle of this dark, misdirected age.
Ali Owj (Tehran): I’m like an energy bomb for my generation…I crawl into reality, without noticing fear and the crisis.
Aria Ahir (Kermanshah): I’m ruthless to my nation’s enemies. I don’t belong in a cage because I am from the generation of fire. I’m ready for war.
Solly (Khuzestan): We all give our lives for our borders and our flag.
Fardin (West Azerbaijan): My voice is like a bullet, firing at the dirty mind of society.
They caught us, made us a nobody and fade away. They chained our hands and feet.
But we are real warriors. We are Kurds in the Middle East.
Hossein Haft (Sistan and Baluchestan): “My country is made of many nations.”
Amir Bidad (Tehran): “This is my soul, my language, and my accent.
“My breath, my Iran… runs through my chest like the air.”
Rap gained popularity in the early 2000s as a cultural outlet for resistance against the Islamic regime’s social restrictions and political repression. Hichkas, known as the godfather of Iranian rap, integrated modern beats with traditional instruments. He and fellow pioneer Yas tackled social problems, such as poverty and drug addiction. Yas was featured in “Family 2.”
“Hip-hop began in America, but Iran has had one of the longest traditions of poetry of any in the world,” Yas said in a 2009 interview in The Huffington Post. “Poetry is in our blood. If he (Tupac) could sing about his life and pain and his culture, why couldn't I do the same thing in my own language, and that's where it all began.”
Some rappers have been detained or forced into exile due to their criticism of the government. Hichkas was arrested in 2006 while selling his records on the streets of Tehran; he fled to London in 2009. Toomaj Salehi, who gained notoriety for spotlighting poverty, corruption and repression, was detained for eight days in September 2021. He then appeared before a revolutionary court in January 22 and was charged with “insulting the leadership and propaganda against the regime.” He was fined and sentenced to six months imprisonment, but his sentence was suspended for one year.
Hardliners have tried to harness the popularity of the genre for their own political purposes. Amir Tataloo, who released his first album without the required government license, was arrested by Iran’s morality police in 2013 for charges of cooperating with foreign satellite stations. Two years later, however, he released a pro-regime music video, “Energy Hastei” (Nuclear Energy), that supported Iran’s nuclear program. Filmed on an Iranian warship, the video had a nationalist message. “This is our absolute right to have an armed Persian Gulf,” he sang. “If there were no lightning they would destroy the sky… There needs to be a protection for a bad day.”
Tataloo has been controversial because of his fluctuating relationship with the regime and divisive political factions. In 2009, he backed reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whose defeat sparked the Green Movement uprising. But in 2016, Tataloo was arrested for spreading depravity among youth. Since then, he has increasingly supported the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards. In 2017, he campaigned for Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative presidential candidate who lost to centrist Hassan Rouhani. Instagram has twice suspended his account. In 2019, he reportedly moved to Istanbul, Turkey to expand his career. He claimed to have received a British visa to preform in London in February 2020, but he was reportedly detained by Turkish authorities for a visa violation before traveling. The International Criminal Police Organization, commonly known as Interpol, had issued a notice for the musician due to a drug-related issue. Iranian police said that Tataloo was arrested for encouraging youth to use drugs. Turkish police released him after a week, but he was not deported.
Brett Cohen, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, assembled this report.