Global hip-hop giants urged to speak out on behalf of jailed Iranian rapper at risk of execution

A new video campaign hopes to ramp up public pressure on the Iranian regime to release a prominent dissident rapper who has been arbitrarily detained for 80 days.

It's been 80 days since Toomaj Salehi was abducted, later charged with 'corruption on Earth'

A man with dark hair and facial hair, wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and a silver necklace, poses for a portrait under an underpass.
Prominent rapper Toomaj Salehi is shown in an undisclosed location in Iran in this undated image. (Submitted by Negin Niknaam)

A new video campaign hopes to ramp up public pressure on the Iranian regime to release a prominent dissident rapper who has been arbitrarily detained for 80 days.

Launched by a close confidante of Toomaj Salehi, who often goes by just his first name, the campaign calls on the global hip-hop community and other musical artists to help save Toomaj's life.

Negin Niknaam, who for security reasons uses a pseudonym for her last name on social media, told CBC News that the rapper's life is at great risk. She said Toomaj is in solitary confinement for the majority of the time.

Toomaj was indicted on several charges in late November, the most serious of which translates to "corruption on Earth" — a charge that under Shariah law in Iran could carry a death sentence.

Niknaam says there have been great efforts to bring attention to Toomaj's case. That includes the support of German politician Ye-One Rhie, who has taken on political sponsorship of the rapper and has been lobbying the Islamic Republic's ambassador to Berlin to release him.

WATCH | Social media campaign urges musicians to speak out on Iranian rapper's detention:

Social campaign launched on behalf of jailed Iranian rapper Toomaj

1 year ago
Duration 1:28
Supporters of jailed dissident Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi have launched this campaign on social media to bring attention to his case, saying he’s at risk of execution.

But Niknaam says it's not enough, and that Toomaj could be sentenced to death at any moment.

"This is why I felt I had to come in front of the camera for the first time, even if it's risky for me," Niknaam said.

She said it is important that Toomaj is released before he is officially sentenced.

'No famous rappers have spoken out for him'

The Iranian regime has continued its bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests, including the execution of at least four protesters, which the UN calls state-sanctioned killings.

In addition to the official executions, at least 525 Iranians, including 71 children, have been killed by the regime since popular anti-regime protests began on Sept. 16, 2022, according to HRANA

Protests erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for improperly wearing her hijab by the so-called morality police that enforces the Islamic Republic's religious laws. Her family insists she was beaten to death by regime agents.

A person waves their arms in front of a fire in the street during a protest as other masked protesters look on.
A photo obtained by AFP outside Iran on Sept. 21, 2022, shows Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets in the capital, Tehran, during a protest days after Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman, died in police custody. (AFP/Getty Images)

Toomaj was one of the first prominent voices to be targeted by the regime when he was abducted by plainclothes agents on Oct. 30, 2022.

In a video posted late Tuesday to Toomaj's 1.2 million Instagram followers, Niknaam called on the international community to call for his release, "especially rappers and artists."

"I'm surprised no famous rappers have spoken out for him," Niknaam told CBC. "Where are they?"

So far, thousands of social media users have commented on the video message, tagging rappers such as Canada's own Drake, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Big Sean, as well as singers such as Adele, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. 

Prominent Iranian rapper Hichkas, who is based in the U.K., also tried to get the attention of several famous rappers in the West immediately after Toomaj was first abducted. 

Iranian rappers Gdaal and Erfan, who are based in Toronto and Los Angeles, respectively, previously told CBC News they are surprised and frustrated that none of the giants in the rap community, like Jay-Z, have spoken out about Toomaj or the protests in Iran.

WATCH | Toomaj speaks to CBC about extent of Iranian crackdown:

Videos coming out of Iran a 'small picture' of what’s happening, says Toomaj

1 year ago
Duration 2:04
Iranian dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi talks to CBC News about what’s happening in his country.

Many of Toomaj's fans also tagged or tweeted at American rapper NF, who Toomaj has said is the one artist he would like to collaborate with.

Niknaam said because Toomaj is a voice of oppressed Iranians while living in an autocracy, it is incumbent on rappers in the free world to now be his voice.

Multiple injuries

Toomaj's father has been allowed to visit him on at least four occasions, Niknaam said, while under the supervision of an intelligence official.

In one meeting, Niknaam said, Toomaj asked his father if people on the outside are thinking or talking about him.

"My heart broke when I heard this. If only he knew, how many people love him and are pushing for him to be released," Niknaam said.

Eghbal Eghbali, Toomaj's uncle, recently told Austrian media that when the rapper was abducted, regime agents tortured him so severely that he was unable to speak, eat or even drink water for days. Eghbali, who is based in Germany, said Toomaj was likely not conscious for several days.

People wearing black hold a photo of the rapper Toomaj.
In this Instagram photo from Nov. 7, people in Toronto call for Toomaj's release at a protest organized by the group Iran Lovers. (PoeticJustice4Iran/Instagram)

Reports coming out of the Isfahan prison, where Toomaj is being held, corroborate that he sustained severe injuries under torture, including broken fingers and a broken leg. There is also concern about injuries to his left eye, for which he has allegedly not received medical attention.

Despite this, Toomaj has apparently asked his father to bring him books to read.

According to Iran-watchers, the regime's intelligence and security officials will likely decide Toomaj's fate.

Nonetheless, Iranians on social media have voiced concern over the judge who will hand down Toomaj's sentence. 

Morteza Barati, who heads the first branch of the Isfahan Revolutionary Court, has already sentenced several men to death over their involvement in the protests. 

The regime's Revolutionary Courts usually appoint their own lawyers for defendants, but Niknaam said Toomaj's family-appointed lawyer was recently granted access to review the rapper's case files. 

She said the lawyer has not been allowed to meet with Toomaj personally yet.


Nahayat Tizhoosh

Freelance contributor

Nahayat Tizhoosh is a freelance journalist formerly with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.