Iranian Protest Songs Are Galvanizing the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ Revolution 

By Ahmad Rafat

The Iranian authorities arrested singer, musician, and activist Mehdi Yarrahi on Aug. 28 on the orders of the Tehran prosecutor’s office. The Judiciary had launched an investigation of Mr. Yarrahi following the release of his latest song, “Roosarito” (“Your Headscarf”).

Yarrahi dedicated “Roosarito,” a song protesting the mandatory hijab, to the “Iranian women who shine at the forefront of the ‘Woman, life, freedom’ movement.”

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The song is not Yarrahi’s first piece of protest music since the start of the national uprising sparked by the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini while in the custody of the Morality Police on Sept. 16, 2022.

Yarrahi released two songs last year titled “Soroode Zan” (“Woman’s Anthem”) and “Soroode Zendegi” (“Life’s Anthem”).


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In 2018, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance banned Yarrahi from working or publishing his music videos after he released several anti-war songs, and other pieces supporting striking workers and people in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, protesting water shortage.

Yarrahi’s arrest increases the number of singers currently incarcerated to five.

Iranian protest music over the last year has had several distinct characteristics. Rather than advocate a political ideology, the songwriters make specific demands. Their songs are not epic or provocative, but rather composed with elegant simplicity. The language of the street protesters infuses the songs.

Modern Iranian protest music emanates from younger generations with no ideological and political affiliations, who long to live their lives under a government that can satisfy their civil, economic, and cultural aspirations.

Iranian rap artist Mohammad Dorcci (pronounced Dorchi) was previously arrested after releasing his song “Cheezhaye La’nati” (“Damned Things,” not an official English translation).

Saman Seyyedi (better known as Saman Yasin), Behrad Ali-Kenari (given a 25-year prison sentence), and Tomaj Saleh are three other Iranian rappers imprisoned since last October.

Tomaj Salehi was recently sentenced to six years and three months. The next court hearing for Saman Yasin, accused of “blasphemy,” will be on Sept. 9.

Mr. Salehi was this year’s recipient of the Global Music Awards’ prestigious Heretic Award for Protest/Activist Music for his song “Faal” (“Divination”).

“We are honored to recognize such an incredible man and hope he is released from unjust imprisonment,” Global Music Awards said in recognition of Salehi, who has been imprisoned since Oct. 30, 2022.

Pressure is mounting on Iranian musicians in the lead-up to the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death and of the national uprising. Besides persecuting rappers, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has harassed other artists. The ministry banned the release of “Shaer Gomshodeh” (“The Lost Poet”), the new album released by the celebrated Iranian classical singer Shahram Nazeri. Mr. Nazeri also performed a Kurdish song about the mass protests last year.

Iranian musicians have supported the national uprising in the past year. At least 200 songs were released in the past year by artists in Iran and abroad to support the popular movement, particularly Iranian women’s fight against the mandatory hijab.

Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” received the Special Merit Award for Best Song for Social Change at the 2023 Grammy. It was the first song published on the internet after the death of Mahsa Amini. Some 40 million people viewed the piece within 24 hours of its release on the internet.

Alarmed by the international popularity of “Baraye,” whose lyrics included tweets by ordinary Iranians, the Islamic Republic arrested Mr. Hajipour immediately after the song’s release and removed the piece from his Instagram account. The song, which became a revolutionary manifesto, has been translated into a dozen languages and performed by several Iranian and international artists.

Modern Iranian protest music differs from previous protest songs. While the latter were epic and idealistic, modern protest songs like Hajipour’s “Baraye” are topic-specific and make specific demands.

Iran’s Street Art Shows Defiance, Resistance and Resilience

The elegant simplicity of “Baraye” symbolized the “woman, life, freedom” movement. The song became an international phenomenon. Several members of the New Zealand Parliament read its lyrics on the floor of the parliament, and it was even heard on a police radio station in Montreal.

A quick survey of national struggles throughout history shows that every movement has its theme music. Some revolutionary songs played a crucial role, and have remained relevant. For instance, “Bella Ciao” was the Italian Partisans’ song against the fascists; its Persian translation was recently sung by protesters on Iranian streets.

Following the 1975 military coup d’état in Chile, a little-known poet, Sergio Ortega Alvarado, wrote a poem titled “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” which was performed first by a group named “Quilapayun,” but owed its global fame to another Chilean group called “Inti Illimani.”

Tehran University Music Conservatory students performed the song’s Persian translation to an enthusiastic audience.

The crowd chanting “No to the Islamic Republic” inspired Iranian singer Eskandar Abadi’s song “No, No, No,” released online. Like Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye,” crowds in Iran and abroad sang Mr. Abadi’s “No, No, No.”

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