Who is Mehdi Yarrahi, the Iranian singer who sang for detainees?

Who is Mehdi Yarrahi, the Iranian singer who sang for detainees?
On 28 August, Yarrahi was arrested for releasing his latest work, which commemorated the anniversary of last year's anti-establishment protests that rocked the country following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.
5 min read
08 September, 2023
Protesters hold flags in front of the ministry of foreign affairs during the demonstration. [Getty]

The first interrogation session by prosecutors and the announcement of formal charges against Mehdi Yarrahi took place on 4 September, amid escalating condemnation of this protest singer by officials, while his arrest has sparked international condemnation.

On 28 August, Yarrahi was arrested for releasing his latest work, which commemorated the anniversary of last year's anti-establishment protests that rocked the country following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.

Amini, aged 22, died on 16 September, sparking a four-month nationwide protest, "the Women, Life, Freedom" Movement, which was brutally suppressed by the authorities.

In his latest work, titled "Roosarito," meaning "your headscarf," Yarrahi condemned the country's obligatory hijab law and dedicated the song to: "the noble women of my homeland, who bravely shine on the front lines of the 'Women, Life, Freedom' movement."

On 5 September, Iranian investigative journalist Abdollah Abdi, based in Switzerland, released the official statement of charges, indicating that Yarrahi was tried in two different judicial cases due to publishing the song "Roosarito".

In the first case, Yarrahi was accused of "publishing obscene and vulgar content" and "encouraging public to immorality and depravity," while in the second case, he was accused of "propaganda against the establishment."

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International condemnation

Meanwhile, international organisations strongly condemned the arrest and prosecution of Yarrahi for releasing a song and demanded the immediate release of this Iranian artist.

PEN America called for all charges to be dropped against him in a 28 August statement.

"The legal action taken against Mehdi Yarrahi indicates the Iranian regime's systematic, brutal repression of democratic free expression," said Julie Trebault, director of PEN America's Artists at Risk Connection.

Inside Iran, activists also strongly supported Yarrahi and demanded his release.

Spideh Qolian, a rights activist in prison since June 2020, hailed Yarrahi's bravery in publishing his latest work in a letter from inside the infamous Evin prison.

"You could have sided with the powerful. You could have stood as the [cultural] ambassador of the establishment, touring Europe on colourful stages to amass wealth. But you chose to stand elsewhere," she wrote.

Meanwhile, the release of photos showing Yarrahi in a brown shirt handcuffed with his hands behind his back at his home and during his arrest sparked anger among Iranians.

The two photos were published by Oyoon, a Telegram channel affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and many lawyers stressed that this move violated the Islamic Republic's laws.

"According to law number 91, the publisher of Mehdi Yarrahi's photos has committed a crime," wrote Mohsen Borhani, an Iranian lawyer and law academic, on Twitter.

Ordinary Iranians also took to social media to emphasise that the image of Yarrahi that would remain in their memories would be of him on stage; many shared an older photo of him with a raised fist.

Zeinab Zaman, a rights activist and the daughter of the famous pop singer Hossein Zaman, also posted that photo on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and wrote: "We have preserved his image like this in our memories, in our hearts, and history: respectful to people, and brave with a raised fist against oppression."

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Pop singer who raised his voice against authorities

At the beginning of his career, Mehdi Yarrahi was not a protest singer but quite the opposite. He rose to fame in 2008 by composing and singing for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the only broadcaster in the country whose head is directly appointed by the country's Supreme Leader.

However, soon after establishing his status as a pop singer, he shifted his focus to social issues in the country.

Yarrahi was born and raised in Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan province, where Iranian Arabs live and face one of the harshest air quality issues and water shortage crises.

Demanding that officials address the water crisis in the region, he participated in a protest in Ahwaz in October 2013. The intelligence forces immediately responded to his presence among the protestors, and he had to sign a commitment letter assuring he would "not take part in any illegal protest."

Six months later, while performing in the capital Tehran, he brought a bottle of muddy water on stage, symbolising the poor quality of tap water in Ahwaz, his place of birth.

His protest against the living conditions in Ahwaz and his support for labourers who went on strike in that city for overdue payments continued until January 2019 when he released the anti-war music video "Pare Sang," meaning "broken stone."

That was when, for the first time, he was officially banned from giving concerts and releasing albums because the officials found his work insulting to the Iran-Iraq war, which the authorities consider a "Holy Defense."

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Since then, he has criticised the authorities more directly and, in September 2020, released a single song on the Internet commemorating the first anniversary of Iran's "Blue Girl" protest suicide.

Sahar Khodayari, also known as the "Blue Girl," set herself on fire in 2019 to protest the ban on women entering stadiums to watch football matches.

A few months later, he released a song in memory of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 passengers killed after the IRGC shot down the plane.

Following the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran's Islamic morality police custody, he released "Sorood-e Zan," meaning "the song of the woman," followed by another single, "Sorood-e Zendegi," meaning "the song of life."

By releasing these two songs, the authorities have added him to the list of 53 artists and national champions who have been banned from engaging in economic activities due to their political stances. Finally, with the song "Roosarito," he now shares the same fate as incarcerated dissidents and activists for whom he had sung protest songs.