Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

Rhythms of Protest

As the movement against the oppressive regime in Iran develops, its message spreads equally quickly through the Internet in the form of powerful slogans and songs.

Nov 13, 2022

The police brutality against the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Zhina Amini sparked a huge wave of protests in Iran and around the world from the beginning of September. For over two months, the chant “Zan, Zandegi, Azadi” (Life, Freedom, Woman) has echoed ceaselessly throughout the streets of Isfahan, Karaj, Mashhad, Rasht, Sanandaj, Saqqes, Tehran, and around the world. It has inspired a whole new generation of protesters to take the issue to online forums, to create a space for people without their own platforms to speak their truth.
But this fight is not new. People from all over the region are well-versed in the language of protest, namely through music and chants. Through art they have managed to express their views, keep their spirit and call for unity, equality, and integrity. The Arab Spring of the early 2010s is a prime example of this: the movement saw uprisings in many Arab countries, and each protest had its own defining song, slogan, and, unfortunately, a martyr who united the people.
Change, however, does not come only from the streets. It is a continuous struggle with a constant presence in the lives of the people. In the case of Iran, many brave artists found their freedom in their artistry. The singer Googoosh, for instance, is a central figure for the 70s and 80s. The Iranian singer was a role model for the young women in the region from the beginning of her career, but with the change of Iran into an Islamic republic in 1979, she was severely censored. The love Iranians held for her music and performances led to the illegal distribution of bootleg materials, which Googoosh herself supported to some extent. She became the carrier of the spirit of the freedom-loving people of Iran and the symbol of the continuing fight for a united and value-driven community. Because of her powerful presence, even when some of the bans for female performers were lifted, Googoosh remained under the veil of censorship until she was finally granted a passport and left the country in 2000. Currently, Googoosh is once again at the center of the women’s empowerment movement that is on the rise in the region.
Artists are still considered a threat by the Iranian state, which is evident by the amount of songwriters arrested and sentenced only in the past couple of months. One of the figures whose brutal arrest caught international media’s attention was Toomaj Salehi, an Iranian rapper. He backed up the new wave of protests around the country with a new song, but he had been gaining popularity as one of the Iranian government's fiercest critics for years. His arrest only inspired more people to engage with his music, and the works of Toomaj became an integral part of the movement.
Historically, chants from the Arab world have had immense cultural significance. In the dawn of the ultra-connected Internet, the Arab Spring in the early 2010 was one of the defining social movements in this regard. The series of protests from December 2010 to mid-2013 started in Tunisia after the 26-year old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi died from self-immolation in response to the continuous abuse of the Tunisian authorities against the common people in the country. Bouazizi became the martyr symbol of the Jasmine Revolution, the first major-scale protest in Northern Africa in the 21st century and the catalyst of the Arab Spring. It was exactly the Jasmine Revolution that coined the slogan that united the Arab states in Northern Africa: “The people want the fall of the regime!”. Since it was chanted in modern Arabic, it also remained the only chant that transferred across the borders of the countries. In this way, this chant was practically the foundation of the Arab Spring as an international movement and was the chant that first arrived to Europe, the Americas, and Asia through the TV broadcasts of the protests.
After that, each country popularized its own chant which reflected the individual struggles of the different states.
In Egypt that was “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice!” (resembling some of the initial chants of the Great French Revolution in the late 18th century). It revealed a lot about the harsh realities of the people living in Egypt, who often struggled to meet their basic needs. To this day, the slogan remains the starting point of discussions about the economic situation in Egypt. Another martyr became the catalyst of the movement there and inspired another powerful slogan: “We Are All Khaled Said.” Said, a young activist, was a victim of the severe police brutality that occurred during the initial few protests. In the protests that followed in Syria, the slogan “Leave O’ Bashar” was sung over popular traditional tunes. But it was also derived from the slogan a group of youths spray painted on the streets until their arrest: “Your turn has come, Doctor Bashar.”
In Libya, the chant was created to mock an election speech of the Libyan dictator at the time, Gaddafi. The slogan, “Alleyway by alleyway, we will wipe all of your soldiers”, was turned into an autotuned song. The Yemeni protesters took a different approach and turned their traditional music into protest music, which showed the belief of the people that across generations, everybody demands a better future.
Similarly to the current situation in Iran, in North Africa in the early 2010s, musicians led the social movement forward. In Tunisia the rapper El General helped bring the people to the streets with his powerful anti-regime song “Rais Lebled”, which is credited as the Jasmine Revolution anthem. In Egypt, the same happened with the local underground rapper Deeb, who was frequently arrested under the Mubarak regime, but that did not stop the people of Egypt to bring his songs to international fame during the revolution. However, in Libya and most of the other countries during the Arab Spring, the new music was born and recorded on the streets as a result of the protests. North African rap is very much influenced by the musicians who spread the message of the Arab Spring across a wide network of international activists and artists even today.
The slogans of the Arab Spring and the current protests in Iran not only support the social movements in the region and popularize them internationally, but they are also the reason why musicians in the region began creating more bravely and freely, resulting in a progressive music industry. It also inspired a new wave of young activists, who are creating their own entrepreneurial projects and NGOs based on the slogans that still echo on the streets, in between bazaars and across the world through the media.
Yana Peeva is Deputy Columns Editor. Email her at
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